Weird Decor: What Are Priest Holes?

Weird Decor: What Are Priest Holes?

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Jennifer Hunter
Jan 16, 2015

Plenty of old buildings have unexpected quirks and compartments, but in Elizabethan England, a particular architectural trend arose with a very specific purpose. Want to know more about these oddities and the man who was a master of building them? We investigate the priest hole.

Priest holes are tiny, hidden compartments meant to provide Jesuit priests a place to hide during the many religious raids of the day.

When staunchly-Protestant Queen Elizabeth began her reign of England in 1558, she enacted a new set of laws to promote her faith, starting with prohibiting the practice of Catholicism. With her Catholic cousin — Mary, Queen of Scots — imprisoned, Elizabeth found herself the target of several assassination plots by Catholics who hoped to restore Mary to the throne. Elizabeth retaliated with a crack down on all Catholics, forcing them to swear an oath of supremacy or be treated as traitors. She also began ordering raids on the homes of Catholic priests who continued to not only practice their religion, but secretly travel the country to promote the Catholic faith. If caught, a practicing priest would be arrested, tortured and likely executed.

As priest holes grew more common, searchers began to look specifically for these little hiding places. Enter Nicolas Owen, a Jesuit — a devout sect within the Catholic church — with a knack for building especially un-findable priest holes. He put them in chimneys, behind walls, under floorboards and even in bathrooms. He would also connect these hiding places to a series of passages that could allow the priest to escape to safety. Since he guarded the details and locations of all of his priest holes so carefully, some even suspect that there are more of them yet to be discovered in these Tudor homes.

Since the days of Catholic persecution, many of these little spaces have found new uses as hiding places for other things like jewelry and other valuables. And these days, they're more likely to be used as a tourist attraction.

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