St. Nicholas Owen, martyr

The 2005 Roman Martyrology has this entry:

7. Londinii in Anglia, sancti Nicholai Owen, religiosi e Societate Iesu et martyris, qui multos annos latebras pro sacerdotibus condendis exstruxit, quapropter sub Iacobo rege Primo incarceratus et gravissime tortus, demum in eculeum coniectus Christo Domino gloriose obsecutus occubuit.

Anyone want to take a crack at this?

St. Nicholas Owen was an amazing fellow and a good example for us all.  Men like this remind me that I have to think about, every day, the fact that I am going to die.   I hope some of you readers out there have priest holes! Given the way things are going, we have to consider that we might die in persecution.

But wait!  There’s more!

From the UK’s best Catholic weekly, the Catholic Herald, (subscribe HERE) comes this edifying article:

The carpenter who kept hundreds of fugitive Catholics alive

St Nicholas Owen (March 22) was tortured horribly but did not give up any compromising information

Nicholas Owen (c 1550-1606) was one of four sons of Walter Owen, a carpenter who lived in Oxford. Inheriting his father’s skill, he came to specialise in the construction of concealed priest-holes in country houses. Many Catholics on the run owed their lives to him.

“I verily think,” noted Fr John Gerard, “that no one can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard.

“He was the immediate occasion of saving many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular, which had been lost and forfeited many times over if the priests had been taken in their houses.”

Owen is first encountered in 1581 in connection with the martyrdom of Edmund Campion, whose servant he may have been. At all events, he maintained Campion’s innocence of treason with such force that he himself was imprisoned.

He must have been tough to survive the appalling conditions, which killed one of his fellow prisoners. Yet he was a small man who walked with a pronounced limp after a pack horse fell on top of him and broke his leg.

From 1586 Owen was in the service of Fr Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Provincial, with whom he travelled extensively, staying at Catholic houses where he constructed supremely well-disguised hiding places.

A few authentic examples survive: for example, at Sawston Hall near Cambridge, Huddington Court in Worcestershire and Coughton Court in Warwickshire.

To maintain security Owen would never discuss this work. While constructing a priest-hole he would ostentatiously engage in repairs in some other part of the house during the day, and work on his hiding places at night.

In 1594 Owen accompanied another priest, Fr Gerard, to London, to help him with the purchase of a house. While in town, however, they were betrayed by a servant of the Wiseman family, for whom Owen had constructed a refuge at Broadoaks in Essex.

The authorities, aware that Owen was a repository of many secrets of recusant life, tortured him most horribly, but without extracting any compromising information. After his release he helped Fr Gerard escape from the Tower of London by means of a rope strung across the moat.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 again made Owen a wanted man. With three other Jesuits he took refuge at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire. When the house was raided, 100 men were employed to search for them, but failed to find the priest-hole.

After eight days the starving Owen slipped out of the hiding place unobserved and tried to pass himself off to his captors as a priest in order to save Fr Garnet.

The ruse failed, and Owen was mercilessly tortured in the Tower, until on March 22 1606 his entrails burst out when he was on the rack, and he expired.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Our Catholic Identity, Saints: Stories & Symbols, The future and our choices and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Pedantic Classicist says:

    Well, since I’m up at an odd hour, let’s take a crack at this one. It has some rather *interesting * words you don’t see often in the descriptions of saints’ lives.

    In London, England, [the commemoration] of St. Nicholas Owen, religious of the Society of Jesus and martyr, who spent many years constructing hiding-places for the concealment of priests. Because of this he was imprisoned under King James I and most severely tortured, and after he was at last put to the rack, he died, having gloriously yielded himself to Christ the Lord.

    Not exactly a slavishly literal translation, but I hope you all like it anyways. I am always impressed at how these entries are one sentence. English, being a bit more paratactic than Latin, doesn’t tend to like too many subordinate clauses.

    Eculeus/equuleus: now *there’s* a word you don’t see too often. I didn’t know the rack was thought of as a “little horse.” Hooray, I learned something new today! St. Nicholas Owen is such a great saint, especially because so much of his life was given to covert, almost anonymous action. I remember reading in William O’Malley, SJ’s The Fifth Week that Owen was so tight-lipped that fellow Jesuits, and even his own superior, were unsure whether he was even a Jesuit or not, since he did not freely admit it to anyone. He must have had heroic self-restraint, and custody of the tongue, things I need to work on myself. Thanks for the post, Father Z. Et nos ne Dominus inducat in tantum malum.

