St Nicholas Owen


One of the characters to emerge from my study of Elizabethan England is the marvelous saint Nicholas Owen. Known as ‘Little John’, Owen was a Jesuit lay brother. A carpenter from Oxford, he was only a little bit taller than a dwarf. A loyal, Samwise Gamgee kind of hobbitish fellow, he was a sturdy, hardworking and faithful servant. He is the man who designed and built countless ‘priest holes’ in recusant country houses across England. The queen’s ‘poursuivants’ or searchers for priests were thorough and tireless. To stay one step ahead of them Owen had to devise increasingly cunning hiding places. He would build false walls and then put another false wall in front of it so when they tapped and found it hollow and tore the wall down they would find an empty hiding place–never supposing that the real hiding place was in another wall behind that one. He used sewage drains, false chimney flues, fake attics and underfloor hiding places. Often he would even build in a hole to be used as a toilet and minute holes in the walls through which a straw could be placed so the priest (who might have to hide there for days or even weeks) could be fed secretly.

Little John was captured thrice. The first time he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The second time, in the tower he was tortured. The final time he was captured in the crackdown after the Gunpowder Plot. Despite cruel torture he never revealed his hiding places, and he finally died under torture in the tower.
What I like about Nicholas Owen is his stout and determined faith. He never gave in and shows the kind of courage in the face of adversity of all the great saints. I also like his littleness. Somehow he shows us the stalwart courage of all God’s ‘little’ saints. He was not only little physically, but he was comparatively unlearned and unpolished. He was, like Jesus himself, only a carpenter, but he displayed heroism and a ‘bigness’ to shame us all. He’s leaping up in my gallery of saints, and I pray for a measure of his greatness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07272003035464034763 tubbs

    ONE TOUGH LIL' DUDE !!!In a roster of heroes (the British martyrs) Owen stands out. I can't think of anyone who helped preserve the Faith more than that guy. I wish more Catholic parents would forego the Jason-Justin-Chase monotony and name their boys NICHOLAS OWEN. Does anyone know of a source for N.O. medals, statues, or holy cards? (There were no contemporary likenesses of himself, only verbal descriptions.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    I live near to Baddeseley Clinton where he built many priest holes. No-one was ever caught there.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    I would love to have an icon or image of Nicholas Owen of some sort

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07637491041886997999 MAB

    Thanks so much for posting this. I'd never heard of him before. I'm fascinated by the priest holes!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08906131174326742939 Patricius

    And there is the amazing revolving beam at Harvington Hall!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    I will look out for you Father, see what I can find.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11153355585571358736 truthfinder

    With the persecution of Catholics increasing in the world, skills such as his may once again be needed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14058286668713203201 servingblogger

    Oh dear, what a load of twee nonsense.The reality of the Reformation in England, and probably everywhere else, was a lot more complex and layered than the simple notion of standing up for the 'true faith' by little people like St Nicholas Owen. Much more complex, theologically, politically, economically -in fact, in all ways. To make it seem as though all that matters is some kind of heroic blind obedience to Rome which determines whether the people of the time were on the right side or wrong side, the good side or the bad side, or were people of conviction, conscience and faith is – well, just ludicrously simplistic. And quite wrong in reality.I suggest, Fr L, that you take off your rose tinted spectacles about the heroics of the recusants and read a bit of real history that will put the actions of all sides at the time in to some realistic and truthful context. What you are doing, of course, is casting back over the centuries your own obsessive criteria of loyalty to Rome and the so called True Church, when in reality it is simply not possible to give a true account of history through such a prism. God knows what your film project is going to be about, but if you apply the same sort of lax perspective and criteria as you are in your blog about such matters as the historical Reformation, it will no doubt be worth only showing on EWTN to the so-called 'faithful' Catholics. Everyone else will just laugh and dismiss it, rather as you do anything that doesn't fit in to your rather narrow definition.Do try and get in some rigorous scholarship in these matters before you start expounding such simplistic, erroneous and ridiculous twaddle.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07331688544544080299 Mitch

