Monday, November 12, 2012

The priest hole: the pre-modern speakeasy

I went to see 007: Skyfall last night and was thoroughly impressed at its unabashedly traditionalist approach to the espionage genre. Skyfall commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise. This quick entry requires a couple of spoilers, so watch out:

The movie's name comes from Skyfall, the name of the Bond family estate in Scotland which is used for the final shootout. The bad guy is hunting down M, whom Bond sends down a "priest hole" when the going gets too tough for bullets; the implication is that if Bond himself isn't a Catholic, he is at least descended from a family of noble Catholic recusants: people who stubbornly held onto Catholicism after the Reformation. The priest hole isn't strictly a medieval phenomenon, but may be said to have preserved a vestige of medievalism in Reformation England, Scotland, and Ireland. In the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England became thoroughly Protestant and measures were placed against the practice of the old religion. Anyone in England caught celebrating or participating in Catholic rites was to lose all his property on the first offense, one year's imprisonment on the second, and life imprisonment on the third. The penalty for either converting to, or helping another convert to Catholicism, was death. Nonetheless, the Catholic faith persisted in certain circles. 

Priest hole in the cupboard of Harvington Hall, Worcestershire
Among the noble families which maintained the old religion, they converted their castles and country houses to easily hide priests, vestments, chalices, and other religious items in the event that a "pursuivant", or priest-hunter, would come to search the house. These "priest holes" had to be especially secure, as searches were known to have lasted as long as two weeks. Priest-hunters would sometimes conscript carpenters or masons to inspect the house for any weaknesses in the walls or woodwork. There are, indeed, cases of priests having died of starvation inside these holes while the pursuivants tore the house apart. 

The most famous designer of priest holes was Saint Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit lay brother. He was most likely a carpenter and spent thirty years building priest holes around England. It's said that Owen engineered the escape of another Jesuit, the priest John Gerard, from the Tower of London in 1597. Owen was eventually tortured to death in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, but he never revealed a single priest hole he constructed. Some of his priest holes may remain undiscovered even to this day.


  1. Crusading MedievalistNovember 14, 2012 at 8:09 PM

    Wow. Very interesting.

    Just found your blog . .. I love it. :)

  2. I really liked Skyfall. Have never seen a Bond movie before, and was expecting a lot more cheesy technological gimmicks. The theme of "the old ways are the best ways" surprised me, too.

  3. From the preview it seems that the traditional Bondian disregard for sanctity of sex is also maintained. Hey, who said traditional always means good...

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