Nicholas Owen (c 1550-1606) was one of four sons of Walter Owen, a carpenter who lived in Oxford. Inheriting his father’s skill, he came to specialise in the construction of concealed priest-holes in country houses. Many Catholics on the run owed their lives to him.
“I verily think,” noted Fr John Gerard, “that no one can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard.
“He was the immediate occasion of saving many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular, which had been lost and forfeited many times over if the priests had been taken in their houses.”
Owen is first encountered in 1581 in connection with the martyrdom of Edmund Campion, whose servant he may have been. At all events, he maintained Campion’s innocence of treason with such force that he himself was imprisoned.
He must have been tough to survive the appalling conditions, which killed one of his fellow prisoners. Yet he was a small man who walked with a pronounced limp after a pack horse fell on top of him and broke his leg.
From 1586 Owen was in the service of Fr Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Provincial, with whom he travelled extensively, staying at Catholic houses where he constructed supremely well-disguised hiding places.
A few authentic examples survive: for example, at Sawston Hall near Cambridge, Huddington Court in Worcestershire and Coughton Court in Warwickshire.
To maintain security Owen would never discuss this work. While constructing a priest-hole he would ostentatiously engage in repairs in some other part of the house during the day, and work on his hiding places at night.
In 1594 Owen accompanied another priest, Fr Gerard, to London, to help him with the purchase of a house. While in town, however, they were betrayed by a servant of the Wiseman family, for whom Owen had constructed a refuge at Broadoaks in Essex.
The authorities, aware that Owen was a repository of many secrets of recusant life, tortured him most horribly, but without extracting any compromising information. After his release he helped Fr Gerard escape from the Tower of London by means of a rope strung across the moat.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 again made Owen a wanted man. With three other Jesuits he took refuge at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire. When the house was raided, 100 men were employed to search for them, but failed to find the priest-hole.
After eight days the starving Owen slipped out of the hiding place unobserved and tried to pass himself off to his captors as a priest in order to save Fr Garnet.
The ruse failed, and Owen was mercilessly tortured in the Tower, until on March 22 1606 his entrails burst out when he was on the rack, and he expired.