Of priest holes and peddler trunks

In another post today I mentioned Shakespeare.  Here is another Shakespearean connection with something that is just too cool.

At The Shakespeare Blog I saw an entry about an October fair held in Stratford-upon-Avon.  The post concerns itinerant players and peddlers who would have come to town fairs.   But the post also includes this:

Itinerant people, among them acting companies, were still treated with suspicion. During the 1590s legislation was brought in to control these rogues and vagabonds. Itinerants were not only possibly thieves, or people who might be a drain on the resources of the places to which they traveled, they could be political or religious activists. The British Museum’s current exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, [I saw this during my recent wonderful visit to London.] contains a fascinating and extremely rare object. It’s a trunk which on the outside looks just the sort of thing Autolycus, the peddler, would have carried, but in this case it contains not ribbons and songs, but Catholic vestments, rosary beads, a chalice, and even an altar stone. A Catholic priest, carrying this trunk, had everything he needed to carry out religious services.

The trunk had been walled up in a country house in Lancashire, where it was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century after at least two hundred years. Lancashire was a hotbed for recusancy, and following the banning of Catholic priests in the late 1500s they had to disguise themselves in order to carry on. A travelling peddler would have been a good disguise, as many of the objects he was carrying could be easily taken for legitimate goods for sale.


Will we return to those days?

I have a small kit that fits into lunch box.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Just Too Cool, Linking Back, Priests and Priesthood, Religious Liberty, TEOTWAWKI, The future and our choices and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Suburbanbanshee says:

    May God be good to that unknown priest, and to the faithful people who lived in that house.

  2. MattH says:

    I has a discussion recently in which someone mentioned designing a priest hole into their home if they had the opportunity to build a new house. I think we still have reason to hope that won’t be necesary in the US, but only if we work to make sure things don’t reach that point.

  3. mike cliffson says:

    From later (1792 say saw SOME legal tolerance for catholics, but they could be assaulted as per the Gordon riots,Less fatally penal, but still discreteness HIGHLY advisable,) have you ever seen the approx 2 centuries and a bit years old bishop’s stuff the (laterestablished)diocese of B irmingham (Uk , not Ala., ) used to keep at Oscott college ? There’s a very discreet travelling crozier , very modern you might think , it sort of assembles out of a telescoping staff cum walking stick, as twere, and a sorter origami mitre.(Google only gets me Newman’s.) I understand , probably made before him, that it was Bishop Milner’s , the fighting, unnice, unloved, rude, blunt, offensive, corageous, heroic, and polemical( and in fact nearly always right!) “Vicar Apostolc” from Napoleonic times, but surely following a welltried recusant pattern from the 1500s ?

    As with priestholes, etc, I don’t know how persecuted churches manage today, but a bit of anglosaxon ingenuity for this sort of thing may again become a necessary charisma.

  4. Thanks, Father! I love studying this era, and the heroism of the English priests and recusants continues to amaze me. We have far too little understanding in this country of the persecutions that every other country and century of Catholics has had to face.

  5. I began suspecting that the US has been heading in that direction 20 years ago. Things haven’t gotten any better. Sooner or later we’ll have to choose whether or not freedom of religion means anything anymore, or we can see Catholicism being declared treasonous or at the very least evidence of clinical insanity.

    If it goes that way, and if I can at all possibly do it, I will have a cozy little hideout for any priest who needs it. And even if we can’t possibly do it, I’m sure my wife will make me figure something out anyway!

  6. Rushintuit says:

    “Will we return to those days?” I don’t think so. Heaven has been testing us in earnest since 1965. Do we gravitate toward traditional Catholicism? Do we have a lively devotion to Our Lady? Do we shun the snares of a modern lifestyle? Like every test, there is a time limit and Our Lady likes the number thirteen.

  7. eulogos says:

    I liked hearing that Lancashire was a hotbed of recusancy. My grandfather, William Howard, from Lancashire, came from a very poor family, but his family always insisted that they were a branch of the great Howard family which had been ruined by paying recusancy fines. I wish there were some way to check on this story. But it is a great story.

  8. Joseph-Mary says:

    I have also had a long time interest in this era. The newest book I read is a true story written by a priest who survived time in the tower, being tortured, and keeping undercover for a long time. It is called the “Autobiography of a HUNTED PRIEST”. Very good as well as true. For a great novel on that topic please get Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s “Come Rack, Come Rope”. The Msgr. was a convert (I think his father may have been an Archbishop of Canterbury) and also wrote another highly recommended novel called “Lord of the World”.

  9. AvantiBev says:

    Funny this should be a topic today. From the vitriolic comments I received on Facebook to a posting of mine re; the beloved sex revolution and its attendant fruits, I would gladly dive into one of the holes. But of course, we are to be salt and light even if not appreciated as such; so no dark holes for me. But the catechesis is so horrid among the younger “Catholics” with whom I work and play, I wonder how many recusants we would muster in this age.

    As for the first sentence, my fellow actors often do not know what our predecessors in the profession endured for their vocation.

  10. Former Altar Boy says:

    God bless you, Father, and your readiness to go on the road with the “lunchbox” of Mass items. Unfortunately, you are probably already on Obama’s Enemies List and, sadly, will be one of the first to go if he get’s re-elected (God help us) and green lights the persecutions.

  11. Adam Welp says:

    Wow, this thread has more than perked my ears. I had read a little about how Priests and Lay were treated during this time, but wow, I now want to read as much as I can on this subject. I would have never given a book like “Come Rack! Come Rope!” a passing glance if I were come across it in a bookstore, but now I am looking for a first edition copy (I believe I may have found one online) so that I can begin reading it at once!

    I surely hope that something like this never happens here in America. If so, I guess I need to learn some carpentry and masonry skills so I can build a few Priest holes at my and my parent’s houses.

  12. The stories of Catholic recusants of this era are truly fascinating! eulogos – I believe Yorkshire and Lancaster were both hotbeds of Catholicism, partially because they were far enough away from London to escape the main notice of Elizabeth’s spy network. I wouldn’t be surprised if your family story were true! If you had the time or money, you could probably research back into the museum vaults to the very well-kept files of Elizabeth’s spies and anti-Catholic courts and find the Howards of Lancashire. There are many such court and financial records still surviving.

    Fortunately or unfortunately for me, this is one of my favorite eras and topics, and a future thesis research project! I heartily recommend Msgr. Benson – “Come Rack, Come Rope” is a worthy read. “By What Authority” and “The King’s Achievement” form somewhat of a trilogy with that book, tracing families of Catholic recusants through the eras before and after Elizabeth.

    There are many, many signs and parallels that can be drawn between this era and our own time. Whether or not we face it in the near future (I’m inclined to think we will), all of us modern-day Catholics, especially young people, would do well to draw lessons of heroism from our ancestors under the Protestant Revolt. We need to learn from their strength in a time when one false word would find you and your family in the Tower. We ought to be able to find the strength to deal with the white martyrdom of our day from their heroism in their red martyrdom. I know that for me, stories of men like the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, down to stories like this of priest-holes and lay piety, are a constant challenge to me to learn from their examples.

  13. Panterina says:

    “Will we return to those days?”.
    I sure hope not. But then, only one generation ago, a priesthole would have been useful to hide some jews. So, there’s no telling what kind of persecution our generation, or the next generation, will face.

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    Yeah, let’s not jump the gun. Let’s tend to our problems by normal means first. Vote Obama out.

  15. catholicmidwest says:

    Yeah, let’s not get ahead of ourselves on this one. Let’s tend to our problems by normal means. Vote Obama out of office.

  16. AnnAsher says:

    I second Literature Addicts sentiments. This little band of home schoolers reads Msgr Benson’s works, which are effective in making a lasting impression in the minds and hearts of readers. Many of them are available on Kindle as public domain editions. I have a particular affinity for the era of which we speak. Even in our circles I have yet to meet anyone else who studies the English Recusancy, which is important as a near example of what may come.
    Also, I think a small kit that fits in a lunch box is whiz-bang!

  17. Rouxfus says:

    AnnAsher mentions that Msgr. Benson’s works are available free in Kindle. They come from Project Gutenberg, which also has free public domain ebooks from G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc available. Anything which is available in Project Gutenberg is also available free of charge in iBooks on Apple devices from the iBookstore, saving you the trouble of downloading the ePub file from Gutenberg, dragging it into iTunes, and syncing it.

  18. anncouper-johnston says:

    I am Scottish and descended on my mother’s side from the court physician to Henry IV of France (a bit more Reformation history for you – he is the one who was Protestant and then converted when the assassination of his predessessor meant he was next in line to the throne; he is supposed to have said:”Paris is worth a Mass” but historians say he didn’t, though it describes his thoughts). My ancestor came over to Scotland because he decided to stay Protestant and there were strong links between Scotland (particularly the East Coast) and France.

    A book which will give you masses of detail on the Reformation period is Diamaird McCulloch’s “Reformation” Europe: A House Divided. He covers up to 1660 I think and includes the English (hence Anglican i e Episcopalian) settlements in America.

    I have got a book on Elizabeth’s spymaster, which I’m not sure I dare read! She had the most efficient spy system in Europe – from the looks of it she could have taught the Gestapo a thing or two. If you want a modern take on hidey holes, have a quick read of Corrie ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place”. Her father was a watchmaker in the jewellery district and like Hatton Garden in London, it was a Jewish district. He loved the Jews and when the Nazis invaded he sheltered them – hence the description of constructing a hidey hole in the book.

    If you want to research recusant history, there are county recusant societies you can contact to give you a start. The Archdiocese of Birmingham has quite a lot of information, but I’m not sure what area it covers. Message me and I might be able to dig out some more detailed information.

  19. netokor says:

    Msgr. Benson’s Lord of the World is a story about the end of time and the persecution and almost total disappearance of the Church. It was written in 1907, but it eerily describes our secular world of today. I also downloaded it onto my kindle from the Gutenberg site. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if 2013 were the year of the return of Our Blessed Lord, as a post suggests? In any case, let’s all hang tight and pray that not one of us becomes an apostate. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis!

  20. acardnal says:

    Yes, Msgr. Benson’s “Lord of the World” is a classic. Everyone should read it.

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