Secret Chambers and Hiding Places
by Allan Fea
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse











































The secret chamber is unrivalled even by the haunted house for the mystery and romance surrounding it. Volumes have been written about the haunted house, while the secret chamber has found but few exponents. The ancestral ghost has had his day, and to all intents and purposes is dead, notwithstanding the existence of the Psychical Society and the investigations of Mr. Stead and the late Lord Bute. "Alas! poor ghost!" he is treated with scorn and derision by the multitude in these advanced days of modern enlightenment. The search-light of science has penetrated even into his sacred haunts, until, no longer having a leg to stand upon, he has fallen from the exalted position he occupied for centuries, and fallen moreover into ridicule!

In the secret chamber, however, we have something tangible to deal with—a subject not only keenly interesting from an antiquarian point of view, but one deserving the attention of the general reader; for in exploring the gloomy hiding-holes, concealed apartments, passages, and staircases in our old halls and manor houses we probe, as it were, into the very groundwork of romance. We find actuality to support the weird and mysterious stories of fiction, which those of us who are honest enough to admit a lingering love of the marvellous must now doubly appreciate, from the fact that our school-day impressions of such things are not only revived, but are strengthened with the semblance of truth. Truly Bishop Copleston wrote: "If the things we hear told be avowedly fictitious, and yet curious or affecting or entertaining, we may indeed admire the author of the fiction, and may take pleasure in contemplating the exercise of his skill. But this is a pleasure of another kind—a pleasure wholly distinct from that which is derived from discovering what was unknown, or clearing up what was doubtful. And even when the narrative is in its own nature, such as to please us and to engage our attention, how, greatly is the interest increased if we place entire confidence in its truth! Who has not heard from a child when listening to a tale of deep interest—who has not often heard the artless and eager question, 'Is it true?'"

From Horace Walpole, Mrs. Radcliffe, Scott, Victor Hugo, Dumas, Lytton, Ainsworth, Le Fanu, and Mrs. Henry Wood, down to the latest up-to-date novelists of to-day, the secret chamber (an ingenious necessity of the "good old times") has afforded invaluable "property"—indeed, in many instances the whole vitality of a plot is, like its ingenious opening, hinged upon the masked wall, behind which lay concealed what hidden mysteries, what undreamed-of revelations! The thread of the story, like Fair Rosamond's silken clue, leads up to and at length reveals the buried secret, and (unlike the above comparison in this instance) all ends happily!

Bulwer Lytton honestly confesses that the spirit of romance in his novels "was greatly due to their having been written at my ancestral home, Knebworth, Herts. How could I help writing romances," he says, "after living amongst the secret panels and hiding-places of our dear old home? How often have I trembled with fear at the sound of my own footsteps when I ventured into the picture gallery! How fearfully have I glanced at the faces of my ancestors as I peered into the shadowy abysses of the 'secret chamber.' It was years before I could venture inside without my hair literally bristling with terror."

What would Woodstock be without the mysterious picture, Peveril of the Peak without the sliding panel, the Castlewood of Esmond without Father Holt's concealed apartments, Ninety-Three, Marguerite de Valois, The Tower of London, Guy Fawkes, and countless other novels of the same type, without the convenient contrivances of which the dramatis personae make such effectual use?

Apart, however, from the importance of the secret chamber in fiction, it is closely associated with many an important historical event. The stories of the Gunpowder Plot, Charles II.'s escape from Worcester, the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, and many another stirring episode in the annals of our country, speak of the service it rendered to fugitives in the last extremity of danger. When we inspect the actual walls of these confined spaces that saved the lives of our ancestors, how vividly we can realise the hardships they must have endured; and in wondering at the mingled ingenuity and simplicity of construction, there is also a certain amount of comfort to be derived from drawing a comparison between those troublous and our own more peaceful times.




During the deadly feuds which existed in the Middle Ages, when no man was secure from spies and traitors even within the walls of his own house, it is no matter of wonder that the castles and mansions of the powerful and wealthy were usually provided with some precaution in the event of a sudden surprise—viz. a secret means of concealment or escape that could be used at a moment's notice; but the majority of secret chambers and hiding-places in our ancient buildings owe their origin to religious persecution, particularly during the reign of Elizabeth, when the most stringent laws and oppressive burdens were inflicted upon all persons who professed the tenets of the Church of Rome.

In the first years of the virgin Queen's reign all who clung to the older forms of the Catholic faith were mercifully connived at, so long as they solemnised their own religious rites within their private dwelling-houses; but after the Roman Catholic rising in the north and numerous other Popish plots, the utmost severity of the law was enforced, particularly against seminarists, whose chief object was, as was generally believed, to stir up their disciples in England against the Protestant Queen. An Act was passed prohibiting a member of the Church of Rome from celebrating the rites of his religion on pain of forfeiture for the first offence, a year's imprisonment for the second, and imprisonment for life for the third.[1] All those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy were called "recusants" and were guilty of high treason. A law was also enacted which provided that if any Papist should convert a Protestant to the Church of Rome, both should suffer death, as for high treason.

[Footnote 1: In December, 1591, a priest was hanged before the door of a house in Gray's Inn Fields for having there said Mass the month previously.]

The sanguinary laws against seminary priests and "recusants" were enforced with the greatest severity after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. These were revived for a period in Charles II.'s reign, when Oates's plot worked up a fanatical hatred against all professors of the ancient faith. In the mansions of the old Roman Catholic families we often find an apartment in a secluded part of the house or garret in the roof named "the chapel," where religious rites could be performed with the utmost privacy, and close handy was usually an artfully contrived hiding-place, not only for the officiating priest to slip into in case of emergency, but also where the vestments, sacred vessels, and altar furniture could be put away at a moment's notice.

It appears from the writings of Father Tanner[1] that most of the hiding-places for priests, usually called "priests' holes," were invented and constructed by the Jesuit Nicholas Owen, a servant of Father Garnet, who devoted the greater part of his life to constructing these places in the principal Roman Catholic houses all over England.

[Footnote 1: Vita et Mors (1675), p. 75.]

"With incomparable skill," says an authority, "he knew how to conduct priests to a place of safety along subterranean passages, to hide them between walls and bury them in impenetrable recesses, and to entangle them in labyrinths and a thousand windings. But what was much more difficult of accomplishment, he so disguised the entrances to these as to make them most unlike what they really were. Moreover, he kept these places so close a secret with himself that he would never disclose to another the place of concealment of any Catholic. He alone was both their architect and their builder, working at them with inexhaustible industry and labour, for generally the thickest walls had to be broken into and large stones excavated, requiring stronger arms than were attached to a body so diminutive as to give him the nickname of 'Little John,' and by this his skill many priests were preserved from the prey of persecutors. Nor is it easy to find anyone who had not often been indebted for his life to Owen's hiding-places."

How effectually "Little John's" peculiar ingenuity baffled the exhaustive searches of the "pursuivants," or priest-hunters, has been shown by contemporary accounts of the searches that took place frequently in suspected houses. Father Gerard, in his Autobiography, has handed down to us many curious details of the mode of procedure upon these occasions—how the search-party would bring with them skilled carpenters and masons and try every possible expedient, from systematic measurements and soundings to bodily tearing down the panelling and pulling up the floors. It was not an uncommon thing for a rigid search to last a fortnight and for the "pursuivants" to go away empty handed, while perhaps the object of the search was hidden the whole time within a wall's thickness of his pursuers, half starved, cramped and sore with prolonged confinement, and almost afraid to breathe, lest the least sound should throw suspicion upon the particular spot where he lay immured.

After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, "Little John" and his master, Father Garnet, were arrested at Hindlip Hall, Worcestershire, from information given to the Government by Catesby's servant Bates. Cecil, who was well aware of Owen's skill in constructing hiding-places, wrote exultingly: "Great joy was caused all through the kingdom by the arrest of Owen, knowing his skill in constructing hiding-places, and the innumerable number of these dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests throughout the kingdom." He hoped that "great booty of priests" might be taken in consequence of the secrets Owen would be made to reveal, and directed that first he should "be coaxed if he be willing to contract for his life," but that "the secret is to be wrung from him." The horrors of the rack, however, failed in its purpose. His terrible death is thus briefly recorded by the Governor of the Tower at that time: "The man is dead—he died in our hands"; and perhaps it is as well the ghastly details did not transpire in his report.

The curious old mansion Hindlip Hall (pulled down in the early part of the last century) was erected in 1572 by John Abingdon, or Habington, whose son Thomas (the brother-in-law of Lord Monteagle) was deeply involved in the numerous plots against the reformed religion. A long imprisonment in the Tower for his futile efforts to set Mary Queen of Scots at liberty, far from curing the dangerous schemes of this zealous partisan of the luckless Stuart heroine, only kept him out of mischief for a time. No sooner had he obtained his freedom than he set his mind to work to turn his house in Worcestershire into a harbour of refuge for the followers of the older rites. In the quaint irregularities of the masonry free scope was given to "Little John's" ingenuity; indeed, there is every proof that some of his masterpieces were constructed here. A few years before the "Powder Plot" was discovered, it was a hanging matter for a priest to be caught celebrating the Mass. Yet with the facilities at Hindlip he might do so with comfort, with every assurance that he had the means of evading the law. The walls of the mansion were literally riddled with secret chambers and passages. There was little fear of being run to earth with hidden exits everywhere. Wainscoting, solid brickwork, or stone hearth were equally accommodating, and would swallow up fugitives wholesale, and close over them, to "Open, Sesame!" again only at the hider's pleasure.



The capture of Father Garnet and "Little John" with two others, Hall and Chambers, at Hindlip, as detailed in a curious manuscript in the British Museum, gives us an insight into the search-proof merits of Abingdon's mansion. The document is headed: "A true discovery of the service performed at Hindlip, the house of Mr. Thomas Abbingdon, for the apprehension of Mr. Henry Garnet, alias Wolley, provincial of the Jesuits, and other dangerous persons, there found in January last, 1605," and runs on:—

"After the king's royal promise of bountiful reward to such as would apprehend the traitors concerned in the Powder Conspiracy, and much expectation of subject-like duty, but no return made thereof in so important a matter, a warrant was directed to the right worthy and worshipful knight, Sir Henry Bromlie; and the proclamation delivered therewith, describing the features and shapes of the men, for the better discovering them. He, not neglecting so a weighty a business, horsing himself with a seemly troop of his own attendants, and calling to his assistance so many as in discretion was thought meet, having likewise in his company Sir Edward Bromlie, on Monday, Jan. 20 last, by break of day, did engirt and round beat the house of Mayster Thomas Abbingdon, at Hindlip, near Worcester. Mr. Abbingdon, not being then at home, but ridden abroad about some occasions best known to himself; the house being goodlie, and of great receipt, it required the more diligent labour and pains in the searching. It appeared there was no want; and Mr. Abbingdon himself coming home that night, the commission and proclamation being shown unto him, he denied any such men to be in his house, and voluntarily to die at his own gate, if any such were to be found in his house, or in that shire. But this liberal or rather rash speech could not cause the search so slightly to be given over; the cause enforced more respect than words of that or any such like nature; and proceeding on according to the trust reposed in him in the gallery over the gate there were found two cunning and very artificial conveyances in the main brick-wall, so ingeniously framed, and with such art, as it cost much labour ere they could be found. Three other secret places, contrived by no less skill and industry, were found in and about the chimneys, in one whereof two of the traitors were close concealed. These chimney-conveyances being so strangely formed, having the entrances into them so curiously covered over with brick, mortared and made fast to planks of wood, and coloured black, like the other parts of the chimney, that very diligent inquisition might well have passed by, without throwing the least suspicion upon such unsuspicious places. And whereas divers funnels are usually made to chimneys according as they are combined together, and serve for necessary use in several rooms, so here were some that exceeded common expectation, seeming outwardly fit for carrying forth smoke; but being further examined and seen into, their service was to no such purpose but only to lend air and light downward into the concealments, where such as were concealed in them, at any time should be hidden. Eleven secret corners and conveyances were found in the said house, all of them having books, Massing stuff, and Popish trumpery in them, only two excepted, which appeared to have been found on former searches, and therefore had now the less credit given to them; but Mayster Abbingdon would take no knowledge of any of these places, nor that the books, or Massing stuff, were any of his, until at length the deeds of his lands being found in one of them, whose custody doubtless he would not commit to any place of neglect, or where he should have no intelligence of them, whereto he could [not] then devise any sufficient excuse.

Three days had been wholly spent, and no man found there all this while; but upon the fourth day, in the morning, from behind the wainscot in the galleries, came forth two men of their own voluntary accord, as being no longer able there to conceal themselves; for they confessed that they had but one apple between them, which was all the sustenance they had received during the time they were thus hidden. One of them was named Owen, who afterwards murdered himself in the Tower; and the other Chambers; but they would take no other knowledge of any other men's being in the house. On the eighth day the before-mentioned place in the chimney was found, according as they had all been at several times, one after another, though before set down together, for expressing the just number of them.

"Forth of this secret and most cunning conveyance came Henry Garnet, the Jesuit, sought for, and another with him, named Hall; marmalade and other sweetmeats were found there lying by them; but their better maintenance had been by a quill or reed, through a little hole in the chimney that backed another chimney into the gentlewoman's chamber; and by that passage candles, broths, and warm drinks had been conveyed in unto them.

"Now in regard the place was in so close... and did much annoy them that made entrance in upon them, to whom they confessed that they had not been able to hold out one whole day longer, but either they must have squeeled, or perished in the place. The whole service endured the space of eleven nights and twelve days, and no more persons being there found, in company with Mayster Abbingdon himself, Garnet, Hill [Hall], Owen, and Chambers, were brought up to London to understand further of his highness's pleasure."

That the Government had good grounds for suspecting Hindlip and its numerous hiding-places may be gathered from the official instructions the Worcestershire Justice of the Peace and his search-party had to follow. The wainscoting in the east part of the parlour and in the dining-room, being suspected of screening "a vault" or passage, was to be removed, the walls and floors were to be pierced in all directions, comparative measurements were to be taken between the upper and the lower rooms, and in particular the chimneys, and the roof had to be minutely examined and measurements taken, which might bring to light some unaccounted-for space that had been turned to good account by the unfortunate inventor, who was eventually starved out of one of his clever contrivances.

Only shortly before Owen had had a very narrow escape at Stoke Poges while engaged in constructing "priests' holes" at the Manor House. The secluded position of this building adapted it for the purpose for which a Roman Catholic zealot had taken it. But this was not the only advantage. The walls were of vast thickness and offered every facility for turning them to account. While "Little John" was busily engaged burrowing into the masonry the dreaded "pursuivants" arrived; but somehow or other he slipped between their fingers and got away under cover of the surrounding woods.

The wing of this old mansion which has survived to see the twentieth century witnessed many strange events. It has welcomed good Queen Bess, guarded the Martyr King, and refused admittance to Dutch William. A couple of centuries after it had sheltered hunted Jesuits, a descendant of William Penn became possessed of it, and cleared away many of the massive walls, in some of which—who can tell?—were locked up secrets that the rack failed to reveal—secrets by which Owen "murdered himself" in the Tower!

One of the hiding-places at Hindlip, it will be remembered, could be supplied with broth, wine, or any liquid nourishment through a small aperture in the wall of the adjoining room. A very good example of such an arrangement may still be seen at Irnham Hall, in Lincolnshire.[1] A large hiding-place could thus be accommodated, but detection of the narrow iron tube by which the imprisoned fugitive could be kept alive was practically impossible. A solid oak beam, forming a step between two bedrooms, concealed a panel into which the tube was cunningly fitted and the step was so arranged that it could be removed and replaced with the greatest ease.[2]

[Footnote 1: The fire which destroyed a wing of Irnham Hall a few years ago fortunately did not touch that part of the building containing a hiding-place.]

[Footnote 2: Harvington Hall, mentioned hereafter, has a contrivance of this kind.]

The hiding-place at Irnham (which measures eight feet by five, and about five feet six inches in height) was discovered by a tell-tale chimney that was not in the least blackened by soot or smoke. This originally gave the clue to the secret, and when the shaft of the chimney was examined, it was found to lead direct to the priest's hole, to which it afforded air and light.

Had not the particular hiding-place in which Garnet and his companions sought shelter been discovered, they could well have held out the twelve days' search. As a rule, a small stock of provisions was kept in these places, as the visits of the search parties were necessarily very sudden and unexpected. The way down into these hidden quarters was from the floor above, through the hearth of a fireplace, which could be raised an lowered like a trap-door.[1]

[Footnote 1: See Fowlis's Romish Treasons.]

In a letter from Garnet to Ann Vaux, preserved in the Record Office, he thus describes his precarious situation: "After we had been in the hoale seven days and seven nights and some odd hours, every man may well think we were well wearyed, and indeed so it was, for we generally satte, save that some times we could half stretch ourselves, the place not being high eno', and we had our legges so straitened that we could not, sitting, find place for them, so that we both were in continuous paine of our legges, and both our legges, especially mine, were much swollen. We were very merry and content within, and heard the searchers every day most curious over us, which made me indeed think the place would be found. When we came forth we appeared like ghosts."[2]

[Footnote 2: State Papers, Domestic (James I.).]

There is an old timber-framed cottage near the modern mansion of Hindlip which is said to have had its share in sheltering the plotters. A room is pointed out where Digby and Catesby concealed themselves, and from one of the chimneys at some time or another a priest was captured and led to execution.



In the parish of Wimbish, about six miles from Saffron Walden, stand the remains of a fine old Tudor house named Broad Oaks, or Braddocks, which in Elizabeth's reign was a noted house for priest-hunting. Wandering through its ancient rooms, the imagination readily carries us back to the drama enacted here three centuries ago with a vividness as if the events recorded had happened yesterday. "The chapel" and priests' holes may still be seen, and a fine old stone fireplace that was stripped of its overmantel, etc., of carved oak by the "pursuivants" in their vain efforts when Father Gerard was concealed in the house.

The old Essex family of Wiseman of Braddocks were staunch Romanists, and their home, being a noted resort for priests, received from time to time sudden visits. The dreaded Topcliffe had upon one occasion nearly brought the head of the family, an aged widow lady, to the horrors of the press-yard, but her punishment eventually took the form of imprisonment. Searches at Braddocks had brought forth hiding-places, priests, compromising papers, and armour and weapons. Let us see with what success the house was explored in the Easter of the year 1594.

