Harvington Hall is an Elizabethan manor house built on a triangular island bordered by a moat on two sides and a lake to the north. It was originally constructed by a devote Catholic, Humphrey Packington, during the 1580’s on the site once occupied by an earlier medieval hall. Located between the towns of Bromsgrove and Kidderminster in Worcestershire, it is now owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham. Harvington Hall is renowned for its secret chambers that were once used to hide priests during a time in British history when it was ruled illegal to practice Catholicism. Both priest and worshippers who were discovered by the so-called ‘Pursuivants” (agents) of Queen Elizabeth I, were likely to face confiscation of their lands, torture, imprisonment and even execution. Harvington Hall is recognised as having some of the best surviving examples of these ‘priest holes’ in Britain. So well hidden were these secret rooms that no priest was ever discovered.
There are four main priest holes, all of which are located near the central staircase and are believed to have been created by Nicholas Owen (aka Little John) a Jesuit master builder who was active from 1588 and who was renowned for his skill in architectural concealment. It was Owen who was instrumental in creating a network of safe-houses for priests during the early 1590’s and for masterminding the escape of the Jesuit, Father John Gerard, from the Tower of London in 1597. Shortly after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, Owen was discovered leaving one of his priest holes in nearby Hindlip House and later tortured to death in the Tower of London during 1606. He withstood the torture and never revealed the locations of his secret chambers. Owen was canonised in 1970 and has become the Patron Saint of escapologists and illusionists. It’s also ironic to note that Hindlip Hall is now the headquarters of the West Mercia Police.
A false fireplace in the Marble Room led into the attic and allowed a priest to rapidly leave his room even if all the entrances were guarded. Considerable attention was spent on the details including bricks that had been blackened by fire. From the attic, the priest could listen to the search taking place in his room. If it seemed as if they had confirmed that it had been in use he could go further into the attic or use another exit to escape to another part of the house.
The most sophisticated priest hole is located under the boards of the grand stairway. Two of the steps are linked by a hinge that allows them to be lifted quite easily. The logic of using the stairs is very sensible as they would often have guards stationed on them during a search. This would make it a very safe place indeed. Even if the secret compartment under the steps was discovered it would just reveal a small area containing some minor treasures. The real priest hole was concealed in a second compartment that could only be reached by a secret panel at the rear of the first chamber, if those doing the search weren’t distracted by the hidden valuables.
One priest hole that was only discovered 300 years after it was built was concealed behind a pivoted timber beam in the room that is known as Dr. Charles Dodd’s Library. (Real name Hugh Tootell). It was apparently found by two children who had been playing there in 1897. It still contained a small table for the use of the priests. This hide was constructed in the corridor leading off the Grand Room and is one of the original priest holes constructed before Nicholas Owen built the four that surround the Grand staircase which he rebuilt to disguise the debris and disarray created by his work.
Not only does Harvington Hall have some of the best-preserved priest holes (hides) in Britain, it also had a concealed chapel where Mass could be held by whichever priest was in the residence at the time. Floorboards in the corner of the Chapel can be raised revealing a hidden storage compartment where the utensils used for a catholic Mass could be concealed in the event of a raid on the house.
Camping and Caravanning Club Site
Wolverley Rd, Wolverley, Kidderminster
Worcestershire, England, DY10 3PX
+44 (0)1562 850 909
- Address: Harvington Hall Lane Harvington Kidderminster Worcestershire England DY10 4LR
- GPS: 52.367775,-2.181347222
- Phone: 0044 (0)1562 777 846
- Part of UK: England
- Sat Nav Postcode: DY10 4LR
- Entrance Fees: Yes
- Disabled Access: Reasonable to ground floor
- Visibility from Road: Excellent
- Image Credits: Header Image: Paul Vincent