I was born, baptized, and raised Catholic. I knew the ins and outs of Catholicism. Bet me, I did. But we can ALWAYS learn something new about everything, I think. And today I learned of an interesting story. Intriguing really.
But we have to go way back to 16th century England. About that time, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne. Specifically, in 1558 if you really care.
Now… in this day, it was bad to be a Catholic in England. It became illegal to practice the Catholic faith on English soil. (Or any kind of the rituals. Period.)
In fact, it could land you in the brig for life, or death.
And… Catholic priests were in even more danger. It became high treason (which was punished by death) for a Catholic priest to EVEN enter England. AND…..if you got caught helping a priest… you were just as guilty. It got to be tough stuff.
So… the Catholics got sneaky. They would smuggle in priests, and mark houses as “safe” with little symbols, like wax discs bearing a cross and a lamb. Seems like a dead give-away to me, but nonetheless. They would hide those priests, or call them cousins, and such.
But the Crown got wise. So old Queeny-Girl enlisted “Priest Hunters.” I know, it sounds like a new show, on the Lifetime Network. But it is true.
These “Priest Hunters” were supposed to ferret out the treasonous clergy. The would go in with surprise inspections and raids of wealthy family homes. And guess what. If a priest was found, he would face torture and eventual execution.
So it got to be a game of cat and mouse. The Catholics came up with hidden “spaces” called Priest Holes. (I am SO NOT making this up.) The priest could hide during inspections in these small hideaways. They were often built under staircases or inside fireplaces or behind false walls. The Priest Hunters then got wind of this whole deal. They would go into places and start knocking down walls, and such. I’m telling you, it was pretty cut throat. Literally.
No telling how many were built. But one guy had a reputation of being the best. His name was Nicholas Owen, nicknamed “Little John” thanks to his height. He began designing and building hidden chambers around the 1580s.
For 20 years he turned hiding priests into an art. He was a master architect and builder. He was good.
The hunters came close to nabbing him several times. They always were duped. But then, he got arrested and tortured in 1594. But even when subjected to agony, Owen never gave up the location of another priest or the holes he built.
Little John kept working until 1606, when he gave himself up to distract from other priests hiding in the house. He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured to death, never giving an inch.
What’s the payoff? Well, some might argue a place in Catholic Heaven. But… in 1970… here on earth…. he was sainted by Pope Paul. And here is the coolio part. He is now known as the patron saint of illusionists.
I like to call him Saint Houdini. Presto Change-o. And there you have it. Now you see the priest, and now you don’t.
And I thought pulling the rabbit out of the hat was a nifty trick.