The Reformationof Henry VIII, Counter-reformation of Mary I and signing of the Act of Supremacy under Elizabeth I made for a particularly turbulent few decades in British history. With the re-establishment of a Protestant monarch on the throne in 1558, the great houses of Britain needed to find ways to hide Catholic priests from the frequent searches of their property. These often consisted of holes in the wall, hides under floorboards, and unassuming cupbaords. There are numerous examples of priest holes among Historic Houses member houses, and here are a few examples.
Hever Castle's Morning Room
In the corner of Hever Castle’s Morning Room is a brightly gilded cupboard which hides a dark chapter in Hever’s history. Now a golden cabinet displaying fine china, this space is traditionally believed to be a priest hole: a hiding place for priests which were built or adapted into many of the Catholic houses of England during the period when they were persecuted by law. One such family lived at Hever Castle – the Waldegrave family – and Sir Edward Waldegrave would be the third of Hever’s inhabitants to end his days in the fearsome Tower of London. This priest hole was likely used during the Waldegrave tenure of Hever when the family were persecuted by their beliefs under Queen Elizabeth I.
Combermere Abbey's Tudor Study
Combermere Abbey had a priest hole in the early Tudor wing, built in the 1540's when the Cotton family were gifted the Abbey and its lands. It was positioned in a vacuum between the first and ground floor.
It was removed during the restoration of that derelict wing in 2014 when the space below became a corridor between the hall and the dining room. The enrance in now a walk-in cupboard off the Salamanca Room leading also into the Tudor Study. Combermere Abbey saw some very active military action with battles in nearby Nantwich and around the Cheshire area and 1000 soldiers stationed in the park.
The late 16th and early 17th century was a very dangerous time to be a Catholic Priest, if captured they could face torture, imprisonment and even execution. Ushaw's 19th century relics casket contains relics from English Martyrs: Montford Scott (d.1591), William Anlaby (d.1597), Thomas Somers (d.1610), Ambrose Barlow OSB (d.1641) and John Lockwood (d.1642), who were all executed for their Catholic faith by hanging, drawing and quartering- a gruesome death. It is highly likely that during their time hiding from the law they spent time in some of the nations priest holes.
Traquair's Priest Hole
Chenies Manor House's Pink Bedroom
Their Pink Bedroom holds a secret which experts say is a priests hole, attributed to Nicholas Owen. The secret area is a puzzle as the Russells were Protestants, although the 2nd Earl’s daughter and son-in-a-law were Catholic, and may have had it constructed.
The Charterhouse's Monk Cells
Although the Charterhouse in London doesn't have any priest holes to speak of, they do have these fascinating monk's cells. There is one remaining cell entrance in the Norfolk Cloister. Originally there would have been cells along all four sides of the Carthusian monastery.