Gerard gives his exciting experiences as follows[1]:—

[Footnote 1: See Autobiography of Father John Gerard.]

"The searchers broke down the door, and forcing their way in, spread through the house with great noise and racket.

"Their first step was to lock up the mistress of the house[2] in her own room with her two daughters, and the Catholic servants they kept locked up in divers places in the same part of the house.

[Footnote 2: Jane Wiseman, wife of William Wiseman. N.B.—The late Cardinal Wiseman was descended from a junior branch of this family. See Life of Father John Gerard, by John Morris.]

"They then took to themselves the whole house, which was of a good size, and made a thorough search in every part, not forgetting even to look under the tiles of the roof. The darkest corners they examined with the help of candles. Finding nothing whatever they began to break down certain places that they suspected. They measured the walls with long rods, so that if they did not tally they might pierce the part not accounted for. Then they sounded the walls and all the floors to find out and break into any hollow places there might be.

"They spent two days in this work without finding anything. Thinking therefore that I had gone on Easter Sunday, the two magistrates went away on the second day, leaving the pursuivants to take the mistress of the house and all her Catholic servants of both sexes to London to be examined and imprisoned. They meant to leave some who were not Catholics to keep the house, the traitor (one of the servants of the house) being one of them.

"The good lady was pleased at this, for she hoped that he would be the means of freeing me and rescuing me from death; for she knew that I had made up my mind to suffer and die of starvation between two walls, rather than come forth and save my own life at the expense of others.

"In fact, during those four days that I lay hid I had nothing to eat but a biscuit or two and a little quince jelly, which my hostess had at hand and gave me as I was going in.

"She did not look for any more, as she supposed that the search would not last beyond a day. But now that two days were gone and she was to be carried off on the third with all her trusty servants, she began to be afraid of my dying of sheer hunger. She bethought herself then of the traitor who she heard was to be left behind. He had made a great fuss and show of eagerness in withstanding the searchers when they first forced their way in. For all that she would not have let him know of the hiding-places, had she not been in such straits. Thinking it better, however, to rescue me from certain death, even at some risk to herself, she charged him, when she was taken away and everyone had gone, to go into a certain room, call me by my wonted name, and tell me that the others had been taken to prison, but that he was left to deliver me. I would then answer, she said, from behind the lath and plaster where I lay concealed. The traitor promised to obey faithfully; but he was faithful only to the faithless, for he unfolded the whole matter to the ruffians who had remained behind.

"No sooner had they heard it than they called back the magistrates who had departed. These returned early in the morning and renewed the search.

"They measured and sounded everywhere much more carefully than before, especially in the chamber above mentioned, in order to find out some hollow place. But finding nothing whatever during the whole of the third day, they proposed on the morrow to strip off the wainscot of that room.

"Meanwhile, they set guards in all the rooms about to watch all night, lest I should escape. I heard from my hiding-place the password which the captain of the band gave to his soldiers, and I might have got off by using it, were it not that they would have seen me issuing from my retreat, for there were two on guard in the chapel where I got into my hiding-place, and several also in the large wainscoted room which had been pointed out to them.

"But mark the wonderful Providence of God. Here was I in my hiding-place. The way I got into it was by taking up the floor, made of wood and bricks, under the fireplace. The place was so constructed that a fire could not be lit in it without damaging the house; though we made a point of keeping wood there, as if it were meant for a fire.

"Well, the men on the night watch lit a fire in this very grate and began chatting together close to it. Soon the bricks which had not bricks but wood underneath them got loose, and nearly fell out of their places as the wood gave way. On noticing this and probing the place with a stick, they found that the bottom was made of wood, whereupon they remarked that this was something curious. I thought that they were going there and then to break open the place and enter, but they made up their minds at last to put off further examination till next day.

"Next morning, therefore, they renewed the search most carefully, everywhere except in the top chamber which served as a chapel, and in which the two watchmen had made a fire over my head and had noticed the strange make of the grate. God had blotted out of their memory all remembrance of the thing. Nay, none of the searchers entered the place the whole day, though it was the one that was most open to suspicion, and if they had entered, they would have found me without any search; rather, I should say, they would have seen me, for the fire had burnt a great hole in my hiding-place, and had I not got a little out of the way, the hot embers would have fallen on me.

"The searchers, forgetting or not caring about this room, busied themselves in ransacking the rooms below, in one of which I was said to be. In fact, they found the other hiding-place which I thought of going into, as I mentioned before. It was not far off, so I could hear their shouts of joy when they first found it. But after joy comes grief; and so it was with them. The only thing that they found was a goodly store of provision laid up. Hence they may have thought that this was the place that the mistress of the house meant; in fact, an answer might have been given from it to the call of a person in the room mentioned by her.

"They stuck to their purpose, however, of stripping off all the wainscot of the other large room. So they set a man to work near the ceiling, close to the place where I was: for the lower part of the walls was covered with tapestry, not with wainscot. So they stripped off the wainscot all round till they came again to the very place where I lay, and there they lost heart and gave up the search.

"My hiding-place was in a thick wall of the chimney behind a finely inlaid and carved mantelpiece. They could not well take the carving down without risk of breaking it. Broken, however, it would have been, and that into a thousand pieces, had they any conception that I could be concealed behind it. But knowing that there were two flues, they did not think that there could be room enough there for a man.

"Nay, before this, on the second day of the search, they had gone into the room above, and tried the fireplace through which I had got into my hole. They then got into the chimney by a ladder to sound with their hammers. One said to another in my hearing, 'Might there not be a place here for a person to get down into the wall of the chimney below by lifting up this hearth?' 'No,' answered one of the pursuivants, whose voice I knew, 'you could not get down that way into the chimney underneath, but there might easily be an entrance at the back of this chimney.' So saying he gave the place a knock. I was afraid that he would hear the hollow sound of the hole where I was.

"Seeing that their toil availed them nought, they thought that I had escaped somehow, and so they went away at the end of the four days, leaving the mistress and her servants free. The yet unbetrayed traitor stayed after the searchers were gone. As soon as the doors of the house were made fast, the mistress came to call me, another four days buried Lazarus, from what would have been my tomb, had the search continued a little longer. For I was all wasted and weakened as well with hunger as with want of sleep and with having to sit so long in such a narrow space. After coming out I was seen by the traitor, whose treachery was still unknown to us. He did nothing then, not even to send after the searchers, as he knew that I meant to be off before they could be recalled."

The Wisemans had another house at North End, a few miles to the south-east of Dunmow. Here were also "priests' holes," one of which (in a chimney) secreted a certain Father Brewster during a rigid search in December, 1593.[1]

[Footnote 1: State Papers, Dom. (Eliz.), December, 1593. See also Life of Father John Gerard, p. 138.]

Great Harrowden, near Wellingborough, the ancient seat of the Vaux family, was another notorious sanctuary for persecuted recusants. Gerard spent much of his time here in apartments specially constructed for his use, and upon more than one occasion had to have recourse to the hiding-places. Some four or five years after his experiences at Braddocks he narrowly escaped his pursuers in this way; and in 1605, when the "pursuivants" were scouring the country for him, as he was supposed to be privy to the Gunpowder Plot, he owed his life to a secret chamber at Harrowden. The search-party remained for nine days. Night and day men were posted round the house, and every approach was guarded within a radius of three miles. With the hope of getting rid of her unwelcome guests, Lady Vaux revealed one of the "priests' holes" to prove there was nothing in her house beyond a few prohibited books; but this did not have the desired effect, so the unfortunate inmate of the hiding-place had to continue in a cramped position, there being no room to stand up, for four or five days more. His hostess, however, managed to bring him food, and moments were seized during the latter days of the search to get him out that he might warm his benumbed limbs by a fire. While these things were going on at Harrowden, another priest, little thinking into whose hands the well-known sanctuary had fallen, came thither to seek shelter; but was seized and carried to an inn, whence it was intended he should be removed to London on the following day. But he managed to outwit his captors. To evade suspicion he threw off his cloak and sword, and under a pretext of giving his horse drink at a stream close by the stable, seized a lucky moment, mounted, and dashed into the water, swam across, and galloped off to the nearest house that could offer the convenience of a hiding-place.[1]

[Footnote 1: See Life of John Gerard, p. 386.]

At Hackney the Vaux family had another, residence with its chapel and "priest's hole," the latter having a masked entrance high up in the wall, which led to a space under a gable projection of the roof. For double security this contained yet an inner hiding-place. In the existing Brooke House are incorporated the modernised remains of this mansion.



Lord Vaux of Harrowden, Sir William Catesby of Ashby St. Ledgers, and Sir Thomas Tresham of Rushton Hall (all in Northamptonshire) were upon more than one occasion arraigned before the Court of the Star Chamber for harbouring Jesuits. The old mansions Ashby St. Ledgers and Rushton fortunately still remain intact and preserve many traditions of Romanist plots. Sir William Catesby's son Robert, the chief conspirator, is said to have held secret meetings in the curious oak-panelled room over the gate-house of the former, which goes by the name of "the Plot Room." Once upon a time it was provided with a secret means of escape. At Rushton Hall a hiding-place was discovered in 1832 behind a lintel over a doorway; it was full of bundles of manuscripts, prohibited books, and incriminating correspondence of the conspirator Tresham. Another place of concealment was situated in the chimney of the great hall and in this Father Oldcorn was hidden for a time. Gayhurst, or Gothurst, in Buckinghamshire, the seat of Sir Everard Digby, also remains intact, one of the finest late Tudor buildings in the country; unfortunately, however, only recently a remarkable "priest's hole" that was here has been destroyed in consequence of modern improvements. It was a double hiding-place, one situated beneath the other; the lower one being so arranged as to receive light and air from the bottom portion of a large mullioned window—a most ingenious device. A secret passage in the hall had communication with it, and entrance was obtained through part of the flooring of an apartment, the movable part of the boards revolving upon pivots and sufficiently solid to vanquish any suspicion as to a hollow space beneath.

As may be supposed, tradition says that at the time of Digby's arrest he was dragged forth from this hole, but history shows that he was taken prisoner at Holbeach House (where, it will be remembered, the conspirators Catesby and Percy were shot), and led to execution. For a time Digby sought security at Coughton Court, the seat of the Throckmortons, in Warwickshire. The house of this old Roman Catholic family, of course, had its hiding-holes, one of which remains to this day. Holbeach as well as Hagley Hall, the homes of the Litteltons, have been rebuilt. The latter was pulled down in the middle of the eighteenth century. Here it was that Stephen Littleton and Robert Winter were captured through the treachery of the cook. Grant's house, Norbrook, in Warwickshire, has also given way to a modern one.

Ambrose Rookwood's seat, Coldham Hall, near Bury St. Edmunds, exists and retains its secret chapel and hiding-places. There are three of the latter; one of them, now a small withdrawing-room, is entered from the oak wainscoted hall. When the house was in the market a few years ago, the "priests' holes" duly figured in the advertisements with the rest of the apartments and offices. It read a little odd, this juxtaposition of modern conveniences with what is essentially romantic, and we simply mention the fact to show that the auctioneer is well aware of the monetary value of such things.

At the time of the Gunpowder Conspiracy Rookwood rented Clopton Hall, near Stratford-on-Avon. This house also has its little chapel in the roof with adjacent "priests' holes," but many alterations have taken place from time to time. Who does not remember William Howitt's delightful description—or, to be correct, the description of a lady correspondent—of the old mansion before these restorations. "There was the old Catholic chapel," she wrote, "with a chaplain's room which had been walled up and forgotten till within the last few years. I went in on my hands and knees, for the entrance was very low. I recollect little in the chapel; but in the chaplain's room were old and I should think rare editions of many books, mostly folios. A large yellow paper copy of Dryden's All for Love, or the World Well Lost, date 1686, caught my eye, and is the only one I particularly remember."[1]

[Footnote 1: Howitt's Visits to Remarkable Places.]

Huddington Court, the picturesque old home of the Winters (of whom Robert and Thomas lost their lives for their share in the Plot), stands a few miles from Droitwich. A considerable quantity of arms and ammunition were stored in the hiding-places here in 1605 in readiness for general rising.

Two other houses may be mentioned in connection with the memorable Plot—houses that were rented by the conspirators as convenient places of rendezvous an account of their hiding-places and masked exits for escape. One of them stood in the vicinity of the Strand, in the fields behind St. Clement's Inn. Father Gerard had taken it some time previous to the discovery of the Plot, and with Owen's aid some very secure hiding-places were arranged. This he had done with two or three other London residences, so that he and his brother priests might use them upon hazardous occasions; and to one of these he owed his life when the hue and cry after him was at its highest pitch. By removing from one to the other they avoided detection, though they had many narrow escapes. One priest was celebrating Mass when the Lord Mayor and constables suddenly burst in. But the surprise party was disappointed: nothing could be detected beyond the smoke of the extinguished candles; and in addition to the hole where the fugitive crouched there were two other secret chambers, neither of which was discovered. On another occasion a priest was left shut up in a wall; his friends were taken prisoners, and he was in danger of starvation, until at length he was rescued from his perilous position, carried to one of the other houses, and again immured in the vault or chimney.

The other house was "White Webb's," on the confines of Enfield Chase. In the Record Office there is a document describing how, many Popish books and relics were discovered when the latter was searched. The building was full of trap-doors and secret passages. Some vestiges of the out-buildings of "White Webb's" may still be seen in a quaint little inn called "The King and Tinker."

But of all the narrow escapes perhaps Father Blount's experiences at Scotney Castle were the most thrilling. This old house of the Darrells, situated on the border of Kent and Sussex, like Hindlip and Braddocks and most of the residences of the Roman Catholic gentry, contained the usual lurking-places for priests. The structure as it now stands is in the main modern, having undergone from time to time considerable alterations. A vivid account of Blount's hazardous escape here is preserved among the muniments at Stonyhurst—a transcript of the original formerly at St. Omers.

One Christmas night towards the close of Elizabeth's reign the castle was seized by a party of priest-hunters, who, with their usual mode of procedure, locked up the members of the family securely before starting on their operations. In the inner quadrangle of the mansion was a very remarkable and ingenious device. A large stone of the solid wall could be pushed aside. Though of immense weight, it was so nicely balanced and adjusted that it required only a slight pressure upon one side to effect an entrance to the hiding-place within. Those who have visited the grounds at Chatsworth may remember a huge piece of solid rock which can be swung round in the same easy manner. Upon the approach of the enemy, Father Blount and his servant hastened to the courtyard and entered the vault; but in their hurry to close the weighty door a small portion of one of their girdles got jammed in, so that a part was visible from the outside. Fortunately for the fugitives, someone in the secret, in passing the spot, happened to catch sight of this tell-tale fragment and immediately cut it off; but as a particle still showed, they called gently to those within to endeavour to pull it in, which they eventually succeeded in doing.

At this moment the pursuivants were at work in another part of the castle, but hearing the voice in the courtyard, rushed into it and commenced battering the walls, and at times upon the very door of the hiding-place, which would have given way had not those within put their combined weight against it to keep it from yielding. It was a pitchy dark night, and it was pelting with rain, so after a time, discouraged at finding nothing and wet to the skin, the soldiers put off further search until the following morning, and proceeded to dry and refresh themselves by the fire in the great hall.

When all was at rest, Father Blount and his man, not caring to risk another day's hunting, cautiously crept forth bare-footed, and after managing to scale some high walls, dropt into the moat and swam across. And it was as well for them that they decided to quit their hiding-hole, for next morning it was discovered.

The fugitives found temporary security at another recusant house a few miles from Scotney, possibly the old half-timber house of Twissenden, where a secret chapel and adjacent "priests' holes" are still pointed out.

The original manuscript account of the search at Scotney was written by one of the Darrell family, who was in the castle at the time of the events recorded.[1]

[Footnote 1: See Morris's Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers.]



We will now go in search of some of the most curious hiding-places in existence. There are numerous known examples all over the country, and perhaps as many again exist, which will preserve their secret for ever. For more than three hundred years they have remained buried, and unless some accident reveals their locked-up mysteries, they will crumble away with the walls which contain them; unless, indeed, fire, the doom of so many of our ancestral halls, reduces them to ashes and swallows up the weird stories they might have told. In many cases not until an ancient building is pulled down are such strange discoveries made; but, alas! there are as many instances where structural alterations have wantonly destroyed these interesting historical landmarks.

Unaccounted-for spaces, when detected, are readily utilised. Passages are bodily run through the heart of many a secret device, with little veneration for the mechanical ingenuity that has been displayed in their construction. The builder of to-day, as a rule, knows nothing of and cares less, for such things, and so they are swept away without a thought. To such vandals we can only emphasise the remarks we have already made about the market value of a "priest-hole" nowadays.

A little to the right of the Kidderminster road, and about two miles from the pretty village of Chaddesley Corbet, with its old timber houses and inn, stands the ghostly old hall of Harvington. The ancient red-brick pile rises out of its reed-grown moat with that air of mystery which age and seeming neglect only can impart. Coming upon it unexpectedly, especially towards dusk, one is struck with the strange, dignified melancholy pervading it. Surely Hood's Haunted House or Poe's House of Usher stands before us, and we cannot get away from the impression that a mystery is wrapped within its walls. Harvington Hall dates from the reign of Henry VIII., but it has undergone various changes, so it is difficult to affix any particular period or style to its architecture; indeed, it is this medley of different styles which forms such a poetically picturesque outline. In its day Harvington could doubtless hold its own with the finest mansions in the country, but now it is forgotten, deserted, and crumbling to pieces. Its very history appears to be lost to the world, as those who go to the county histories and general topographical works for information will find.

Inside the mansion, like the exterior, the hand of decay is perceptible on every side; the rooms are ruined, the windows broken, the floors unsafe (excepting, by the way, a small portion of the building which is habitable). A ponderous broad oak staircase leads to a dismantled state-room, shorn of the principal part of its panelling, carving, and chimney-pieces.[1] Other desolate apartments retain their names as if in mockery; "the drawing-room," "the chapel," "Lady Yates's nursery," and so forth. At the top of the staircase, however, we must look around carefully, for beneath the stairs is a remarkable hiding-place.

[Footnote 1: Most of the interior fittings were removed to Coughton Court, Warwickshire.]

With a slight stretch of the imagination we can see an indistinct form stealthily remove the floorboard of one of the stairs and creep beneath it. This particular step of a short flight running from the landing into a garret is, upon closer inspection, indeed movable, and beneath gapes a dark cavity about five feet square, on the floor of which still remains the piece of sedge matting whereon a certain Father Wall rested his aching limbs a few days prior to his capture and execution in August, 1679. The unfortunate man was taken at Rushock Court, a few miles away where he was traced after leaving Harvington. There is a communication between the hiding-place and "the banqueting-room" through, a small concealed aperture in the wainscoting large enough to admit of a tube, through which a straw could be thrust for the unhappy occupant to suck up any liquid his friends might be able to supply.

In a gloomy corridor leading from the tower to "the reception-room" is another "priest's hole" beneath the floor, and entered by a trap-door artfully hidden in the boards; this black recess is some seven feet in depth, and can be made secure from within. Supposing the searchers had tracked a fugitive priest as far as this corridor, the odds are in favour that they would have passed over his head in their haste to reach the tower, where they would make sure, in their own minds at least, of discovering him. Again, here there is a communication with the outside world. An oblong aperture in the top oak beam of the entrance gateway to the house, measuring about four inches across, is the secret opening—small enough to escape the most inquisitive eye, yet large enough to allow of a written note to pass between the captive and those upon the alert watching his interests.[1]

[Footnote 1: N.B.—In addition to the above hiding-places at Harvington, one was discovered so recently as 1894; at least, so we have been informed. This was some years after our visit to the old Hall.]

A subterranean passage is said to run under the moat from a former hiding-place, but this is doubtful; at any rate, there are no evidences of it nowadays.

Altogether, Harvington is far from cheerful, even to a pond hard by called "Gallows Pool"! The tragic legend associated with this is beyond the province of the present work, so we will bid adieu to this weird old hall, and turn our attention to another obscure house situated in the south-east corner of Berkshire.

The curious, many-gabled mansion Ufton Court both from its secluded situation and quaint internal construction, appears to have been peculiarly suitable for the secretion of persecuted priests. Here are ample means for concealment and escape into the surrounding woods; and so carefully have the ingenious bolts and locks of the various hiding-places been preserved, that one would almost imagine that there was still actual necessity for their use in these matter-of-fact days!

A remarkable place for concealment exists in one of the gables close to the ceiling. It is triangular in shape, and is opened by a spring-bolt that can be unlatched by pulling a string which runs through a tiny hole pierced in the framework of the door of the adjoining room. The door of the hiding-place swings upon a pivot, and externally is thickly covered with plaster, so as to resemble the rest of the wall, and is so solid that when sounded there is no hollow sound from the cavity behind, where, no doubt the crucifix and sacred vessels were secreted.

Not far off, in an upper garret, is a hiding-place in the thickness of the wall, large enough to contain a man standing upright. Like the other, the door, or entrance, forms part of the plaster wall, intersected by thick oak beams, into which it exactly fits, disguising any appearance of an opening. Again, in one of the passages of this curious old mansion are further evidences of the hardships to which Romish priests were subjected—a trap in the floor, which can only be opened by pulling up what exteriorly appears to be the head of one of the nails of the flooring; by raising this a spring is released and a trap-door opened, revealing a large hole with a narrow ladder leading down into it. When this hiding-place was discovered in 1830, its contents were significant—viz. a crucifix and two ancient petronels. Apartments known as "the chapel" and "the priest's vestry" are still pointed out. The walls throughout the house appear to be intersected with passages and masked spaces, and old residents claim to have worked their way by these means right through from the garrets to the basement, though now the several hiding-places do not communicate one with another. There are said to be no less than twelve places of concealment in various parts of the building. A shaft in the cellar is supposed to be one of the means of exit from "the dining-room," and at the back of the house a subterranean passage may still be traced a considerable distance under the terrace.

An interesting discovery was made some years ago at Ingatestone Hall, Essex, the ancient seat of the Petres. The late Rev. Canon Last, who had resided there as private chaplain for over sixty years, described to us the incidents of this curious "find," to which he was an eye-witness. Some of the floor-boards in the south-east corner of a small ante-room adjoining what was once "the host's bedroom," facing the south front, broke away, rotten with age, while some children were playing there. These being removed, a second layer of boards was brought to light within a foot of the old flooring, and in this a trap-door was found which, when opened, discovered a large "priest's hole," measuring fourteen feet long, ten feet high, and two feet wide. A twelve-step ladder led down into it, and the floor being on a level with the basement of the house was covered with a layer of dry sand to the depth of nearly a foot, so as to absorb any moisture from the ground.[1] In the sand a few bones of a bird were found, possibly the remains of food supplied to some unfortunate priest. Those who climb down into this hole will find much that is interesting to repay them their trouble. From the wall projects a candle-holder, rudely modelled out of clay. An examination of the brick-work in the interior of the "priest's hole" proves it to be of later construction than the rest of the house (which dates from the early part of the sixteenth century), so in all likelihood "Little John" was the manufacturer.

[Footnote 1: At Moorcroft House, near Hillingdon, Middlesex, now modernised and occupied as a private lunatic asylum, ten priests were once concealed for four days in a hiding-place, the floor of which was covered some inches in water. This was one of the many comforts of a "priest's hole"!]

Standing in the same position as when first opened, and supported by two blocks of oak, is an old chest or packing-case made of yew, covered with leather, and bound with bands of iron, wherein formerly the vestments, utensils, etc., for the Mass were kept. Upon it, in faded and antiquated writing, was the following direction: "For the Right Hon. the Lady Petre at Ingatestone Hall, in Essex." The Petres had quitted the old mansion as a residence for considerably over a century when the discovery was made.



Of all the ancient mansions in the United Kingdom, and there is still, happily, a large selection, none perhaps is so picturesque and quaintly original in its architecture as the secluded Warwickshire house Compton Winyates. The general impression of its vast complication of gable ends and twisted chimneys is that some enchanted palace has found its way out of one of the fairy-tale books of our early youth and concealed itself deep down in a sequestered hollow among the woods and hills. We say concealed itself, for indeed it is no easy matter to find it, for anything in the shape of a road seems rather to lead away from, than to it; indeed, there is no direct road from anywhere, and if we are fortunate enough to alight upon a footpath, that also in a very short time fades away into oblivion! So solitary also is the valley in which the mansion lies and so shut in with thick clustering trees, that one unacquainted with the locality might pass within fifty yards of it over and over again without observing a trace of it. When, however, we do discover the beautiful old structure, we are well repaid for what trouble we may have encountered. To locate the spot within a couple of miles, we may state that Brailes is its nearest village; the nearest town is Banbury, some nine miles away to the east.

Perhaps if we were to analyse the peculiar charm this venerable pile conveys, we should find that it is the wonderful colour, the harmonies of greys and greens and reds which pervade its countless chimney clusters and curious step-gables. We will be content, however, with the fascinating results, no matter how accomplished, without inquiring into the why and wherefore; and pondering over the possibilities of the marvellous in such a building see, if the interior can carry out such a supposition.

Wending our way to the top of the house, past countless old-world rooms and corridors, we soon discover evidences of the days of priest-hunting. A "Protestant" chapel is on the ground floor (with a grotesquely carved screen of great beauty), but up in the roof we discover another—a "Popish" chapel. From this there are numerous ways of escape, by staircases and passages leading in all directions, for even in the almost impenetrable seclusion of this house the profoundest secrecy was necessary for those who wished to celebrate the rites of the forbidden religion. Should the priest be surprised and not have time to descend one of the many staircases and effect his escape by the ready means in the lower part of the house, there are secret closets between the timber beams of the roof and the wainscot into which he could creep.

Curious rooms run along each side in the roof round the quadrangle, called "the barracks," into which it would be possible to pack away a whole regiment of soldiers. Not far away are "the false floors," a typical Amy Robsart death-trap!

A place of security here, once upon a time, could only be reached by a ladder; later, however, it was made easier of access by a dark passage, but it was as secure as ever from intrusion. The fugitive had the ready means of isolating himself by removing a large portion of the floor-boards; supposing, therefore, his lurking-place had been traced, he had only to arrange this deadly gap, and his pursuers would run headlong to their fate.

Many other strange rooms there are, not the least interesting of which is a tiny apartment away from everywhere called "the Devil's chamber," and another little chamber whose window is invariably found open in the morning, though securely fastened on the previous night!

Various finds have been made from time to time at Compton Winyates. Not many years ago a bricked-up space was found in a wall containing a perfect skeleton!—at another an antique box full of papers belonging to the past history of the family (the Comptons) was discovered in a secret cavity beneath one of the windows.

The "false floors" to which we have alluded suggests a hiding-place that was put to very practical use by two old maiden ladies some years ago at an ancient building near Malvern, Pickersleigh Court. Each night before retiring to rest some floor-boards of a passage, originally the entrance to a "priest's hole," were removed. This passage led to their bedroom, so that they were protected much in the same way as the fugitive at Compton Winyates, by a yawning gap. Local tradition does not record how many would-be burglars were trapped in this way, but it is certain that should anyone ever have ventured along that passage, they would have been precipitated with more speed than ceremony into a cellar below. Pickersleigh, it may be pointed out, is erroneously shown in connection with the wanderings of Charles II. after the battle Worcester.[1]

[Footnote 1: See The Flight of the King.]

