"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." Father Gerard
Richard Coles, singer, broadcaster and vicar, keeps his fans and friends intrigued by sharing the stories of a series of “saints for the day” – not pious hagiography but tall tales of extraordinary lives, which is how I discovered this intriguing individual. Nicholas Owen was possibly a dwarf – certainly extremely short – and had a series of other health problems, such as hernia and a crippled leg. The latter because a horse fell on him, and the broken leg was never properly set (disability was presumably much more common in the Early Modern period). The hernia was an injury caused by Owen’s work as a carpenter.
But no ordinary carpenter: Nicholas Owen was a Catholic, a lay Jesuit, at a time when his religion was proscribed in England. He was born in Oxford, and apprenticed as a carpenter, like his father Walter, later becoming a servant to Henry Garnett, a Jesuit who employed Owen to do some covert carpentry. Known to other recusants as Little John, Owen travelled around the country by night, and did his work secretly, because he was a builder of priests’ holes, secret compartments in the houses of the crypto-Catholic gentry.
Whereas previously, these refuges were no more than holes in the floor, Owen built every one differently, and each more ingeniously than earlier examples. Despite his physical limitations, he labored with masonry and carpentry and trompe l’oeil effects. Over thirty years, he is known to have built at least 100 priest-holes, expertly hidden from the eyes of Pursuivants (anti Catholic agents) by false fronts, secret trapdoors, covert stairs or underground passageways. He was arrested several times, for example in 1594, when he was released after a wealthy Catholic family paid his fine. He is also said to have helped Father John Gerard to escape from captivity in the Tower of London in 1597.
For his efforts, Nicholas Owen was later canonized by the Catholic Church. Apparently, he began each building project with prayer and Eucharist. Sadly, his piety was not enough to protect him from the forces of Puritan law and order: he was arrested in Worcestershire in 1606, when anti-Catholic feeling was at a height in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot. Hearing of the capture, one of the Privy Councillors said: “Is he taken that knows all the secret places? I am very glad of that. We will have a trick for him.”
Nicholas Owen was taken first to the Marshalsea Prison, and then to the Tower of London, where he was tortured on the track. This, apparently, in contravention of the medieval tradition that “maimed people” were not to be exposed to torture. Nevertheless, Owen named no names – even though he would have certainly known hundreds of Catholics and their networks of support. He made a confession of his own activities, but without incriminating anyone else. With no skilled accomplice to break him out, he died in the Tower on March 2nd 1606, disemboweled: the authorities later claimed that he had done the deed himself. A jailor admitted to one of Nicholas Owen’s relatives that in fact his hands were so damaged by the end that he could barely feed himself. So perished the man whom the Rev Richard Coles has labelled the patron saint of Illusionists and Escapologists.