by Dave Kopel
Liberty magazine, March 2004, pp. 37-39.
In some parts of the United States, as in most of the rest of the world, persons who wish to exercise the fundamental human right to keep and bear arms must sometimes resort to hiding their guns or knives. In China, as in many other countries, people must hide illegal Bibles. But suppose that instead of hiding a handgun or a Bible, you had to hide your religious leaders?
Several hundred years ago, a small man named Nicholas Owen made himself an expert in constructing hiding places for clergymen. Owens’ story is the story of the great things that even the most wretched person can accomplish.
In the late 1500s and early 1600s in England, during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I, everyone was legally required to attend and participate in the church services of the Church of England. The head of the Church of England was the monarch.
Even the possession of Catholic religious objects, such as rosaries, was illegal, and smuggling a Catholic priest into the country was punishable by death by public torture.
The vast majority of the English people sheepishly followed the government’s religious laws, and practiced the Anglican religion, just as their parents had sheepishly followed the government’s requirement to practice the Catholic religion, when Catholicism had been the state’s monopoly religion a few decades earlier.
But history is made by determined minorities, rather than by docile majorities, and England was blessed with a good number of people for whom following God was more important than keeping out of trouble with the government.
During the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-58) England was officially Catholic, and Protestants were viciously suppressed. The great deeds of the Protestant English martyrs resisting “Bloody Mary” are recounted in Foxe’s Book of Martyrswhich was, next to the Bible, the most influential book in the development of the Protestant religion in the English-speaking world.
Mary was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth convinced Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity in 1559, which turned England into an exclusively Anglican religious nation, by law.
Most English people went along with the change. Elizabeth, for her part, asked only for external shows of conformity, and rejected advice to persecute persons who remained secret Catholics. She had no desire to make “a window into men’s souls,” she explained.
Unfortunately, the Catholic powers of continental Europe, led by Spain and encouraged by the Pope, plotted to assassinate Elizabeth, and attempted to overthrow her by force. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 removed the military threat, but the Protestant majority turned intensely suspicious of the small Catholic minority. Persecution of the Catholics grew severe.
In 1603, King James I succeeded Elizabeth. In the years before taking power, he had dropped hints that he might tolerate Catholics. Indeed, his Danish wife, Queen Anne, was a quiet Catholic. But upon becoming King of England, James made it clear that there would be no relaxation of the stringent anti-Catholic laws or their enforcement.
And this is where the hero Nicholas Owen enters the story.
Owen was born in approximately 1550 to a fervently Catholic family. When Anglicanism was established as the state religion, the Owen family became “recusants”--meaning that they paid hefty fines rather than attend Anglican church services.
Two of Owen’s brothers became Jesuit priests. The third, Henry Owen, ran a covert Catholic printing press. When he was sent to prison for his continued recusancy, he managed a secret press from prison.
Nicholas Owen was only a little taller than a dwarf. But this was only one of his medical problems; because of a hernia, his stomach had to be held together by a metal plate. After a packhorse fell on him in 1599, he was further disfigured, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
Most Englishmen of Owens’ time thought that a twisted body was an outer sign of a twisted character. But as Antonia Fraser observes in her book Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, Owen’s “great soul and measureless courage” offered “the strongest possible refutation of the contemporary prejudice.”
Trained as a carpenter and a mason, Owens became perhaps the greatest builder of hiding places in man’s history.
The English Catholic community needed priests, both for spiritual leadership, and for administration of the sacraments. But harboring a priest was a capital offense.
So in the large country mansions owned by England’s crypto-Catholics, Owens constructed ingenious hideouts for priests.
Mansions were built of stone in those days, so Owen’s task was especially difficult. The English government’s priest-catchers (“poursuivants”) would carefully tap on walls, and a hollow sound would immediately betray a room that was hidden through mere use of an empty space.
So Owen’s hiding places were much more sophisticated. For example, at the Baddesley Clinton mansion, Owen contrived secret trapdoors in the turrets and stairways, connecting them with the mansion’s sewer system. During a 1591 search, several priests stood up to their waists in water, hidden from searchers for four hours. In some cases, priests survived several searches of the same house.
Owen ran feeding tubes into the rooms, so that priests hidden therein could receive food for the days or weeks they might spend inside. Sometimes he built an easily-discovered outer hiding place which concealed an inner hiding place.
While Owen completed scores of hiding places, the exact number is unknown; some remained undiscovered until the twentieth century, and others still remain hidden. (Perhaps some of the hideouts that are still secret are being used to conceal guns these days.)