    servingblogger, your right there was a lot more to the reformation than just religious ideas. Much reform was driven by nationalistic and/or economic forces, but in the end we see countries like Spain and the various Italian states who encouraged Catholic Reform for their own benefit in areas of nationalistic, economic, and/or religious unity, while maintaining loyalty to the faith. Reform did not have to mean break from Rome, and that is where the bright-line is between generally healthy reform and formal heresy and schism. So get over your pretentious "objectivism." Btw Father, awesome find, the English Catholicism during this period is so interesting with so many heros. Thanks for all your work on this blog.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    servingbloggerNext time you look in a mirror, I want you to stare into your eyes and repeat slowly…My heavenly Mother loves me, and so does her Son. Say it more than once, as it's true, and truth is always worth re-hearing.God bless. Let us all know how you get on.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    SB –this post was about St Nicholas Owen, it wasn't a full treatise on the English Reformation. You should do yourself the dignity of thinking before you type. Everyone's welcome here, but your comments are becoming increasingly shrill and off the point.I suspect you have some personal problems with the Catholic faith and you need to vent. That's okay. Just be aware that when you write negatively you are usually saying more about yourself than about the me or my blog.The readers of this blog are pretty smart, and they understand you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14531024393615051496 veritas

    "You should do yourself the dignity of thinking before you type. Everyone's welcome here, but your comments are becoming increasingly shrill and off the point."SB,You seem to be rather full of hatred. I actually left off Standing On My Head for a while because your nasty comments kept popping up everywhere.Father's post was about a wonderful Saint, a holy courageous man who gave his life for the faith. For you to try and belittle that says a lot more about you than it says about your supposed knowledge of history.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02649572563876860328 Bryan

    Oh. I had assumed servingblogger was doing satire — a sort of smarter Todd Unctous take on the whole thing. You know, a sort of angry Rev. Blytherington riff.OK. So Mantilla and servingblogger are both real and everybody else is a character, right?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16287885673401261090 Obpoet

    I can't help but wonder how many of us would stay home and watch the NFF on the tele than go to mass and risk torture, if such was the expected result. What would I do?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02963290696331676531 blackshama

    ServingbloggerFor goodness sake, the English Reformation came about because Henry wanted an heir and was prepared to cast off his wife, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. Now what's so complex about that?For a lot people, treating women like that is simply unacceptable. Now do you understand why Nicholas Owen had to give up his life?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16699227938165106710 Little Black Sambo

    Why don't we all accept Blackshama's simple explanation? Then we shan't need to think at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14531024393615051496 veritas

    If Little Black Sambo and Servingblogger are trying to tell us that saying that the English Reformation came about simply because Henry wanted a male heir is too simplistic – then they are right.It was worse than that, much worse.Henry executed lifelong friends because they would not declare him to be head of the Church. Henry persecuted and was intending to kill a loyal, faithful devout wife (she died before he had to have her killed) because she would not declare her marriage invalid and her own daughter illegitimate. Henry ransacked and stole from the monasteries and thereby destroyed Britain's social service, education and hospital system simply because he wanted the money.So yes, Little Black Sambo and Servingblogger, I agree with you that we must not paint a simplistically critical picture of Henry and his Protestant pals – we must show their evil in all its horror! Henry's actions were barbaric and the results for Britain are now really coming home, as the country slides ever more quickly into socialist anti-Christian humanism.

    • rhona tolchard

      I risk being fired on from both sides, since I am a lifelong and convinced Protestant who recently visited Harvington Hall and loves Baddesley Clinton, and in consequence is lost in admiration of Nicholas Owen’s skill, faithfulness, and sheer raw courage. His life does not only have a message for Catholics – to me he stands for every Christian who quietly decides to defy the State when the State acts in a way that is contrary to the laws of God. His humble and unspectacular determination to follow what he saw to be his Christian vocation to the very end of his life helps me to make sense of what is in many ways a very discreditable period in Christian history when both sides made ugly and irrevocable mistakes in their treatment of each other. Maybe we should stop arguing the rights and wrongs of the Reformation and slinging mud , and just get on with the work God has called us to, seek ing to live together as followers of Jesus rather than as Catholics and Protestants.


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