Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Silence of St. Nicholas Owen


St. Nicholas Owen, SJ, the Jesuit lay brother and carpenter extraordinaire, died under torture on March 22, 1606. The Jesuits in Britain website notes this about him:

Many of the martyrs of England died very public deaths on the scaffold of Tyburn, but Nicholas died as he had lived; in secret. We have no memorable saying of his to meditate on – his priest holes, which are his wordless prayers, are all that remain. Nicholas in his agonised, furtive death had finished with all concealment and disguises and was welcomed by Campion and all the martyrs into a fellowship where there is no use for human language.

We do, however, have the record of what he said under torture in 1606:

He confesses that he has known and sometimes attended Henry Garnett, the Provincial of the Jesuits for around four years.

He confesses that he was at the house of Thomas Throgmorton called Coughton at the beginning of November last year, when the Lady Digby was there and by the watch that was in town they knew that Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, and the rest of the gun powder plotters were up in arms.

That on All Saints Day last year, Garnett said Mass at Coughton House, and that at that Mass there were around half a dozen people.

That Henry Garnett was at Henlipp, the house of Thomas Abington some six weeks before he was apprehended and Hall the Jesuit was there about three days before the house of Mr Abington was searched.

That while he was staying with Garnett, he made his fire and served him and that both he and Garnett hid in a secret room below the dining room.


As the Jesuit website notes:

There was no new information in these confessions and the authorities lost patience. The tortures became more violent and on the next day, despite a plate they had fitted around Nicholas to prevent the torture further damaging his pre-existing injuries, Nicholas died, quite literally broken apart by the torture.

The authorities were now in an awkward position. Not only had they been torturing illegally an already injured man, but they had murdered him before extracting a confession. A cover up was swiftly arranged with an inquest returning a verdict of suicide.


The cover up was as bad as the crime.

There is no portrait of St. Nicolas Owen, but on this other page at the Jesuits in Britain website there is a depiction of him, the other Jesuit brother captured, tortured, and martyred, Blessed Ralph Ashley, and Father Henry Garnet, who was also captured tortured and martyred along with Blessed Edward Oldcorne, but has never been beatified or canonized because of concern about his involvement with the Gunpowder Plot. All four of them were arrested at Hindlip Hall on January 23, 1606. They were all hiding in the priest holes St. Nicholas Owen had created, but were without food and water and had to surrender--the pursuivants had not found the hiding places Owen had built!

St. Nicholas Owen, pray for us!

Image credit: the original Hindlip Hall.

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