So that the mansion’s servants would not know about the hidden chambers, Owen would do ordinary house carpentry work during the daytime. But at night, Owen would build his secret spaces, always working alone--thus minimizing the number of persons who would know about a given hiding place, and be susceptible to revealing it under torture. Breaking through heavy stone walls to build complex rooms would have been difficult for any construction crew, but it was difficult in the extreme for a small man working alone. He always worked for free, and received communion before starting a new project.
Nicholas Owen used a variety of names to conceal his identity as he traveled around England: Little John, Little Michael, Andrewes, and Draper.
Owen was chosen as one of the first laypersons to be inducted in the Jesuit Order. When his fellow Jesuit Edward Campion was arrested, Owen spoke openly about Campion’s innocence, so Owen himself was then arrested. He was arrested again in 1594, tortured on the infamous Topcliffe rack, and hung for three hours from iron rings, with heavy weights on his feet. But he revealed nothing, and was released after a wealthy Catholic paid a ransom. The English jailers who took the bribe to let Owen go thought he just an insignificant friend of a priest--rather than the master builder of England’s underground railroad for priests.
Three years later, Owen masterminded Father John Gerard’s escape from Tower of London.
In November 1605, Guy Fawkes and a small band of Catholic conspirators made plans to blow up Parliament, kill King James, and place James’ Catholic daughter on the throne. The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot led to a massive crackdown on all suspected Catholics, which led to Owens’ arrest in early 1606.
Owens had been secreted in one of his hiding places for two weeks, while poursuivants searched a Catholic home. But when he came out of hiding and attempted to sneak off the premises, he was captured. Immediately he claimed to be a priest--a claim which amounted to condemning himself to death, but which he hoped would throw the poursuivants off the trail of the priests who remained hidden in the building.
But this time, the English authorities knew that they had captured the one person who knew enough to bring down the entire network of covert Catholics in England.
At first, Owen was held under light confinement, with visitors allowed, in the hope that some secret priests would reveal themselves by coming to visit him. Owen, however, was too cautious to be tricked, and spent his time in solitary prayer.
Soon, Owen was transferred to the infamous Tower of London, so that he could be tortured. Yet he remained calm and fearless.
The English law of the time forbade torturing anyone to death. For this reason, any person who was already maimed (as Owen had been since the horse fell on him) was not supposed to be tortured at all, due to the risk of death. Nevertheless, Owen was tortured in a particularly gruesome manner, in light of his already-ruptured hernia.
Nicholas Owen was racked for day after day; six hours at a time. And an iron band was tightened around his hernia.
While the reliability of confessions obtained under torture was dubious, England’s law enforcement authorities never had a problem getting some kind of confession from a torture victim. Except for Nicholas Owen.
He refused to answer the interrogators’ questions about anything important, and never revealed a single fact about any of his hiding places. Instead, he constantly invoked the aid of Jesus and Mary.
Perhaps all the physical suffering which Owens had endured since the birth of his deformed body helped him cope with tremendous levels of pain.
Owen died from the torture on March 2. Since Owen’s treatment had been unconscionable even by the standards of the time, the government claimed that Owen had committed suicide by stabbing himself twice with a dinner knife. Actually, Owen’s hands had been so disfigured by the torture that he could not even hold a pen or a knife, or feed himself.
In 1970, Nicholas Owen as canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. His feast day is March 22, and he is counted as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, from the time of the anti-Catholic persecutions.
Father John Gerard, one of England’s leading secret priests, wrote that no-one had accomplished more than Owen: “I verily think that no man can be said to have done more good for all those who laboured in the English vineyard. For, first, he was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular, and of the estates also of these seculars, which had been lost and forfeited many times over if the priests had been taken in their houses.” (A hidden priest then, like illegal drugs or guns today, was cause for forfeiture of an entire home.) The modern edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saintsstates, “Perhaps no single person contributed more to the preservation of the Catholic religion in England during penal times.”
Regardless of whether one is a Catholic, a Protestant, or anything else, the decision of England’s Catholics to maintain their faith, no matter how great the threats from the government, was highly admirable. The Catholic who illegally received communion, or otherwise resisted the government’s effort to stamp out their religion, affirmed that the God and the individual were more important than the government. The survival of Catholicism in England, and the failure of the Church of England to establish a complete monopoly of faith, helped sow the seeds for the long-run development of religious toleration in England, and in the rest of the Western world.
Nicholas Owen was one of the pivotal figures of English history, and, indirectly, one of the fathers of modern religious freedom. He was not born to wealth or nobility or normality, and few people who stared at his small and twisted body would have predicted that he would be remembered as one of the greatest Englishmen of his time.
Further reading: Owen’s biography is Blessed Nicholas Owen: Jesuit Brother and Maker of Hiding Holes, by Margaret Waugh. Published in 1959, the book is out of print and difficult to find in the United States. Owen is one of the major characters in Antonia Fraser’s superb book Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot.