Priest Hole - Special Feature

As explained in our medieval worship page, it was after the Reformation that many aristocratic families who retained their Catholic beliefs and had to worship in secret built priest holes in or near their private chapels. A priest hole was literally what the word conjures up - a small hiding place just big enough for a priest to hide inside and avoid being detected if anyone in an official capacity or outside the family paid a surprise visit. The priest would often take with him into the hole the vestments, sacred vessels and altar furniture so as not to leave any trace of mass being held in the chapel.

Architecturally, priest holes were usually constructed beind panelling as in the case of the Naworth Castle priest hole in Cumbria or as an offshoot from a chimney as happened at East Riddlesden Hall in West Yorkshire. It is not always easy to identify who built individual priest holes but it is believed many were constructed by a man called Nicholas Owen who was a Jesuit laybrother. It is not known, either, how many priests actually died whilst hiding in priest holes but it is feared that did happen to some either through suffocation or starvation.

Naworth Castle Priest Hole
We are privileged to have been allowed to film the following video of the priest hole at Naworth Castle and are grateful to the Howard family for their kind permission and assistance.

According to the Howard family, the Naworth Castle priesthole may have been built during the time of Lord William Howard (1563-1640) who lived through The Reformation. Imprisoned no less than three times on suspicion of treason whilst still in his 20's and having seen his father Thomas Howard executed in 1572, William Howard was only too well aware of the dangers of being a practising Catholic in England at that time. He lived at Naworth Castle with his family from 1602 until shortly before his death. The priest hole can be found behind the panelling of the chapel in what is known as Lord William's Tower. The chapel (or oratory as some call it) at Naworth Castle was built by Thomas Dacre in around 1520, following the Battle of Flodden (1513).

It is not known exactly who built the priest hole at Naworth Castle but according to Lord William's household accounts, Benedictine priests and other recusants from the Catholic community including the man employed by Lord William as Steward, Thomas Widmerpoole, resided with the Howards at Naworth Castle.

One such was Father Nicholas Roscarrock who is listed in the household accounts during the period 1606-1633. Described as being "braver than many priests", Nicholas Roscarrock had been incarcerated in the Tower of London at the same time as Lord William Howard (in 1585) along with Lord William's half-brother Philip, the Earl of Arundel, Thomas Somerset, Dr. Anslowe and other and noteworthy Catholics of the day.

He had been arrested for preaching the Catholic faith in private houses whilst on a pilgrimage to Rome and was subsequently tried and removed to the Tower. There he was put on the rack and tortured but not executed. Having lost or sold most of his assets (in Devon), Roscarrock came to live and work at Naworth upon his release and it was there he received the protection of Lord William Howard.

Roscarrock continued to practice Catholicism at Naworth, despite a serious effort to convict him in 1616. As a 'wanted man' whilst living at Naworth Castle, it is therefore very possible that he would have hidden in the priest hole there though there is no tangible evidence to prove this.

A gold rosary which is believed to have once belonged to Nicholas Roscarrock may be seen today in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.