Salford Prior Hall (otherwise known as "the Nunnery," or Abbots Salford), not far from Evesham, is another mansion remarkable for its picturesqueness as well as for its capacity for hiding. It not only has its Roman Catholic chapel, but a resident priest holds services there to this day. Up in the garret is the "priest's hole," ready, it would seem, for some present emergency, so well is it concealed and in such perfect working order; and even when its position is pointed out, nothing is to be seen but the most innocent-looking of cupboards. By removing a hidden peg, however, the whole back of it, shelves and all, swings backwards into a dismal recess some four feet in depth. This deceitful swing door may be secured on the inside by a stout wooden bolt provided for that purpose.

Another hiding place as artfully contrived and as little changed since the day it was manufactured is one at Sawston, the ancestral seat of the old family of Huddleston. Sawston Hall is a typical Elizabethan building. The one which preceded it was burnt to the ground by the adherents of Lady Jane Grey, as the Huddleston of that day, upon the death of King Edward VI., received his sister Mary under his protection, and contrived her escape to Framlingham Castle, where she was carried in disguise, riding pillion behind a servant.

The secret chamber, as at Harvington, is on the top landing of the staircase, and the entrance is so cleverly arranged that it slants into the masonry of a circular tower without showing the least perceptible sign from the exterior of a space capable of holding a baby, far less a man. A particular board in the landing is raised, and beneath it, in a corner of the cavity, is found a stone slab containing a circular aperture, something after the manner of our modern urban receptacles for coal. From this hole a tunnel slants downwards at an angle into the adjacent wall, where there is an apartment some twelve feet in depth, and wide enough to contain half a dozen people—that is to say, not bulky ones, for the circular entrance is far from large. Blocks of oak fixed upon the inside of the movable floor-board fit with great nicety into their firm oak sockets in the beams, which run at right angles and support the landing, so that the opening is so massive and firm that, unless pointed out, the particular floor-board could never be detected, and when secured from the inside would defy a battering-ram.

The Huddlestons, or rather their connections the Thornboroughs, have an old house at Leyburn, in Yorkshire, named "The Grove," which also contained its hiding-place, but unfortunately this is one of those instances where alterations and modern conveniences have destroyed what can never be replaced. The priest, Father John Huddleston (who aided King Charles II. to escape, and who, it will be remembered, was introduced to that monarch's death-bed by way of a secret staircase in the palace of Whitehall), lived in this house some time during the seventeenth century.

One of the most ingenious hiding-places extant is to be seen at Oxburgh Hall, near Stoke Ferry, the grand old moated mansion of the ancient Bedingfield family. In solidity and compactness it is unique. Up in one of the turrets of the entrance gateway is a tiny closet, the floor of which is composed of brickwork fixed into a wooden frame. Upon pressure being applied to one side of this floor, the opposite side heaves up with a groan at its own weight. Beneath lies a hollow, seven feet square, where a priest might lie concealed with the gratifying knowledge that, however the ponderous trap-door be hammered from above, there would be no tell-tale hollowness as a response. Having bolted himself in, he might to all intents and purposes be imbedded in a rock (though truly a toad so situated is not always safe from intrusion). Three centuries have rolled away and thirteen sovereigns have reigned since the construction of this hiding-place, but the mechanism of this masterpiece of ingenuity remains as perfect as if it had been made yesterday! Those who may be privileged with permission to inspect the interesting hall will find other surprises where least expected. An oak-panelled passage upon the basement of the aforesaid entrance gateway contains a secret door that gives admittance into the living-rooms in the most eccentric manner.

A priest's hole beneath the floor of a small oratory adjoining "the chapel" (now a bedroom) at Borwick Hall, Lancashire, has an opening devised much in the same fashion as that at Oxburgh. By leaning his weight upon a certain portion of the boards, a fugitive could slide into a convenient gap, while the floor would adjust itself above his head and leave no trace of his where-abouts.

Window-seats not uncommonly formed the entrance to holes beneath the level of the floor. In the long gallery of Parham Hall, Sussex, an example of this may be seen. It is not far from "the chapel," and the officiating priest in this instance would withdraw a panel whose position is now occupied by a door; but the entrance to the hiding-place within the projecting bay of the window is much the same as it ever was. After the failure of the Babington conspiracy one Charles Paget was concealed here for some days.

The Tudor house of Tusmore, in Oxfordshire, also had a secret chamber, approached through a fixed settle in "the parlour" window. A tradition in the neighbourhood says that the great fish-pond near the site of the old house was dug by a priest and his servant in the days of religious persecution, constituting their daily occupation for twelve years!

Paxhill, in Sussex, the ancient seat of the Bordes, has a priest's hole behind a window-shutter, and it is large enough to hold several persons; there is another large hiding-hole in the ceiling of a room on the ground floor, which is reached through a trap-door in the floor above. It is provided with a stone bench.

In castles and even ecclesiastical buildings sections of massive stone columns have been found to rotate and reveal a hole in an adjacent wall—even an altar has occasionally been put to use for concealing purposes. At Naworth Castle, for instance, in "Lord William's Tower," there is an oratory behind the altar, in which fugitives not only could be hidden but could see anything that transpired in its vicinity. In Chichester Cathedral there is a room called Lollards' Prison, which is approached by a sliding panel in the old consistory-room situated over the south porch. The manor house of Great Chalfield, in Wiltshire, has a unique device by which any suspected person could be watched. The eye of a stone mask in the masonry is hollowed out and through this a suspicious lord of the manor could, unseen, be a witness to any treachery on the part of his retainers or guests.

The old moated hall Baddesley Clinton, in Warwickshire, the ancient seat of the Ferrers, has a stone well or shaft near "the chapel." There were formerly projections or steps by which a fugitive could reach a secret passage extending round nearly two sides of the house to a small water-gate by the moat, where a boat was kept in readiness. Adjoining the "banqueting-room" on the east side of the building is a secret chamber six feet square with a bench all round it. It is now walled up, but the narrow staircase, behind the wainscoting, leading up to it is unaltered.

Cleeve Prior Manor House, in Worcestershire (though close upon the border of Warwickshire)) famous for its unique yew avenue, has a priest's hole, a cramped space five feet by two, in which it is necessary to lie down. As at Ingatestone, it is below the floor of a small chamber adjoining the principal bedroom, and is entered by removing one of the floor-boards.

Wollas Hall, an Elizabethan mansion on Bredon Hill, near Pershore (held uninterruptedly by the Hanford family since the sixteenth century), has a chapel in the upper part of the house, and a secret chamber, or priest's hole, provided with a diminutive fire-place. When the officiating priest was about to celebrate Mass, it was the custom here to spread linen upon the hedges as a sign to those in the adjacent villages who wished to attend.

A hiding-place at Treago, Herefordshire (an unique specimen of a thirteenth-century fortified mansion) inhabited by the Mynor family for more than four hundred years), has quite luxurious accommodation—a sleeping-place and a reading-desk. It is called "Pope's Hole." The walls on the south-east side of the house are of immense thickness, and there are many indications of secret passages within them.

Some fifty years ago a hiding-hole was opened in a chimney adjoining "the chapel" of Lydiate Hall, Lancashire; and since then one was discovered behind the rafters of the roof. Another ancient house close by contained a priest's hole where were found some religious books and an old carved oak chair.

Myddleton Lodge, near Ilkley, had a secret chapel in the roof, which is now divided up into several apartments. In the grounds is to be seen a curious maze of thickly planted evergreens in the shape of a cross. From the fact that at one end remain three wooden crosses, there is but little doubt that at the time of religious persecution the privacy of the maze was used for secret worship.

When Slindon House, Sussex, was undergoing some restorations, a "priest's hole" communicating with the roof was discovered. It contained some ancient devotional books, and against the walls were hung stout leathern straps, by which a person could let himself down.

The internal arrangements at Plowden Hall, Shropshire, give one a good idea of the feeling of insecurity that must have been so prevalent in those "good old days." Running from the top of the house there is in the thickness of the wall, a concealed circular shoot about a couple of feet in diameter, through which a person could lower himself, if necessary, to the ground floor by the aid of a rope. Here also, beneath the floor-boards of a cupboard in one of the bedrooms, is a concealed chamber with a fixed shelf, presumably provided to act as a sort of table for the unfortunate individual who was forced to occupy the narrow limits of the room. Years before this hiding-place was opened to the light of day (in the course of some alterations to the house), its existence and actual position was well known; still, strange to say, the way into it had never been discovered.



When the Civil War was raging, many a defeated cavalier owed his preservation to the "priests' holes" and secret chambers of the old Roman Catholic houses all over the country. Did not Charles II. himself owe his life to the conveniences offered at Boscobel, Moseley, Trent, and Heale? We have elsewhere[1] gone minutely into the young king's hair-breadth adventures; but the story is so closely connected with the present subject that we must record something of his sojourn at these four old houses, as from an historical point of view they are of exceptional interest, if one but considers how the order of things would have been changed had either of these hiding-places been discovered at the time "his Sacred Majesty" occupied them. It is vain to speculate upon the probabilities; still, there is no ignoring the fact that had Charles been captured he would have shared the fate of his father.

