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Priest Hole

In the servants’ quarters on the upper floor of Agecroft Hall, there lies a secret space. What appears to be a solid, built in, shelf actually has a false back which, when pushed, reveals a concealed space—our replica priest hole. Priest holes, spaces constructed specifically for hiding Catholic priests, have been found in many manor houses in England and most were constructed during the Elizabethan era, 1558-1603.

Why did Catholic priests need these very claustrophobic hiding spaces? During the reign of Elizabeth I practicing Catholicism was outlawed, and those who did faced harsh fines and tortuous punishments, sometimes leading to their deaths. Many Catholics refused to align their religious beliefs with those of the monarch, choosing instead to practice Catholicism in private while outwardly showing their allegiance to the Queen. The English persecution of Catholics has its roots in the divorce of Henry VIII from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Having failed to convince the Pope that the marriage should be annulled, Henry felt his only solution was to split with the Catholic church and declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Protestantism became the state accepted religion of England, and the resulting intertwining of religious and political allegiance to the English king made the practice of the Catholic faith a threat to the monarchy because of Catholics’ loyalty to the Pope.

In 1559, the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity required all individuals to attend Church of England services weekly and on holy days or face extreme fines. The oath all English citizens had to take recognized that the divine power was bestowed in the crown—not the Pope—creating an understandable dissonance for Catholics.

Lay people who did not attend church were generally punished with fines which were especially difficult for the poor as the fines were very high. In public, known Catholics were often harassed or threatened. Penalties were even harsher for priests. Priests caught performing Catholic mass were imprisoned, tortured, and, oftentimes, killed. In 1577, Cuthbert Mayne (1544-1577), a Catholic priest, was, while still alive, hacked to pieces for wearing an Agnus Dei, a symbol of the Lamb of God, pendant necklace. Some priests had their hearts cut out and their bodies emasculated, others were hanged, and others drawn and quartered. Hiding a priest became very important in order to help them avoid seizure, torture, or death.

What was a priest to do? Many staunchly Catholic families welcomed priests into their homes. They tried to disguise them as cousins from far away or as teachers brought in for their children. Priest holes were constructed to hide the priests should the family home be raided by pusuivants—priest hunters—and the hiding spaces were generally in fireplaces, gables, and staircases. Many were designed and built by Nicholas Owens from 1550-1605. (Is he the most famous architect of these priest holes? If so, we should probably credit him as such.) Owens was martyred in 1606 for his participation in helping the Catholic priests. Unfortunately, some priests occasionally remained in these cramped hiding spaces for long periods of time, with little food or water, and limited oxygen, and ended up dying anyway.

The oppression of Catholics through social and legal sanctions forced many Catholics into Protestantism. Others chose to lead dual lives—one religion in public, another in private as e evidenced by the priest holes built during the Elizabethan era. They are a poignant reminder of the lack of religious freedom in Tudor England. It is unknown if Agecroft Hall had a priest hole when it stood in England. It is entirely possible, as many residents of Lancashire, where the house was originally located, continued to practice Catholicism long after it was outlawed by the Crown. By constructing a replica priest hole concealed in a wall of what was once a bathroom, Agecroft Hall strives to bring stories of 17th century England to life in 21st century Virginia.

(If you are interested in learning more about priest holes, please head over to Harvington Hall a historic manor house in Worcestershire, England that has seven original priest holes!)





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