Priest Holes, Persecution and Catholic History

Years ago when I was a child, my parents took me and my sisters to an old stately home in England called Speke Hall. One of the Hall’s attractions is a priest hole, indicating that the house must once have been the home of a Catholic family who remained faithful to the Church throughout the turbulent times of the Protestant Reformation. I found this priest hole fascinating only because it was a secret hiding place. I wasn’t a Catholic at the time, and I knew nothing about priests and the persecution of Catholics. I was much more interested in the story of the lady who’d jumped out of the window, after hearing her husband had gambled their fortune away. She fell to her death, taking her baby with her. As a child, I always thought of her as ‘the lady who threw her baby out the window’. I suppose that particular Speke Hall story comes from an era different from that of the priest hole.

It was many years before I understood the significance of priest holes. Now I wish I could return to Speke Hall and walk in the footsteps of those brave and faithful Catholics who would not deny their religion in order to save their lives.
I can’t go to Speke Hall but I can catch a glimpse of those past times by reading the historical fiction of such authors as Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson.
Benson wrote a number of fiction books about the Protestant Reformation in England, including the novel, Come Rack! Come Rope! I bought this book some years ago. It was quite expensive but I thought it was money well spent as we all enjoyed the story so much.
Here’s the Amazon book description:
Some years before this book was written, H. Belloc wrote that R. Benson would be the man to write some day a book to give us some sort of idea what happened in England between 1520 and 1560. Come Rack! Come Rope! is the most vivid and gripping novel ever written about how the Reformation happened. In this book, the appalling events come to life. This novel tells of the struggles and sufferings of Catholic Recusants under Queen Elizabeth I of England. One such Recusant, Robin Audrey, is shocked to learn his father has decided to leave the Catholic Church for the safety of the Church of England. The narrative follows Robin’s struggle with the call of faith, as he is torn between his dream of marriage and a priestly vocation, which would entail further persecution and might even end in martyrdom.
I wanted to read Benson’s other books but, at the time, I couldn’t afford to buy them. I was very excited when I eventually found them as free ebooks. Some months ago, I downloaded By What Authority? and The King’s Achievement. Imogen and Charlotte were also interested in this period of history, so we all read and enjoyed these books together.
Come Rack! Come Rope! and By What Authority? are set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The King’s Achievement is set in an earlier time when King Henry VIII was on the throne.
All three books tell the story of Catholic families who lived during the time of the Reformation, when people had to choose between their religion and their lives. It was a time when being a priest, or harbouring a priest, was considered treason. It was a time of great fear and suspicion and suffering, but also a time of great love, when some Catholics would endure anything to remain faithful to the Church. Great risks were taken to celebrate Mass and receive Communion, and all these risks were considered worth it. Of course, it was also the time of great martyrs and saints.
Most of the characters in these books actually existed and the novels are based on real events.
I’d recommend these books for teenagers and adults. If you love learning about history by reading historical fiction, you will enjoy these books.
Robert Hugh Benson’s books are available from the ManyBooks website in many different formats, and also as Kindle ebooks from Amazon. All these ebooks are free. The novels can also be purchased as paperback books.
Something extra…
Robert Hugh Benson has written other books. I have also read Lord of the World, an apocalyptic novel which apparently caused a stir when it was first released:
I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point…

It is set in a future time when the Earth is ruled by a one world government, with an anti-Christ at its head. The Catholic Church has dwindled to a small minority. It is a very interesting story. Written in1907, Benson’s technological predictions were incorrect. Technology has moved so much further ahead than he ever thought possible. But the story of where religion and the Catholic Church could be headed is both believable and frightening.
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  1. Reply

    We're coinciding, Sue! Adam's reading 'Come Rack, Come Rope!, now. He's enjoying it more than Antonia Frazer's 'The Gunpowder Plot' because it's not so heavy. I really enjoyed both books. I thought they were very enlightening and easier to imagine than dry history books.

    I agree with your review of 'The Lord of the World.' It was disturbing and also quite frightening in the details that Robert Hugh Benson got right. The ending wasn't what I expected but it was an interesting read. It stirred a lot of thinking.

    I remember Speke Hall for the tragic lady and her baby. I don't remember the priests' hole but I wish I could go back there, too. It's a sad but fascinating story, somehow.

    Another interest that we share, Sue – I loved reading these books!

    God bless:-)

    1. Reply


      Antonia Frazer's books are so well researched and detailed but, like Adam, I find them a bit heavy going. I keep losing track of who everyone is and what they did. I love the photos though, and I often read bits and pieces from various chapters.

      I thought you'd remember Speke Hall! You remember the lady and her baby too! But not the priest hole. I did some research. Speke Hall was indeed the home of a faithful Catholic family, the Norris family. This is the bit I found interesting: "The house features a thunderbox toilet, a priest hole and a special observation hole built into a chimney in a bedroom to allow the occupant to see the approach to the house to warn the priest that people were coming. There is also an eavesdrop (a small open hole under the eaves of the house) which allowed a servant to listen in on the conversations of people awaiting admission at the original front door."

      If you enjoyed "Come Rack! Come Rope" you will also like the other two Reformation novels… if you haven't already read them!

  2. Reply

    Thanks Sue 🙂 Have you read Sun Slower, Sun Faster? It's also British history from a Catholic perspective but suitable for younger kids.

    1. Reply


      We are reading that very book at the moment! "Sun Faster, Sun Slower" made me think of the Robert Hugh Benson novels, and that's why I posted about them. We are thinking along the same lines!

      I must admit I am glad I am familiar with British History, and in particular, the Catholic perspective, otherwise I think I might be getting a bit lost in the Sun Faster book. It covers a huge time period. I keep sending the girls out to the hall, where we have a Kings and Queens frieze stuck to the wall, so they can see who's who in the story. The older girls made the frieze a couple of years ago to help us remember the order of the monarchs and their distinguishing features.

      My friend, Gerard recommended reading Sun Faster with a British history book close at hand. A great suggestion!

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