Nicholas Owen (birthday uncertain, 1606) was a Jesuit brother whose talents as
a mason and carpenter provided priests with concealed hiding places in the
homes of Catholics and enabled the priests to avoid capture despite the most
thorough of searches. The son of a carpenter and the brother of two priests,
Owen served as Father Edmund Campion's servant and was briefly arrested in
1582 when he spoke out on behalf of Campion's innocence. Then he came to work
with Father Henry Garnet, the mission superior.
Owen employed great ingenuity in devising the priest-holes, and even hid his
activities by working openly during the day as a regular carpenter, and
working on the hiding places only at night. The house servants would be
ignorant of his real activity and only he and the owner of the home would know
where he had created a hiding place by chipping through stone walls or
burrowing into the earth. Some of the places were big enough to accommodate
six to 10 people; others concealed inside another hidden room to throw the
priest-hunters off the scent. It was hard work to do by oneself, and he
suffered injuries in the process. The carpenter was briefly detained in 1594
when he was caught with Father John Gerard, but the police did not realize
they had in custody the mastermind behind the hiding places. They released
him, and he immediately returned to his work.
Father Garnet wrote a letter in 1588 expressing the hope that his carpenter
might someday enter the Society. No names were used, so it is not certain that
he was writing about Nicholas Owen, who never did make a formal novitiate; the
date he became a Jesuit remains unknown. His final moments, however, are quite
clear. He accompanied Garnet to Hinlip Hall, near Worcester, seeking shelter
during the crisis provoked by the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament.
Jesuits were blamed for the plot even though the actual conspirators had been
Garnet and Owen met Father Edward Oldcorne and Brother Ralph Ashley; all four
went into hiding holes in Hilip Hall, the two priests in one place, the two
brothers in another. The sheriff searched the house for several days without
finding the Jesuits until the brothers were forced to leave their hiding place
because of hunger and thirst. They tried to pretend to be the priests but
could not fool the searchers who uncovered a dozen hiding places before
finally apprehending the two priests.
The Jesuits were taken to London, and Owen was put into Marshalsea Prison
before being moved to the Tower to be tortured. The king's men realized they
had the only person who knew the location of the hiding places and residences
of priests all over the kingdom. They were eager to force him to uncover the
Catholic underground, but he was even more firm that he would not betray those
whom he had spent so much time protecting. He was tortured on the rack for
hours a day, several days in succession but maintained his silence. In
frustration the torturers kept adding weight to his feet but went beyond all
limits. On March 1 his abdomen burst open and his intestines spilled out. Owen
lingered on for one painful day before dying in the early hours of March 2.
The rack-master tried to cover his behavior, excessive even under the harsh
standards of the day, by saying that the Jesuit had committed suicide. Clever
and hard-working in his life, Nicholas Owen remained courageous and faithful
in his death.
Other English Martyrs
Originally Collected and edited by: Tom Rochford, SJ