"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
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.”