A team of scientists provided with 3D laser scanners have disclosed the secrets of a hidden room, known as a "priest hole," in the tower of an English Tudor mansion linked to the failed "Gunpowder Plot" to assassinate King James I in 1605.
New Study Reveals Secrets of the “Priest Holes”
The secrets of a hidden room in Coughton Court, a Tudor mansion associated with the plot to assassinate King James I in 1605, have been revealed in a new study. The double room was a hiding place for priests during the anti-Catholic persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries and was leased by Sir Everard Digby, one of the leading conspirators of the plot. According to Christopher King, an assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, and one of the lead researchers of the study, the “hidden” priest holes were originally built inside walls and between floors, as places where a priest could hide from their prosecutors, while the family of the house pretended to supposedly live an ordinary life. King told Live Science "We know that priests were hiding in these spaces for up to three days while people were searching the properties. Some of them are really very small, where the priest would be in quite an enclosed box-like space."
Coughton Court, Warwickshire ( CC by SA 3.0 )
A Little History Behind That Dark Era for Catholicism
During the 16th century, Europe was under the religious leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. However, over time, protests against the Catholic Church and its influence eventually led to the formation of the Protestant movement. The separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII in 1537 brought England alongside this broad Reformation movement. Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England , which began in 1558, Catholics were persecuted by law and priests were imprisoned, tortured, and frequently executed. As a result of this oppression, wealthy Catholic families began building secret chambers and passages in their homes called ‘priest holes’ in order to hide priests when the ‘priest hunters’ came searching. Priest hunters took their job very seriously, sometimes searching a house for days or even weeks. They would move furniture, lift floorboards, bang the walls for sounds of a hollow cavity, and plunge their swords between cracks and crevices. They counted windows from the outside and inside, and measured the height of ceilings and the length of walls, in the hope of detecting hidden chambers. Clearly, the priest holes had to be very cleverly constructed to evade such extensive searches.
The consequences if a priest were captured. Engraving by Gaspar Bouttats. ( Wikipedia)
Priest holes and were frequently built into fireplaces, attics, and staircases. Sometimes, a network of passages led to the final hiding place, at other times the priest hole was hidden inside another chamber, making it more difficult to find. However, more often than not the priest holes were tiny with no room to stand or move. Priests sometimes had to stay for days at a time with little to no food and water, and no sanitation. Sometimes, they would die of starvation or suffocation if the priest hunts went on for too long.
The Importance of the 3D Laser Scanning Equipment
The priest hole in Coughton Court was first discovered in the 1850s, but more details have now been revealed than ever before thanks to 3D laser scanners. In order to understand better how the priest hole was constructed and hidden from searchers, King and his colleagues used 3D laser scanning equipment to accurately spot the secret chambers and determine their location in relation to the rest of the building and its grounds.
The compound images and 3D computer models generated from the laser scans show the chamber's "double-blind" construction, which was constructed this way to deceive priest hunters into thinking they had found an empty priest hole, King told Live Science . “When they're searching, they think they've found the priest hole but it's empty, but actually the priest is hidden in the more concealed space beyond." And continues, "And that's what happens at Coughton: there's one chamber under the floor in the turret of the tower, and then there is another trap door that goes through into a second space, which we assume is where the priest was actually hiding." Ultimately, King’s colleague Dr. Lukasz Bonenberg of Nottingham University, emphasized on the significant help modern technology contributed to this project, “Terrestrial laser scanning is an important new technology for recording ancient monuments as they capture a huge amount of data very quickly and this is the first time that TLS has been used for the purpose of visualising hidden spaces inside Tudor houses. Digital visualizations of historic buildings are vital tools for helping the public to picture the past,” said as Daily Mail reports.
Top image: The priest hole at Coughton Court, England ( CC by SA 3.0 )
By Theodoros Karasavvas