  2. ozcatholic says:

    Thank you for this post, Father. St Nicholas Owen was a great hero; I first read about him in God’s Secret Agents by Alice Hogge. But today is also the feast of Bl. Cardinal August von Galen, who spoke out magnificently against Nazi oppression in Germany. Maybe he is a saint for us, as we too face growing political oppression.

  3. asperges says:

    “At London, England, St Nicholas Owen, religious and martyr of the Society of Jesus, who for many years constructed hiding places for priests, for which reason under King James I he was imprisoned and most cruelly tortured and at last put to the rack where in glory he fell asleep in Christ the Lord.”

  4. Supertradmum says:

    I had great old-fashioned nuns who read us stories, like Come Rack, Come Rope by Robert Hugh Benson and told us about Nicholas Owen, his skill and his bravery. I love the English martyrs, as they not only show us courage and faithfulness to the Pope and the Church, but integrity, skills, and ingenuity. Owen has always been one of my favorites. Thank you for this post, which encourages all of us to be saints or become saints in our own ways with God’s grace.

    I cannot, by the way, imagine the pain this man endured. It is unthinkable.

  5. acardnal says:

    Saint John Fisher, bishop and martyr,ora pro nobis.

  6. mike cliffson says:

    Fr, Thankyou for this post .
    Thoughts of martydom a re always timely- as a minimum, do you know anyone who ISN’t going to die?- but God send fortitude and joy to the 200 million Catholics who are already under permanent physical threat, and Godsend it not spread.

  7. digdigby says:

    I’m afraid that blueprints for creating a modern American ‘priest hole’ will need eight extra ‘holes’ for the ‘extraordinary ministers’ . It gets complicated.

  8. WaywardSailor says:

    I highly recommend “Autobiography of a Hunted Priest” by the aforementioned Reverend John Gerard, S.J. , which gives great detail on the hardships endured by the faithful in Elizabethan England. Of the martyrdom of Nicholas Owen, whom he affectionately called “Little John”, Fr. Gerard writes “They tortured him long and mercilessly and in the end, unable to get any information out of him, they killed him, but they had been unable to break his constancy.” In a note at the end of this book, appears a fuller description of Fr. Gerard’s admiration and praise for the extent of Owen’s faithfulness to the priests he assisted:

    “Yea, he might have made it almost an impossible thing for Priests in England, and of all those of the Society, whom he might have taken as partridges in a net, knowing all their secret places which he himself had made. . . . So that as no one did more good than he in assisting the labours of all the Priests that were workmen in that vineyard, so no ten men could have done so much harm as he alone might if he had been so disposed; by which he well knew he might have made himself great in the world, not only by their rewards for so great and extraordinary service, but also by the spoil of Catholics’ goods, being so many and so great.”

  9. chantgirl says:

    Praise God for such a saint! Such courage and fortitude can only come from the graces Jesus won for us while He was tortured. May St. Nicholas Owen be a patron for all of us St. Peters for whom the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

  10. joe b says:

    I would just like to second the recommendation of reading “The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest” by Fr John Gerard. It is very readable and when you consider what the priests and the faithful who harbored them went through, it should make one more thankful for the faith they have and how much a grace we have to still(for now,at least) assist at Mass in relative peace.


  11. asperges says:

    There is an interesting site here ( about Nicholas Owen and also Fr Garnet as well as some interesting photos. Baddesley Clinton in now owned by the National Trust and Harvington Hall still has monthly Masses in the old rite thanks to the Latin Mass Society, as does Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk from time to time.

    ‘Priests’ Holes’ (as they are known) still occasionally come to light, still undiscovered from 500 years ago. One was found as recently as 2004 in a chimney at Astley Hall in Lancashire (see There remain doubtless others still be found.

  12. yatzer says:

    I can only think of how miserably I would probably fail as a martyr, and stand in awe of these brave people.

  13. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Take courage, people! The lesson of martyrs is not that they were strong people, but that by relying completely on Christ, Christ’s life in them made them strong. So admit your weakness, sure, but expect God to be strong for you.

Comments are closed.