Saint of the Day – 22 March – St Nicholas Owen S.J. (1562-1606) The Priest-Hole Builder – Martyr – born in the 16th century in Oxford, England and was tortured to death on 2 March 1606 in London, England. Also known as • John Owen and • Little John. St Nicholas was a Jesuit lay brother who was the principal designer and builder of priest holes during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I of England. He was Canonised on 25 October 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
St Nicholas was born in Oxford, England, around 1562 into a devoutly Catholic family and grew up during the Penal Laws. His father, Walter Owen, was a carpenter and Nicholas was apprenticed as a joiner in February 1577 where he acquired skills that he was to use in building hiding places. Two of his older brothers became priests. St Nicholas served as St Edmund Campion’s (1540-1381) servant and was arrested for protesting Campion’s innocence. Upon his release, he entered the service of Henry Garnet S.J. around 1588 and for the next 18 years built hiding places for priests in the homes of Catholic families. He frequently travelled from one house to another, under the name of “Little John”, accepting only the necessities of life as payment before starting off for a new project. He also used the aliases “Little Michael”, “Andrewes”, and “Draper”. During the daytime he would work as a travelling carpenter to deflect suspicion.
Owen was only slightly taller than a dwarf and suffered from a hernia, as well as a crippled leg from a horse falling on him. Nevertheless, his work often involved breaking through thick stonework and to minimise the likelihood of betrayal he often worked at night and always alone. Sometimes he built an easily discovered outer hiding place which concealed an inner hiding place. The location of the secret room was known only to himself and the owner of the house. Examples of his work survive at Sawston Hall (Cambs),[Oxborough] [Norfolk] Huddington Court (Worcestershire) and Coughton Hall (Warwickshire). Harvington Hall in Worcestershire has seven “priest holes”. Due to the ingenuity of his craftsmanship, some may still be undiscovered. Below are 3 at Harvington Hall, the first 2 pics are the entrance and inside the hole. The third is another in the staircase.
For many years, St Nicholas worked in the service of the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet and was admitted into the Society of Jesus as a lay brother. He was arrested in 1594 and was tortured at the Poultry Compter but revealed nothing. He was released after a wealthy Catholic family paid a fine on his behalf, the jailers believing that he was merely the insignificant friend of some priests. He resumed his work and is believed to have masterminded the famous escape of Father John Gerard from the Tower of London in 1597.
Early in 1606, St Nicholas was arrested a final time at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire, giving himself up voluntarily in hope of distracting attention from his master Fr Garnet who was hiding nearby with another priest. Realising just whom they had caught and his value, Secretary of State Robert Cecil exulted: “It is incredible, how great was the joy caused by his arrest… knowing the great skill of Owen in constructing hiding places and the innumerable quantity of dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests all through England.”
After being committed to the Marshalsea, a prison on the southern bank of the Thames, St Nicholas was then removed to the Tower of London. He was submitted to terrible “examinations” on the Topcliffe rack, dangling from a wall with both wrists held fast in iron gauntlets and his body hanging. As his hernia allowed his intestines to bulge out during this procedure, the rackmaster strapped a circular plate of iron to his stomach. When he remained stubborn, it is believed that he was transferred to the rack, where the greater power of the windlass forced out his hernia which was then slashed by the plate, resulting in his death. He revealed nothing to his inquisitors and died in the night between 1 and 2 March 1606. Father Gerard wrote of him:
I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.
St Nicholas was canonised as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI on 25 October 1970. Catholic stage magicians who practice Gospel Magic consider St Nicholas Owen the patron saint of Illusionists and Escapologists, due to his facility at using “trompe l’oeil” when creating his hideouts and the fact that he engineered an escape from the Tower of London.
There is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Saint Nicholas Owen in Little Thornton, Lancashire.