Nicholas Owen (Jesuit)

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Saint Nicholas Owen, S.J.
Edward Oldcorne; Nicholas Owen by Gaspar Bouttats.jpg
The torture of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, S.J., and of Saint Nicholas Owen, S.J.
an engraving by Gaspar Bouttats (17th century)
Forty Martyrs of England and Wales
Born c. 1550
Oxford, Kingdom of England
Died 1606
Tower of London, Kingdom of England
Honored in Roman Catholic Church
(England and Wales)
Canonized 25 October 1970, Vatican City, by Pope Paul VI
Feast March 22; [1]Jointly: 4 May (England) and 25 October (Wales)

Saint Nicholas Owen, S.J., (died 1606) was a Jesuit lay brother who built numerous priest holes during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England.[2] After his final arrest, he was tortured to death by prison authorities in the Tower of London. He is honoured as a martyr by the Catholic Church and was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970.


Little is known about his early life, but it is believed that he was born in Oxford, England, around 1550 into a devoutly Catholic family and grew up during the Penal Laws. He presumably became a carpenter by trade and for about 30 years built hiding places for priests in the homes of Catholic families. He frequently traveled from one house to another, under the name of "Little John", accepting only the necessities of life as payment before starting off for a new project.[3]

Owen was only slightly taller than a dwarf, and suffered from a hernia.[4] Nevertheless, his work often involved breaking through thick stonework; and to minimize the likelihood of betrayal he often worked at night, and always alone. The number of hiding places he constructed will never be known. Due to the ingenuity of his craftsmanship, some may still be undiscovered.[3]

A priest hole (hiding) in the staircase made by Nicholas Owen in a 16th-century manor-house, Harvington Hall, Worcestershire, UK.
Another priest hole made by Nicholas Owen in the library in the Harvington Hall
The same priest hole inside.

For many years, Owen worked in the service of the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet, and was admitted into the Society of Jesus as a lay brother. He was first arrested in 1582 or 1583, after the execution of Edmund Campion, for publicly proclaiming the latter's innocence, but was later released. He was arrested again in 1594, and was tortured, but revealed nothing. He was released after a wealthy Catholic family paid a fine on his behalf, the jailers believing that he was merely the insignificant friend of some priests. He resumed his work, and is believed to have masterminded the famous escape of Father John Gerard, S.J. from the Tower of London in 1597.

Early in 1606, Owen was arrested a final time at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire,[5] giving himself up voluntarily in hope of distracting attention from some priests who were hiding nearby. Realizing just whom they had caught, and his value, Secretary of State, Robert Cecil exulted: "It is incredible, how great was the joy caused by his arrest... knowing the great skill of Owen in constructing hiding places, and the innumerable quantity of dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests all through England."[2]

After being committed to the Marshalsea, a prison on the southern bank of the Thames, Owen was then removed to the Tower of London. Under English law, he was presumably exempt from torture, having been maimed a few years before when a horse had fallen on him. Nonetheless, he was submitted to terrible "examinations" on the Topcliffe rack, dangling from a wall with both wrists held fast in iron gauntlets and his body hanging. When this proved insufficient to make him talk, heavy weights were added to his feet. This torture was maintained until "his bowels gushed out with his life." However, Owen had revealed nothing to his inquisitors.[6]


The exact date of his death in 1606 is not agreed upon. Most sources presume 2 March, while others place his death on 12 November. Father Gerard wrote of him:

"I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular."[6]


Owen was canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales by Pope Paul VI on 25 October 1970. Their joint feast day was initially celebrated on the anniversary of the canonization. That feast has been moved in England to 4 May. His individual feast day is on March 22.[1] Catholic stage magicians who practice Gospel Magic consider St. Nicholas Owen the patron saint of Illusionists and Escapologists, due to his facility at using "trompe l'oeil" when creating his hideouts and the fact that he engineered an escape from the Tower of London.[7]


He is portrayed, as a minor character, in Robert Hugh Benson's novel Come Rack! Come Rope! (1912), where he is incorrectly named "Hugh Owen". One of his priest holes plays a key role in the Catherine Aird mystery novel A Most Contagious Game (1967). A priest hole attributed to him is also part of Peter Carey's novel Parrot and Olivier in America (2010).


  1. ^ a b "Biography of St. Nicholas Owen". St. Edwards Parish Kettering. Retrieved March 22, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg "Nicholas Owen". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ See Hogge, Alice (2005) God's Secret Agents London: Harper Collins, 118 (on his short stature), 364 (on his suffering from a hernia)
  5. ^ Lives of the Saints By Alban Butler, Peter Doyle, ISBN 0-86012-253-0
  6. ^ a b Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, Fr. John Gerard, S.J.
  7. ^ Article in National Catholic Register

Notable prisoners
Sir Francis Barrington
Edmund Bonner · Henry Chettle
Richard Cox · Robert Culliford
Robert Daborne · John Dickens
Thomas Drury · John Eliot
John Gerard · Hannah Glasse
John Baptist Grano · Nicholas Grimald
Charlotte Hayes · William Herle
Denzil Holles · Ben Jonson
Thomas Malory · Philip Massinger ·
George Morland · Nicholas Owen
Sally Salisbury · John Selden
Richard Shelley · Ralph Sherwin
Nicholas Udall · Robert Wingfield
George Wither

Related articles
Marshalsea Court

Related prisons
Borough Compter · Clink
Fleet · King's Bench
Tower of London

Prison reformers
James Neild · John Howard
James Oglethorpe

Related categories

External links[edit]