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Priest Holes of Harvington Hall

Harvington Hall is renowned for its secret priest holes that were once used to hide Catholic priests during a time in when it was illegal to practice the religion. If captured then torture and execution were likely. Priest holes had to be extraordinarily clever as discovery was not an option.

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Priest Holes of Harvington Hall
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Harvington Hall is an Elizabethan manor house built on a triangular island bordered by a moat on two sides and a lake to the north. It was originally constructed by a devote Catholic, Humphrey Pakington, during the 1580s on the site once occupied by an earlier medieval hall that is famous worldwide for its collection of secret rooms called priest holes. Located between the towns of Bromsgrove and Kidderminster in Worcestershire, it is now owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham.

Harvington Hall is renowned for its secret chambers that were once used to hide priests during a time in British history when it was ruled illegal to practice Catholicism. Both priests and worshippers who were discovered by the so-called ‘Pursuivants” (agents) of Queen Elizabeth I were likely to face confiscation of their lands, torture, imprisonment and even execution. Harvington Hall is recognised as having some of the best-surviving examples of these ‘priest holes’ in Britain. So well hidden were these secret rooms that no priest was ever discovered.

There are four main priest holes, all of which are located near the central staircase and are believed to have been created by Nicholas Owen (aka Little John), a Jesuit master builder who was active from 1588 and who was renowned for his skill in architectural concealment. It was Owen who was instrumental in creating a network of safe-houses for priests during the early 1590’s and for masterminding the escape of the Jesuit, Father John Gerard, from the Tower of London in 1597. Shortly after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, Owen was discovered leaving one of his priest holes in nearby Hindlip House and later tortured to death in the Tower of London during 1606. He withstood the torture and never revealed the locations of his secret chambers. Owen was canonised in 1970 and has become the Patron Saint of escapologists and illusionists. It’s also ironic to note that Hindlip Hall is now the head quarters of the West Mercia Police.

The Bread Oven (or Kitchen) Priest Hole

Harvington Hall Bread Oven Priest Hole
Harvington Hall Bread Oven Priest Hole View

Yes, it would seem that in this case the words bread oven are rather literal! Located over the kitchen’s bread oven in the chimney stack, this priest hole at Harvington Hall is one of the earliest, probably dating from the early 1590s. It is not known whether the oven pre-existed the hide or was installed later. However, what may be deduced is that another layer of earth was put inside the hide to act as an insulant, protecting any priest from the heat of the oven that would otherwise cause third-degree burns. Nonetheless, the hide is extremely cramped, measuring around 5 feet deep, 2 feet 7 inches wide, and 3 feet 9 inches high.  Priest hides where often places in areas where there were strong smells to distract hunting dogs that might be used by Pursuivants.  In keeping with this idea, the actual entrance is through a trapdoor in the Tudor toilet which is part of the room above.  This hide was no longer used by end of the 16th century.

The Tower Hall and Gate Hide

Harvington Hall Tower Hall Priest Hole

This hide was constructed in the corridor leading off the Grand Room and solar to the tower and is one of the original priest holes constructed before Nicholas Owen built the four that surround the Grand staircase.  Access to the hide is through a hidden floor panel and leads to a narrow room that is next a fireplace and the main gate on the ground floor.  a small crack can be seen on the outside wall in the gate tunnel that legend claims allowed the priest to extend a couple of fingers through the wall so that catholic passers-by could receive a blessing. Again the proximity near to a a fire place and eating area was chosen specifically to confuse tracker hounds.

The Library Priest Hole

Harvington Swing beam Priest Hole Closed
Harvington Swing beam Priest Hole

One priest hole that was only discovered 300 years after it was built was concealed behind a pivoted timber beam in the room that is known as Dr. Charles Dodd’s Library. (Real name Hugh Tootell). It was apparent found by two children who had been playing there in 1894. It still contained a small table for the use of the priests. Although the gap created by the swinging beam was narrow, the room inside was quite large by the standards of the day and the priest in hiding had enough room to stretch out on the floor.  IT is difficult to see into this hide from the library but can also be viewed from the adjacent staircase where a viewing window has been added to the wall. This priest hole is very likely to have also been created by Nicholas Owen.  Originally, the wall would have been concealed by panelling since it forms one of the three walls of the book cupboard.

