St. Nicholas Owen and the Gunpowder Plot
St. Nicholas Owen and the Gunpowder Plot
The English establishment had the Scots King James VI proclaimed James I of England before Elizabeth was buried. This had been anticipated even by the Catholics who had sent representatives to James to sound him out. They had been reassured by what they understood to be a promise of toleration. But nothing happened. When they remonstrated they were told that since the Protestants had so generously received and proclaimed him King he now had no need of Papists.
The last hope for the Catholics collapsed when peace was made with Spain. They had hoped that Catholic Spain, as part of the bargain, would have secured freedom for them to practice their religion. Relief of Catholics was discussed. James said that his Protestant subjects wouldn't stand for it. So there was to be no relief. In fact the screw was tightened again.
Bishops were ordered to excommunicate Catholics who would not attend church - this meant that no sale or purchase by them was valid, no property could be passed on by deed or by will. The level of persecution was higher than ever it had been under Elizabeth.
So frustration. This does not excuse the Gunpowder Plot, which, had it been successful would have killed so may innocent people.
What concerns us here is the involvement of Nicholas Owen.
The Government had the names of three Jesuits who were said to have consorted with the plotters.
John Gerard knew nothing of the plot. The other two, Oswald Tesimond and Henry Garnet, became aware only under the seal of confession and did their best to counsel against it. Fr Gerard and Fr Tesimond escaped abroad.
Fr Garnet, the Superior of the Jesuits in England, like a good captain of a ship, decided to remain. Attended by Nicholas Owen, he took refuge in a safe house.
Hindlip Hall, near Worcester, was supplied with multiple hiding places - presumably, at least in part, the work of Nicholas Owen - and was regarded as one of the safest houses in the whole of England.
At daybreak on Monday, 20th November, it was surrounded by 100 men. They began to rip the house to pieces.
In the dark, early on Thursday morning, two men were spotted stealing along a gallery. They said they were no longer able to conceal themselves, having had but one apple between them for four days. They would not give their names. One was Nicholas Owen.
It was hardly likely that Nicholas Owen, of all people, would not have been better provided. They had twice been tipped off during the previous week that a search was imminent.
Possibly they hoped that in giving themselves up they would distract attention from the two priests in hiding, Fr Garnet and Fr Oldcorne, even to being mistaken for them. It was a ruse that had worked before. It didn't work now.
The search was intensified.
The priests were in a hide which had been supplied with a feeding tube from an adjoining bedroom, but the hiding place had not been designed to be lived in for a week. After 8 days they emerged, were arrested and identified. All four were taken to London.
Nicholas Owen had been in prison before; he had been tortured before. He was now taken to the torture room, for the first time, on the 26th of February. His identity as a hide-builder seemed to have been betrayed.
"We will try to get from him by coaxing, if he is willing to contract for his life, an excellent booty of priests".
On the evening of March 1st a gentleman left the Tower saying it was rumoured that Owen had been tortured to death. That man would come up before the Star Chamber charged with treasonable speech because the Government had other plans.
On March 2nd it was announced that Nicholas Owen had committed suicide. People were simply incredulous. It would have been impossible for one who had been tortured as he had. The Venetian Ambassador reported home:
" Public opinion holds that Owen died of the tortures inflicted on him, which were so severe that they deprived him not only of his strength but of the power to move any part of his body".
It seems certain that the suicide story was a fiction concocted by a Government deeply embarassed to find itself with a corpse in its custody as a result of torture.
For those few grim days in February, writes a historian, as the Government tried to break him, the fate of almost every English Catholic lay in Owen's hands.
In life he had saved them, in death he would too: not a single name escaped him.