[Footnote 1: See The Flight of the King.]

After the defeat of Wigan, the gallant Earl of Derby sought refuge at the isolated, wood-surrounded hunting-lodge of Boscobel, and after remaining there concealed for two days, proceeded to Gatacre Park, now rebuilt, but then and for long after famous for its secret chambers. Here he remained hidden prior to the disastrous battle of Worcester.

Upon the close of that eventful third of September, 1651, the Earl, at the time that the King and his advisers knew not which way to turn for safety, recounted his recent experiences, and called attention to the loyalty of the brothers Penderel. It was speedily resolved, therefore, to hasten northwards towards Brewood Forest, upon the borders of Staffordshire and Salop. "As soon as I was disguised," says Charles, "I took with me a country fellow whose name was Richard Penderell.... He was a Roman Catholic, and I chose to trust them [the Penderells] because I knew they had hiding-holes for priests that I thought I might make use of in case of need." Before taking up his quarters in the house, however, the idea of escaping into Wales occured to Charles, so, when night set in, he quitted Boscobel Wood, where he had been hidden all the day, and started on foot with his rustic guide in a westerly direction with the object of getting over the river Severn, but various hardships and obstacles induced Penderel to suggest a halt at a house at Madeley, near the river, where they might rest during the day and continue the journey under cover of darkness on the following night; the house further had the attraction of "priests' holes." "We continued our way on to the village upon the Severn," resumes the King, "where the fellow told me there was an honest gentleman, one Mr. Woolfe, that lived in that town, where I might be with great safety, for he had hiding-holes for priests.... So I came into the house a back way, where I found Mr. Woolfe, an old gentleman, who told me he was very sorry to see me there, because there was two companies of the militia foot at that time in arms in the town, and kept a guard at the ferry, to examine everybody that came that way in expectation of catching some that might be making their escape that way; and that he durst not put me into any of the hiding-holes of his house, because they had been discovered, and consequently, if any search should be made, they would certainly repair to these holes, and that therefore I had no other way of security but to go into his barn and there lie behind his corn and hay."

The Madeley "priest's hole" which was considered unsafe is still extant. It is in one of the attics of "the Upper House," but the entrance is now very palpable. Those who are curious enough to climb up into this black hole will discover a rude wooden bench within it—a luxury compared with some hiding-places!

The river Severn being strictly guarded everywhere, Charles and his companions retraced their steps the next night towards Boscobel.

After a day spent up in the branches of the famous Royal Oak, the fugitive monarch made his resting-place the secret chamber behind the wainscoting of what is called "the Squire's Bedroom." There is another hiding-place, however, hard by in a garret which may have been the one selected. The latter lies beneath the floor of this garret, or "Popish chapel," as it was once termed. At the top of a flight of steps leading to it is a small trap-door, and when this is removed a step-ladder may be seen leading down into the recess.[1] The other place behind the wainscot is situated in a chimney stack and is more roomy in its proportions. Here again is an inner hiding-place, entered through a trap-door in the floor, with a narrow staircase leading to an exit in the basement. So much for Boscobel.

[Footnote 1: The hiding-place in the garret measures about 5 feet 2 inches in depth by 3-1/2 or 4-1/2 feet in width.]

Moseley Hall is thus referred to by the King: "I... sent Penderell's brother to Mr. Pitchcroft's [Whitgreaves] to know whether my Lord Wilmot was there or no, and had word brought me by him at night that my lord was there, that there was a very secure hiding-hole in Mr. Pitchcroft's house, and that he desired me to come thither to him."

It was while at Moseley the King had a very narrow escape. A search-party arrived on the scene and demanded admittance. Charles's host himself gives the account of this adventure: "In the afternoon [the King] reposing himself on his bed in the parlour chamber and inclineing to sleep, as I was watching at the window, one of the neighbours I saw come running in, who told the maid soldiers were comeing to search, who thereupon presentlie came running to the staires head, and cried, 'Soldiers, soldiers are coming,' which his majestie hearing presentlie started out of his bedd and run to his privacie, where I secured him the best I could, and then leaving him, went forth into the street to meet the soldiers who were comeing to search, who as soon as they saw and knew who I was were readie to pull mee to pieces, and take me away with them, saying I was come from the Worcester fight; but after much dispute with them, and by the neighbours being informed of their false information that I was not there, being very ill a great while, they let mee goe; but till I saw them clearly all gone forth of the town I returned not; but as soon as they were, I returned to release him and did acquaint him with my stay, which hee thought long, and then hee began to bee very chearful again.

In the interim, whilst I was disputing with the soldiers, one of them called Southall came in the ffould and asked a smith, as hee was shooing horses there, if he could tell where the King was, and he should have "a thousand pounds for his payns...." This Southall was a great priest-catcher.

The hiding-place is located beneath the floor of a cupboard, adjoining the quaint old panelled bedroom the King occupied while he was at Moseley. Even "the merry monarch" must have felt depressed in such a dismal hole as this, and we can picture his anxious expression, as he sat upon the rude seat of brick which occupies one end of it, awaiting the result of the sudden alarm. The cupboard orginally was screened with wainscoting, a panel of which could be opened and closed by a spring. Family tradition also says there was a outlet from the hiding-place in a brew-house chimney. Situated in a gable end of the building, near the old chapel, in a garret, there is another "priest's hole" large enough only to admit of a person lying down full length.

Before the old seat of the Whitgreaves was restored some fifteen or twenty years ago it was one of the most picturesque half-timber houses, not only in Staffordshire, but in England. It had remained practically untouched since the day above alluded to (September 9th, 1651).

Before reaching Trent, in Somersetshire, the much sought-for king had many hardships to undergo and many strange experiences. We must, however, confine our remarks to those of the old buildings which offered him an asylum that could boast a hiding-place.

Trent House was one of these. The very fact that it originally belonged to the recusant Gerard family is sufficient evidence. From the Gerards it passed by marriage to the Wyndhams, who were in residence in the year we speak of. That his Majesty spent much of his time in the actual hiding-place at Trent is very doubtful. Altogether he was safely housed here for over a fortnight, and during that time doubtless occasional alarms drove him, as at Moseley, into his sanctuary; but a secluded room was set apart for his use, where he had ample space to move about, and from which he could reach his hiding-place at a moment's notice. The black oak panelling and beams of this cosy apartment, with its deep window recesses, readily carries the mind back to the time when its royal inmate wiled away the weary hours by cooking his meals and amusing himself as best he could—indeed a hardship for one, such as he, so fond of outdoor exercise.

Close to the fireplace are two small, square secret panels, at one time used for the secretion of sacred books or vessels, valuables or compromising deeds, but pointed out to visitors as a kind of buttery hatch through which Charles II. received his food. The King by day, also according to local tradition, is said to have kept up communication with his friends in the house by means of a string suspended in the kitchen chimney. That apartment is immediately beneath, and has a fireplace of huge dimensions. An old Tudor doorway leading into this part of the house is said to have been screened from observation by a load of hay.

Now for the hiding-place. Between this and "my Lady Wyndham's chamber" (the aforesaid panelled room that was kept exclusively for Charles's use) was a small ante-room, long since demolished, its position being now occupied by a rudely constructed staircase, from the landing of which the hiding-place is now entered. The small secret apartment is approached through a triangular hole in the wall, something after the fashion of that at Ufton Court; but when one has squeezed through this aperture he will find plenty of room to stretch his limbs. The hole, which was close up against the rafters of the roof of the staircase landing, when viewed from the inside of the apartment, is situated at the base of a blocked-up stone Tudor doorway. Beneath the boards of the floor—as at Boscobel and Moseley—is an inner hiding-place, from which it was formerly possible to find an exit through the brew-house chimney.

It was from Trent House that Charles visited the Dorsetshire coast in the hopes of getting clear of England; but a complication of misadventures induced him to hasten back with all speed to the pretty little village of Trent, to seek once, more shelter beneath the roof of the Royalist Colonel Wyndham.

To resume the King's account:—

"As soon as we came to Frank Windham's I sent away presently to Colonel Robert Philips [Phelips], who lived then at Salisbury, to see what he could do for the getting me a ship; which he undertook very willingly, and had got one at Southampton, but by misfortune she was amongst others prest to transport their soldiers to Jersey, by which she failed us also.

"Upon this, I sent further into Sussex, where Robin Philips knew one Colonel Gunter, to see whether he could hire a ship anywhere upon that coast. And not thinking it convenient for me to stay much longer at Frank Windham's (where I had been in all about a fortnight, and was become known to very many), I went directly away to a widow gentlewoman's house, one Mrs. Hyde, some four or five miles from Salisbury, where I came into the house just as it was almost dark, with Robin Philips only, not intending at first to make myself known. But just as I alighted at the door, Mrs. Hyde knew me, though she had never seen me but once in her life, and that was with the king, my father, in the army, when we marched by Salisbury some years before, in the time of the war; but she, being a discreet woman, took no notice at that time of me, I passing only for a friend of Robin Philips', by whose advice I went thither.

"At supper there was with us Frederick Hyde, since a judge, and his sister-in-law, a widow, Robin Philips, myself, and Dr. Henshaw [Henchman], since Bishop of London, whom I had appointed to meet me there.

