God’s Secret Agents

23 08 2013

God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot (Harper Collins, 2005)

My copy with the original cover – there are at least three different versions out there.

This is one of the books that I return to. It is a highly readable and well-researched account of the story of the forbidden Catholic priests in England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the early years of James I, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with its grim aftermath during which Garnet was executed and the Jesuit lay-brother Nicholas Owen was tortured to death in the Tower of London. I return to it now because I have just had the pleasure of meeting the author, Alice Hogge, at the Second Spring Summer School in Oxford (The Tempest of the Times: the Dilemma of Catholic England from the Reformation to the Modern Age). She gave a presentation broadly on the same subject as her book but with special reference to Oxford which had a strong association with Catholicism. To my surprise I discovered that she had studied Art History and Architecture and it was not one of the priests who had first caught her interest but Nicholas Owen the master hide-builder. It was his matchless ability to trick the eye, rather like a renaissance artist but in the three dimensions of a house, that first fascinated her. But this man’s extraordinary craftsmanship was matched by an astonishing courage. He knew the secrets of Catholic houses up and down the land but refused to divulge them under torture that continued until his body was literally broken after his capture in 1606.
Alice Hogge (on right) at the Second Spring Summer School with Leonie Caldicott

Alice Hogge writes,

Owen’s genius was to exploit the main structure of a house, burrowing deep into the masonry of its interior, lodging his hide within the very framework of the building, within what to the practised eye of the pursuivants, could only be solid wall or ceiling. His hides are three-dimensional puzzles of Max Escher-like complexity. And, for maximum safety, every one of them was different. John Gerard summed up Owen’s career: ‘he was so skilful both to devise and frame the [hides] in the best manner, and his help therein desired in so many places, that I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those that laboured in the English vineyard’.
It was impossible for Owen to build every hide for every priest stationed across England by the Jesuits. It seems he concentrated on those hides used by the Jesuits, themselves, and on those hides destined for ‘the chiefest Catholic houses’, while elsewhere acting as an advisor.

On the subject of Owen’s capture and death, Hogge quotes the sources. First the ‘rumoured’ response of Robert Cecil: ‘No dealing now with lenient hand. We will try to get from him by coaxing, if he is willing to contract for his life, an excellent booty of priests. If he will not confess he will be pressed by exquisite torture, and we will wring the secret from him by the severity of his torments.’ The priest Tesimond wrote: ‘the result of this brutal, indeed bestial torture was that, in the course of it, Owen’s belly burst open, his bowels gushed out and in a short while he died.’ On 1 March 1606 a gentleman visiting the Tower left with the news that Owen had been tortured to death. However, according to the official account later put out, Nicholas Owen had taken his own life by cutting himself open with a knife when the gaoler’s back was turned – on 2 March. The gentleman visitor who asserted otherwise was hauled before the Star Chamber charged with treasonable speech. According to Gerard, the interrogators, ‘girded his belly with a plate of iron to keep in his bowels, but in the extremity of pain (which is most, in that kind of torment, about the breast and belly) did force out his guts, and so the iron did serve but to cut and wound his body, which, perhaps, did afterwards put them in mind to give it out that he had ripped his belly with a knife.’

One can’t help but be struck by the gruesome details of their deaths, and it is all very quotable, but of course, it was in the quiet, hidden lives of people like Nicholas Owen and Anne Line that their work was done.

Reactions to Tragic Muse

10 08 2013


(Responses by readers of the manuscript and pre-release review copies)

‘This is going to be huge – can’t not be’

‘I have to have this book’

‘I’ll buy one’

‘Can I order two please? One for me and one for my friend who is a vicar’

‘I read it with shouts of ‘Yesss’ and ticks and underlines.  A lot of it really made me think, and though initially I was sceptical … I was convinced by the end.  Some real rabbits out of hats on the way … A great work, most exciting read.’

‘Not just a patient archaeologist, Dodwell is also a bold pioneer, advancing a theory which might just cast the sharpest of all lights on a character whose importance to her time would otherwise be lost.’

‘compelling and entertaining … a good deal of elegant writing … a lively tempo and a wealth of intriguing detail … compelling textual analysis.’

‘The writing strikes me as often elegant, at times witty, with colloquial idioms mingling to good effect with academic rigour.’

‘Haven’t they done a nice job’ (of the production)

‘excellent book on Anne Line’

‘really splendid’

[After the general release]

[From a Scottish relative of the author] What I am really wanting to tell you is that my local bookseller was able to obtain for me, in two days Martin’s Book! I have read only the first few pages so far but already I have learned the meaning of the word “recusant” and also “limbeck”, which I had to look up after I had recovered from the phrase “whatever mysterious idea distilled itself in the opium-fuelled limbeck of Coleridge’s brain.” That must be worthy of the Oxford Book of Quotations. [Thank-you, but credit must go to Lady Macbeth!]

Research Summary

9 08 2013


The key findings presented in my May 2013 article “Revisiting Anne Line” (Recusant History, Vol.31, No.3, 375-389.) are as follows:

1. ‘Anne Line’s father is more accurately described as ‘William Higham of Jenkyn Maldon’ than ‘of Dunmow’, as Jenkyn Maldon was his principal inheritance and the place where it is most likely that Anne Line was brought up.’ (386)

2. ‘Anne Line was the elder daughter of William Higham and officially her name was Alice, as this is the name that consistently appears on legal documents. Notwithstanding this, she was known as Anne by her Catholic friends and associates.’ (386)

3. ‘Anne and Roger Line were connected through Roger Line’s aunt to a wide network of Catholic Guldefords, Fitzwilliams, Shelleys, Gages, and others, including the household of the Earl of Worcester.’ (386)

4. ‘Anne Line was closely related to Giles Aleyn of Hazeleigh, the Puritan landowner who engaged in a dispute over Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch that was a very important venue for Shakespeare.’ (386)

The manor house of Jenkyn Maldon (also called Maldon Jenkyns) was just south of Maldon in the parish of Hazeleigh though it does not appear on modern maps or in Anne Line biography up to this point. On google maps it is at Jenkyn Maldon (now Bury Farm). You can see the Woodham Mortimer Brook running alongside the site and east towards the marshes. This house was almost certainly where Anne Line was born and brought up. Presumably she was baptized in the Hazeleigh parish church of St Nicholas sometime in the late 1550s or early 1560s though there is no record of this because the baptism register only goes back to 1590.

Anne Line’s father inherited both the Jenkyn Maldons manor house and the associated estate of perhaps 100 acres of land when he was nineteen years old. There are two manor houses in the parish of Hazeleigh marked on an eighteenth century map that date from at least two hundred years earlier: one is Jenkyn Maldons and the other is the manor of Hazeleigh Hall that was owned by Giles Aleyn, a man described as ‘Lord and patron of this parish’ on his death in 1608. The two manor houses have a footpath running the approximately one mile distance between them and it is not greatly surprising that the eligible young William Higham, Anne Line’s father, would marry a relative of Giles Aleyn. This was Agnes Aleyn, the mother of Anne Line, who was, as far as I can establish, Giles Aleyn’s first cousin. The connection to Giles Aleyn is potentially very significant as it gives us a link to Shoreditch and Burbage’s Theatre, and a means by which William Shakespeare could have become aware of Anne Line’s story. I intend to do a separate post on Shoreditch.

It has long been assumed that Anne Line came from Dunmow because her father is associated with Dunmow later on, and it is possible that William Higham concurrently owned both the Jenkyn Maldons estate and a house in Dunmow, however, I consider it much more likely that Higham purchased a house in Dunmow with the proceeds of selling the Jenkyn Maldons estate and moved there later in life, perhaps to be in the healthier air away from the marshes, or maybe he was just fed up with Maldon – Who knows? But the Jenkyn Maldons estate had passed into other hands by the mid 1590s and there is no record of Higham’s connection to Dunmow earlier than the 1612 visitation of Essex.

& Shakespeare

The points above summarise findings of my biographical research but not the implications for understanding Shakespeare texts. The most significant new material of this kind (see Tragic Muse) relates to a fairly dramatic new interpretation of Cymbeline, a play that has often puzzled critics. If I am right, this play is constructed on an inner core of subtext that is directed at a coterie audience that knew about Anne Line. Even as I write this I can imagine readers inwardly groaning as they conclude that this is yet another wild fantasy about Shakespeare that is about as likely as Elvis Presley being discovered living happily on the moon. I honestly have no idea how to get beyond this perception other than to patiently present the evidence. Why has no-one seen it before? For two reasons that arise from two long-forgotten facts; firstly, that Anne Line came from Maldon (or just outside), and secondly, that in Shakespeare’s day it was believed that the ancient British King Cymbeline had his court at Maldon. Shakespeare used that “co-incidence” to smuggle a portrait of Anne Line past the censor.

There are very specific details in the text that support this argument. Indeed, I have identified at least three occasions where editors have ‘corrected’ the original First Folio text because they assume there has been a typo, but where the original makes complete sense in the light of the subtext. I believe I have also explained something that has been long suspected by certain critics, and that is the link between Shakespeare’s cryptic poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, and his enigmatic play, Cymbeline.


5 08 2013


I finally made it to Braddocks (not far from Thaxted). This is the manor house once owned by the Wisemans that was home to the Jesuit John Gerard in the early 1590s. The priest-hole, in which he remained undetected for three days while searchers battered paneling and plaster off the walls of rooms around him, is still there, although the false hearth that covered the entrance is now a reproduction. When Anne Line was bereft and facing destitution after her husband died (c. early 1594) John Gerard, ‘introduced her to the house where I was staying, and the family gave her board and lodging while I provided her with whatever else she needed (Autobiography, 83f)’. This certainly implies that she lived at Braddocks for some time before she began to look after the Jesuit safe-house in London, but the Wiseman family had another manor house at Northend where she may well have lived with the widowed Jane Wiseman. This is just south of Little Dunmow, and Anne Line’s presence there might account, at least in part, for the tradition that associates her with that part of Essex. The Black Chapel, a ‘peculiar’ controlled by the Wiseman family, is also in the hamlet of Northend and has living space attached.
Entrance to the hide
The hide with steps down to the lower part

I visited Braddocks as part of the group tour on the final day of the Catholic Record Society annual conference, held this year at Downing College Cambridge less than an hour’s drive away. Our guide was the peerless Michael Hodgetts, author of Secret Hiding Places, the go-to book on priest-holes, and contributor (of Intro and notes) to the 2006 edition of Gerard’s The Autobiography of an Elizabethan. The house is now in private hands and not normally open to visitors, but the current owners could not have been more welcoming to our party and seemed delighted with a group that made its way around their home like pilgrims at a shrine, which in a way we were. The priest-hole is accessed through an attic bedroom.

The manor with its outhouses is somewhat reminiscent of Lyford Grange, where Edmund Campion was captured. Braddocks is similarly isolated with flat land all around. Originally with a moat, only part of which survives, it would have been hard for searchers to approach without giving the occupants plenty of time to conceal incriminating evidence such as a priest and his paraphenalia.

Diagram of hide location high up behind the wall of the main chamber
The main chamber – the hide is directly ahead behind the upper part of the wall

Simon Johnson and Hannah Thomas walking through the walled garden