"I have heard that the Catholic nobles of England often have them built into their grand houses so that they may hear Mass in secret"

Secret chapel or priest hole built into an external tower at Hever Castle
Public DomainSecret chapel or priest hole built into an external tower at Hever Castle - Credit: Charlesdrakew/wikimedia commons

In the period when Catholics were persecuted for their faith in England, secret chapels and priest holes began to be built into houses. These were hidden rooms in which mass was secretly held, or small cubby-holes in which priests could hide from the pursuivants (priest hunters). During Elizabeth’s reign, laws were passed prohibiting Catholics from celebrating Catholic rites. This would be punished by forfeiture, a year’s imprisonment for a second offence, and finally imprisonment for life. Anyone found trying to convert an Anglican, such as the Jesuit missionaries, would be executed for high treason.

 

The priest holes were often tiny and cramped, and sometimes hiding priests would die in them due to starvation or lack of oxygen. The sacred objects and altar furniture from the secret chapel could also be quickly placed into the priest holes to hide them from unexpected visitors.

 

Pictures of a priest hole inside Oxburgh Hall.