So secret hiding places were built into the walls and floors, usually tight, dark grubby places. The Holy Mass was a hurried affair, much like the Novus Ordo today. Stripped down; crude prayer; harried. Not at all the long praise and adoration; the contrition; the measured Passion of Christ; the Latin cadences and hymns. It was stark and scary.
Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, which began in 1558, Catholics were persecuted by law and priests were imprisoned, tortured, and frequently executed. As a result of this oppression, wealthy Catholic families began building secret chambers and passages in their homes called ‘priest holes’ in order to hide priests when the pursuivants or ‘priest hunters’ came searching.
During the 16 th century, Europe was under the religious leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. However, over time, protests against the Catholic Church and its influence eventually led to the formation of the Protestant movement. The separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII in 1537 brought England alongside this broad Reformation movement, which came to influence the Church of England decisively under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
During Elizabeth’s reign, the constant threat posed by recurring plots involving the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots heightened the severity of the situation and an Act was passed making it High Treason for a Catholic priest to enter England or for anyone to aid a priest that did. To enforce the Act, ‘priest hunters’ were given the job to hunt down and capture any such priests. Arrest meant imprisonment, and often torture and execution.
In 1540, the Jesuit religious order was created to assist the Catholic Church in opposing the Protestant movement. Jesuit priests snuck into England to support Catholic families and many of these families hid the priests in their homes.
Once the pursuivants or ‘priest hunters’ were established, it was no longer enough for these families to claim the priests were simply friends or cousins. Now with the risk of torture and death, the priests had to be carefully hidden away if the pursuivants ever came knocking on the door.
Priest hunters took their job very seriously, sometimes searching a house for days or even weeks. They would move furniture, lift floorboards, bang the walls for sounds of a hollow cavity, and plunge their swords between cracks and crevices. They counted windows from the outside and inside, and measured the height of ceilings and the length of walls, in the hope of detecting hidden chambers.
Priest holes needed to be disguised very well and were frequently built into fireplaces, attics, and staircases. Sometimes, a network of passages led to the final hiding place, at other times the priest hole was hidden inside another chamber, making it more difficult to find.
However, more often than not the priest holes were tiny with no room to stand or move. Priests sometimes had to stay for days at a time with little to no food and water, and no sanitation. Sometimes, they would die of starvation or suffocation if the priest hunts went on for too long.
Clearly, the priest holes had to be very cleverly constructed to evade such extensive searches.
Today it might be even more difficult unless your country house is very large. But the 'secret room' is making a come back.
And ingenious modern technology is helping. Companies are specialising, making secret rooms for businesses and for private homes.
The private individual who is remodelling his home, renovating or rebuilding an older, heritage home, may well take note and plan for some secret rooms too. Some are quite smart, although not likely to deter a pursuivant.
No, for that you may need a 'safe room'. Perhaps it should be called the 'Snowflake'.
There are many places you could construct even a modest and comfortable extra and secret room. Perhaps give some thought to these: not all secret and not all for a coming persecution, but some are fun nonetheless.
Pity those persecuted Catholics of old and today's christians, as in the middle east. They do not have many options.
Drink to them.