In medieval England, Catholic clergy played a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek.
  1. When Protestant Queen Elizabeth I was crowned in the mid-16th century, many English Catholics were none too pleased.
    The queen retaliated by making Catholicism illegal.
  2. Priests were considered traitors to the crown, and subject to death if caught (along with their worshippers).
    Rather than relinquish their beliefs, Catholics began to practice their faith underground — sometimes literally.
  3. They developed a clandestine network of safe houses marked with symbols like crosses and lambs.
    The devout even smuggled Jesuit priests into the country.
  4. Eventually the Queen wised up, and unleashed an army of priest-hunters, or “pursuivants.”
    Pursuivants raided the estates of wealthy Catholics, torturing and murdering any priests they found.
  5. In response, these landowners built secret compartments called priest holes.
    Favorite locations included: inside fireplaces, under staircases, and behind false walls.
  6. The priest holes were tiny but numerous — some houses had as many as twelve.
  7. Priest-hunters caught on, and started conducting elaborate measurements and impromptu demolitions.
    Especially determined pursuivants would even stake out a suspected fugitive for weeks, leading some priests to die of thirst or starvation.
  8. The most prolific architect of priest holes was a Jesuit brother named Nicholas Owen, who began his work in 1580s.
    He was nicknamed “Little John” due to his diminutive height, but he had the courage of a man twice his size.
  9. When he was captured in 1606, he was tortured in the Tower of London.
    But he refused to give up the name of a single priest or the location of a single hole.
  10. In 1970 he was sainted by Pope Paul, and is now considered the patron saint of illusionists.