The Fireplace Hide and Escape Route

Harvington Hall Fireplace Hide

A false fireplace in the Marble Room led into the attic and allowed a priest to rapidly leave his room even if all the entrances were guarded. Considerable attention was spent on the details including bricks that had been blackened by fire. From the attic the priest could listen to the search taking place in his room.  If it seemed as if they had confirmed that it had been in use he could go further into the attic or use another exit to escape to another part of the house such as the large attic hide.

The Large Attic Priest Hole (Printing Press Room)

Harvington Hall Great Loft Priest HoleLocated at the far end of the attic and behind a brick and timber façade is the second largest priest hide in Britain.  Access is through a narrow false panel halfway up the wall but first it is necessary to navigate the labyrinth of planks and boards that make up the floor of attic.  Everywhere there are roofing beams with hundreds of razor sharp nails, loose flooring and low support bars guaranteed to give you a might headache if you are not careful. The Attic Hide is rarely opened to the public because of safety concerns. It is believed that the room may have been used to house a printing press for reproducing catholic religious materials. Access to the attic is either via the Fireplace Hide or through a small locked door at the top of the Grand Staircase. At the opisite end of the attic is a small area high in the rafters that may have also been a priest hole but this has never been confirmed.

The Grand Staircase Priest Hole and Spy Chamber

Harvington Hall Staircase Priest HoleThe most sophisticated priest hole is located under the slats of the grand stairway right at the top and is a clever double-hide. Two of the steps are linked by a hinge that allows them to be lifted quite easily. The logic of using the stairs is very sensible as they would often have guards stationed on them during a search and would be quite noisy thus covering any noises the priest might make. This would make it a very safe place indeed. Even if the secret first compartment under the steps was discovered it would just reveal a small area containing some minor treasures. The real priest hole was concealed in a second compartment that could only be reached by a secret panel at the rear of the first chamber, if those doing the search weren’t distracted by the hidden valuables that is. Furthermore, there is apparently a small peephole through the wall that allowed the occupant of the priest hole to see into the Grand Chamber and hear what was being said.

The Chapel and Holy Sacraments Hide

Harvington Hall Chapel Hide Closed
Harvington Hall Chapel Hide Open

Right at the top of the house is a holy chapel.  There was nothing illegal in this at the time so long as it wasn’t dressed, decorated and prepared for use by a catholic priest.  The location and design of chapel meant that if it was being used the occupants could slip down the small stairs and out into the back garden.  From there they could cross a second bridge across the moat and head off into the fields and woods.  To ensure that the chapel looked as plain as possible a small hide was built under the floorboards where the cloak and vestments of the priest such as the amice, alb, cincture, stole, and  chasuble could be hidden along with the goblets and plate for holy communion. Floorboards in the corner of the Chapel can be raised revealing a hidden storage compartment where the utensils used for a catholic Mass could be concealed in the event of a raid on the house.

The Courtyard Arch and Passage

Officially there are seven priest holes or hides within Harvington Hall and although many people have looked no more have been found. However there is an area that would have worked well as a priest hide even though it has never officially been recognised as one. At the top of the grand staircase is a small door that is kept locked as this area is not accessible to the public.  It leads to a narrow corridor with only a wooden plank floor that runs over the inset arch of the main entrance.  There is nothing below the planks except the outside courtyard floor three stories down. This area would have been easy to hide with simple false panels and would have been near impossible to find with the measuring techniques used by house-searchers of the time due to the inset nature of the arch.

Harvington Hall Archway Passage

It is generally believed that the manor hall was once almost twice the size it is today and there would have certainly been additional hides or priest holes in that part of the building too.  Unfortunate, when this section was removed these priest holes where lost forever.