"While we were at slipper, I observed Mrs. Hyde and her brother Frederick to look a little earnestly at me, which led me to believe they might know me. But I was not at all startled by it, it having been my purpose to let her know who I was; and, accordingly, after supper Mrs. Hyde came to me, and I discovered myself to her, who told me she had a very safe place to hide me in, till we knew whether our ship was ready or no. But she said it was not safe for her to trust anybody but herself and her sister, and therefore advised me to take my horse next morning and make as if I quitted the house, and return again about night; for she would order it so that all her servants and everybody should be out of the house but herself and her sister, whose name I remember not.

"So Robin Philips and I took our horses and went as far as Stonehenge; and there we staid looking upon the stones for some time, and returned back again to Hale [Heale] (the place where Mrs. Hyde lived) about the hour she appointed; where I went up into the hiding-hole, that was very convenient and safe, and staid there all alone (Robin Philips then going away to Salisbury) some four or five days."

Both exterior and interior of Heale House as it stands to-day point to a later date than 1651, though there are here and there vestiges of architecture anterior to the middle of the seventeenth century; the hiding-place, however, is not among these, and looks nothing beyond a very deep cupboard adjoining one of the bedrooms, with nothing peculiar to distinguish it from ordinary cupboards.

But for all its modern innovations there is something about Heale which suggests a house with a history. Whether it is its environment of winding river and ancient cedar-trees, its venerable stables and imposing entrance gate, or the fact that it is one of those distinguished houses that have saved the life of an English king, we will not undertake to fathom.



An old mansion in the precincts of the cathedral at Salisbury is said to have been a favourite hiding-place for fugitive cavaliers at the time of the Civil War. There is an inn immediately opposite this house, just outside the close, where the landlord (formerly a servant to the family who lived in the mansion) during the troublous times acted as a secret agent for those who were concealed, and proved invaluable by conveying messages and in other ways aiding those Royalists whose lives were in danger.

There are still certain "priests' holes" in the house, but the most interesting hiding-place is situated in the most innocent-looking of summer-houses in the grounds. The interior of this little structure is wainscoted round with large panels like most of the summer-houses, pavilions, or music-rooms of the seventeenth century, and nothing uncommon or mysterious was discovered until some twenty-five years ago. By the merest accident one of the panels was found to open, revealing what appeared to be an ordinary cupboard with shelves. Further investigations, however, proved its real object. By sliding one of the shelves out of the grooves into which it is fixed, a very narrow, disguised door, a little over a foot in width, in the side of the cupboard and in the thickness of the wall can be opened. This again reveals a narrow passage, or staircase, leading up to the joists above the ceiling, and thence to a recess situated immediately behind the carved ornamental facing over the entrance door of the summer-house. In this there is a narrow chink or peep-hole, from which the fugitive could keep on the look-out either for danger or for the friendly Royalist agent of the "King's Arms."

When it was first discovered there were evidences of its last occupant—viz. a Jacobean horn tumbler, a mattress, and a handsomely worked velvet pillow; the last two articles, provided no doubt for the comfort of some hunted cavalier, upon being handled, fell to pieces. It may be mentioned that the inner door of the cupboard can be securely fastened from the inside by an iron hook and staple for that purpose.

Hewitt, mine host of the "King's Arms," was not idle at the time transactions were in progress to transfer Charles II. from Trent to Heale, and received within his house Lord Wilmot, Colonel Phelips, and other of the King's friends who were actively engaged in making preparations for the memorable journey. This old inn, with its oak-panelled rooms and rambling corridors, makes a very suitable neighbour to the more dignified old brick mansion opposite, with which it is so closely associated.

Many are the exciting stories related of the defeated Royalists, especially after the Worcester fight. One of them, Lord Talbot, hastened to his paternal home of Longford, near Newport (Salop), and had just time to conceal himself ere his pursuers arrived, who, finding his horse saddled, concluded that the rider could not be far off. They therefore searched the house minutely for four or five days, and the fugitive would have perished for want of food, had not one of the servants contrived, at great personal risk, to pay him nocturnal visits and supply him with nourishment.

The grey old Jacobean mansion Chastleton preserves in its oak-panelled hall the sword and portrait of the gallant cavalier Captain Arthur Jones, who, narrowly escaping from the battlefield, speeded homewards with some of Cromwell's soldiers at his heels; and his wife, a lady of great courage, had scarcely concealed him in the secret chamber when the enemy arrived to search the house.

Little daunted, the lady, with great presence of mind, made no objection whatever—indeed, facilitated their operations by personally conducting them over the mansion. Here, as in so many other instances, the secret room was entered from the principal bedroom, and in inspecting the latter the suspicion of the Roundheads was in some way or another aroused, so here they determined to remain for the rest of the night.

An ample supper and a good store of wine (which, by the way, had been carefully drugged) was sent up to the unwelcome visitors, and in due course the drink effected its purpose—its victims dropped off one by one, until the whole party lay like logs upon the floor. Mrs. Arthur Jones then crept in, having even to step over the bodies of the inanimate Roundheads, released her husband, and a fresh horse being in readiness, by the time the effects of the wine had worn off the Royalist captain was far beyond their reach.

The secret room is located in the front of the building, and has now been converted into a very, comfortable little dressing-room, preserving its original oak panelling, and otherwise but little altered, with the exception of the entry to it, which is now an ordinary door.

Chastleton is the beau ideal of an ancestral hall. The grand old gabled house, with its lofty square towers, its Jacobean entrance gateway and dovecote, and the fantastically clipped box-trees and sun-dial of its quaint old-fashioned garden, possesses a charm which few other ancient mansions can boast, and this charm lies in its perfectly unaltered state throughout, even to the minutest detail. Interior and exterior alike, everything presents an appearance exactly as it did when it was erected and furnished by Walter Jones, Esquire, between the years 1603 and 1630. The estate originally was held by Robert Catesby, who sold the house to provide funds for carrying on the notorious conspiracy.

Among its most valued relics is a Bible given by Charles I. when on the scaffold to Bishop Juxon, who lived at Little Compton manor house, near Chastleton. This Bible was always used by the bishop at the Divine services, which at one time were held in the great hall of the latter house. Other relics of the martyr-king used to be at Little Compton—viz. some beams of the Whitehall scaffold, whose exact position has occasioned so much controversy. The velvet armchair and footstool used by the King during his memorable trial were also preserved here, but of late years have found a home at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, some six miles away. Visitors to that interesting collection shown in London some years ago—the Stuart Exhibition—may remember this venerable armchair of such sad association.

It may be here stated that after Charles I.'s execution, Juxon lived for a time in Sussex at an old mansion still extant, Albourne Place, not far from Hurstpierpoint. We mention this from the fact that a priest's hole was discovered there some few years ago. It was found in opening a communication between two rooms, and originally it could only be reached by steps projecting from the inner walls of a chimney.

Not many miles from Albourne stands Street Place, an Elizabethan Sussex house of some note. A remarkable story of cavalier-hunting is told here. A hiding-place is said to have existed in the wide open fireplace of the great hall. Tradition has it that a horseman, hard pressed by the Parliamentary troopers, galloped into this hall, but upon the arrival of his pursuers, no clue could be found of either man or horse!

The gallant Prince Rupert himself, upon one occasion, is said to have had recourse to a hiding hole, at least so the story runs, at the beautiful old black-and-white timber mansion, Park Hall, near Oswestry. A certain "false floor" which led to it is pointed out in a cupboard of a bedroom, the hiding-place itself being situated immediately above the dining-room fireplace.

A concealed chamber something after the same description is to be seen at the old seat of the Fenwicks, Wallington, in Northumberland—a small room eight feet long by sixteen feet high, situated at the back of the dining-room fireplace, and approached through the back of a cupboard.

Behind one of the large panels of "the hall" of an old building in Warwick called St. John's Hospital is a hiding-place, and in a bedroom of the same house there is a little apartment, now converted into a dressing-room, which formerly could only be reached through a sliding panel over the fireplace.

The manor house of Dinsdale-on-Tees, Durham, has another example, but to reach it it is necessary to pass through a trap-door in the attics, crawl along under the roof, and drop down into the, space in the wall behind a bedroom fireplace, where for extra security there is a second trap-door.

Full-length panel portraits of the Salwey family at Stanford Court, Worcestershire (unfortunately burned down in 1882), concealed hidden recesses and screened passages leading up to an exit in the leads of the roof. In one of these recesses curious seventeenth-century manuscripts were found, among them, the household book of a certain "Joyce Jeffereys" during the Civil War.

The old Jacobean mansion Broughton Hall, Staffordshire, had a curious hiding-hole over a fireplace and situated in the wall between the dining-room and the great hall; over its entrance used to hang a portrait of a man in antique costume which went by the name of "Red Stockings."

At Lyme Hall, Cheshire, the ancient seat of the Leghs, high up in the wall of the hall is a sombre portrait which by ingenious mechanism swings out of its frame, a fixture, and gives admittance to a room on the first floor, or rather affords a means of looking down into the hall.[1] We mention this portrait more especially because it has been supposed that Scott got his idea here of the ghostly picture which figures in Woodstock. A bona-fide hiding-place, however, is to be seen in another part of the mansion in a very haunted-looking bedroom called "the Knight's Chamber," entered through a trap-door in the floor of a cupboard, with a short flight of steps leading into it.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse