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