Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S02 EP15: The priest’s hole
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Did you know there was a “priest’s hole” in many an old English manor house so that outlaw priests could escape undetected when the authorities came in search of them?
The priest’s hole would be hidden under floor covering or in a secret panel which would open on to a long passageway so that the outlaw priest could escape and come up maybe a mile away (in a moor or some other similar setting).
Why were Catholic priests treated as outlaws?
After Henry VIII broke away from the church in Rome, priests who continued to administer the Catholic sacraments were seen as subversives, intent on undermining the authority of the crown and the Church of England.
At the time, there were subversives, non-conformist intellectuals in England known as “recusants” who continued to practice the Catholic faith if only to spite the monarchy and its established religion. And royalists were constantly on the lookout for these subversives.
The reign of terror, of religious persecution against Catholics, escalated under Queen Elizabeth. If a priest were caught, he would be hanged until almost dead. Then he would be cut down, disemboweled and his genitals cut off and burned in front of him while he was still alive.
His heart would be cut out and raised to the cheers of the crowd. (You see how Englanders earned the name of the bloody British?)
After the priest was killed, his corpse would be sliced at the arms and legs, tied to four separate horses, which would pull in four different directions to tear away the limbs. (This was called being drawn and quartered.)
Finally, the corpse would be decapitated and the head impaled on a spike or a pole in a prominent place in the village as a warning to everyone that priests were not allowed in England.
(Are you beginning to get an idea why America’s founding fathers insisted on freedom of religion and why they outlawed cruel and unusual punishment when they broke away from England?)
Three famous people — a saint in the Catholic church and two literary giants — figure in the intrigue surrounding the persecution of Catholic priests in the late 1500s.
St. Charles Borromeo, the Catholic bishop of Milan, devised a shorthand (or coded) method for priests to hear in absentia the confessions of recusant Catholics on their death beds. The dying person would confess his or her sins to someone who was not a priest but who would, at a later date, confess the sins for them to a Catholic priest.
And then there was Christopher Marlowe, a famous writer before and during the time of Shakespeare. Marlowe, it appears, traveled to France, ostensibly to study for the priesthood. However, historians now suspect he was working as a spy for Queen Elizabeth so that he could, on his return to England, identify undercover priests whom he had seen in France.
William Shakespeare is the other great writer who figured in the religious intrigue in England. As a boy, he witnessed the execution of at least one Jesuit priest who had taught him. (This probably explains why Shakespeare depicts many decapitations in his earliest plays. He would return to this gruesome decapitation theme in later plays — most famously, of course, Macbeth.)
Shakespeare remained an enigmatic figure during England’s persecution of Catholics, but there is evidence he was a subversive or recusant Catholic.
His pro-Catholic leanings, however, were probably not religious in nature but financial. His father, John, was a devout Catholic who was heavily fined because he did not tithe the Church of England.
William, apparently, resented this because the confiscatory fines deprived William of the money that should have gone to him as his father’s heir.
Nonetheless, he had to sublimate this resentment when he launched his writing career. He felt the suspicious eyes of the royal censors on him and knew he had to demonstrate that he was more English and not as Catholic as his father.
So, in his early plays, he depicts Catholics in diabolic or villainous roles.
For instance, the first villain in his first play is an archenemy of the English, the Catholic saint, Joan of Arc (or Joan La Pucelle, as Shakespeare irreverently refers to her).
And, in his tenth play, which is set in Catholic Italy, Shakespeare depicts the priest, Friar Lawrence, as the one who hatches the plot which ends up with Romeo and Juliet killing themselves.
Royal censors liked this ending because it was a cautionary tale for play-goers: Do not confess your sins to a Catholic priest. It will lead to damnation.
As he grew more famous and accomplished in his craft, though, Shakespeare developed his special skill of writing things that had other, that is, subversive, meanings. That way he could doubletalk his way around the crown’s censors, claiming they were misreading or misunderstanding what he had written.
By the end of his career, however, many royalists had come to suspect Shakespeare was, in fact, a recusant Catholic. After Shakespeare died, one royal censor, complaining that the playwright had outfoxed them all, said Shakespeare “was born a papist and died a papist.”