Nicholas Owen enrolled as an apprentice to the Oxford joiner William Conway on the feast of the Purification of Blessed Mary, February 2nd ,1577. He was bound for a period of eight years and the papers of indenture state that he was the son of Walter Owen, citizen of Oxford, carpenter. Oxford at the time was strongly Catholic. The Statute of artificers determined that sons should follow the profession into which they were born. If he completed his apprenticeship it would have been in 1585. We know from Fr. Gerard that he began building hides in 1588 and continued over a period of eighteen years when he could have been earning good money satisfying the contemporary demand for well-made solid furniture.
Fr. Garnet in a letter dated 1596 writes of a carpenter of singular faithfulness and skill who has traveled through almost the entire kingdom and, without charge, has made for Catholic priests hiding places where they might shelter the fury of heretical searchers. If money is offered him by way of payment he gives it to his two brothers; one of them is a priest, the other a layman in prison for his faith.
Why should priests need hiding places? From 1585 it was considered treason, punishable by a traitor's death, to be found in England if a priest had been ordained abroad. Of Owen, the modern edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints says: "Perhaps no single person contributed more to the preservation of Catholic religion in England in penal times".
In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, 1605, the result of the frustration of a group of young Catholics when, after dropping hints of toleration, James I made it clear that there would be no relaxation of anti - Catholic legislation, the hunt for priests accused of complicity centred on Hindlip House. This had been provided with hiding places by Nicholas Owen which proved undetectable. He himself was there and when he emerged after four days of hiding he was arrested.
Contrary to English law, which forbade the torture of a man suffering from a hernia, as he was, he was racked day after day, six hours at a time. He died under torture without betraying any secret - and he knew enough to bring down the entire network of covert Catholics in England.
He was canonized in 1970, not merely for his endurance but for his sanctity, attested by his contemporaries. The anniversary of his death is March 2nd, which is also his feast day.
Further articles relating to the Life and times of St. Nicholas Owen can be found in our News & Articles section :-
The Martyrdom of St Nicholas Owen <Click Here>
St Nicholas Owen and the Gunpowder Plot <Click Here>