Harvington Hall is a strangely fortified English manor house whose name all but demands to be pronounced in a cartoonish British accent, and which also holds a number of secret compartments built by the saint of illusionists to hide Catholic priests.
Originally built in the 1580s by an undoubtedly British, and devoutly Catholic man named Humphrey Pakington, Harvington Hall quickly began to serve as a hideaway for Catholic priests, secretly worshipping during a time in the country’s history when practising Catholicism was punishable by imprisonment or death. The manor house was uniquely suited to concealing the priests as it is surrounded on two sides by moats, and a lake bordering the third, making intense inspection of the property difficult.
When the home became part of a loose network of houses dedicated to hiding Catholic priests, Jesuit builder Nicholas Owen was sent to the building to install a number of secret “priest-hides.” The clandestine compartments and holes could hide the holy men should the Queen’s men come calling. Owen built little cubbies hidden behind false attic walls that could be accessed through a fake chimney; a beam that could flip up on an access point revealing a chamber in the walls (which was only discovered 300 years later by some children who were playing in the house); and most elaborately, a secret room was hidden behind another secret compartment under a false stair. Smaller compartments to hide the priest’s tools were also built into the floors.
Owens’ skill at building hidden rooms was so great that no priest taking refuge in one of his creations was ever found out. Unfortunately Owens himself was captured by the Crown while distracting soldiers from a hiding priest. Owens was taken to the Tower of London where he was tortured to death, never uttering a word on any of his hidden charges. He was later canonized and is now considered the patron saint of illusionists and escapists.
Harvington House still stands, and is the best preserved example of priest-holes still extant in Britain. In addition to the historic holes, a number of Elizabethan wall-paintings were uncovered in the residence as well. The house is now owned and preserved by the Catholic church that it worked so hard to preserve.
Know Before You Go
Three miles south-east of Kidderminster on A450.