Harvington Hall

Harvington Hall, a medieval and Elizabethan manor house situated on an island surrounded by a moat is in the ownership of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham.

A house full of secrets, Harvington Hall was built in the 1580s by Humphrey Pakington, who was a recusant Catholic under the Protestant rule of Elizabeth I. The hall brings to life the fascinating history of the survival of Catholic families and clergymen at a time when it was high treason for a Catholic priest to be in England. The remarkable survival of its priests’ hiding places and rare Elizabethan wall paintings, together with its unique character, make Harvington Hall an extraordinary place with a captivating story, never to be forgotten.*

In 1696 the house passed to the Throckmorton family and remained in their hands until 1923. The Throckmortons also owned and lived in the nearby Coughton Court, which led to Harvington being stripped of items and fittings to be installed in Coughton including the grand staircase. The house was left to become derelict until, in 1923, it was purchased and donated to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham. The house has now been fully restored including a replica staircase; the original of which can still be seen at Coughton Court.

Harvington Hall Priest Hide Schematic

Harvington Hall boasts the largest surviving collection of priests’ hiding places in the country. Built in the time of Humphrey Pakington (1555-1631), some of these hides are believed to be the work of the ingenious carpenter and hide-builder, Nicholas Owen, who was arrested in 1606 and tortured to death in the Tower of London.*

Harvington Hall

The first hide that is encountered on the guided tour of the house is situated above the bread oven within the thickness of the chimney stack. This hide was accessed by a trapdoor in the garderobe in the room above the kitchen.

Harvington Hall

On the first floor, the Withdrawing Room also hides a priest hide behind wood panelling next to the fireplace. On the opposite side of the fireplace the original 16th century ladder for accessing the hide can be seen.

The Great Chamber, next door to the Withdrawing Room, conceals a hide above the ceiling of the Butler’s pantry in the corner of the chamber. Entry for this hide was from the top floor and the difference in levels was obscured by a panelled porch which covered the door from the Chamber to the Pantry and also from the Chamber to the Great Staircase.

Harvington Jal

A very ingenious hide was unearthed in 1894 within Dodd’s Library. Inside a space that was originally a book cupboard is a hinged wall panel that, when pushed at the top, swings up to reveal a space behind.

Harvington Hall

Harvington Hall

On the top floor of the house is a priest’s room which has a hidden space under the floor where the vestments, the church plate and other items for mass could be concealed when not in use. On this floor is another smaller chapel with walls decorated with rows of red and white drops representing the blood and water of the Passion.

Harvington Hall

Round the corner from the small chapel is the Marble Room where a false fireplace in the corner of the room gives access to the attic space and a further priest hole in the corner of the roof. The fireplace has been blackened to simulate smoke discolouring so that it appears to have been used.

Harvington Hall

Five steps, which are original, lead down to the grand staircase. Two of the steps when lifted reveal a small cavity (the back of which is now missing), where money and valuables could be hidden. Originally this drew the eye from the larger cavity that was concealed behind; a priest hide measuring 5ft 9ins by 5ft and 6ft high. This hide is above the butler’s pantry next to the Great Chamber, and as are the other hides located around the grand staircase thought to be the work of Nicholas Owen.

Owen was servant to Fr Henry Garnet, the Jesuit superior in England, who during the 1590s built up a network of houses throughout the country to which incoming priests could be directed and where they could find disguises, chapels and priest holes.

The centre of this operation for Worcestershire and the Welsh Marches was Hindlip House, the home of Humphrey’s friend Thomas Habington, where the Jesuit Edward Oldcorne arrived in 1590.It was there that Garnet, Owen and Oldcorne were all captured in 1606, just after the Gunpowder Plot.

Owen was starved out of one of his own hides on the fourth day of a twelve day search, during which he and a companion, Ralph Ashley, had nothing to eat but one apple between them. He died under torture in the Tower; Garnet, Oldcorne and Ashley were all hanged, drawn and quartered. Although Hindlip was demolished in 1814, descriptions of the hides there show a striking similarity to those that survive at Harvington.**

  • *From 2017 Harvington Hall leaflet
  • ** From Harvington Hall Website
  • Further source of information – Harvington Hall guidebook by Michael Hodgetts

NB: All photos including the individual photos in the mosaics can be viewed full size here.

17 Comments CherryPie on Sep 6th 2017

17 Responses to “Harvington Hall – Priest Hides”

  1. The Yum List says:

    Boy this old buildings sure hold many stories within their walls don’t they?

  2. Amfortas says:

    We easily forget this very dark period of our history, when good men were hunted down as enemies of the state, for what? Being on the wrong side of a King’s perverse desires and murderous acts against even those intimately close to him. We also so easily forget the time when Jesuits were the ‘front line’ troops in a spiritual battle. They gave their lives for Truth. Now they are almost part of the other side’s footsoldiers, lefties in the main. Such a disgrace to their predecessors.

    It is a good thing that the Hall has been restored and its history given to the interested passer-by, and it is a good thing we have an interested passer-by to show it to us.

    • CherryPie says:

      Those Jesuits sent out to England on their mission in such turbulent times are a great inspiration to me.

      It is a pleasure to be able to share the hall and history for others who are not close enough to explore it for themselves. In that respect I consider myself lucky location wise :-)

    • Hels says:

      There was no way I would go into the priest holes in the stately homes that had once been Catholic. Too dark and way too claustrophobic :(

      But we can understand how desperate Catholic families were. Everybody wanted to pray with their own clerics, but nobody wanted to risk the lives of the priests and no family wanted to risk losing their inherited estates.

  3. A very interesting post with beautiful photos. Just love all those Priest Holes – place looks well worth a visit :)

  4. [...] Hall recently. She wrote about her visit and included many interesting pictures of priest holes. Recommended reading. Many thanks, CherryPie, for sending in the link to your post. Share [...]

  5. james higham says:

    One issue would be that if it was a Catholic home, priest holes would be expected and searched for more assiduously.

  6. This place would make a great spot for Agatha Christie’s mystery. ;)
    So many places to hide, so many possibilities.

  7. Ayush says:

    an interesting post, CP. i read about the torture of Nicholas Owen and the worst of human nature is seen in that.

  8. Ginnie says:

    What an amazing place, Cherry, to have not just one but several
    l hide-aways. Oh my. And to think it was even necessary!!!

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