St Nicholas Owen was born in 1562 in Oxford into a devout recusant family, and trained as a carpenter and joiner. As a Jesuit lay brother he became the servant of Henry Garnet SJ, the Superior of the English mission, in 1588 - a time when the penalty for Catholic priests discovered in England was torture and death. His carpentry skills were put to use in building priest holes or hiding places in the houses of Catholics all over the country. Known as “Little Jo hn”, (few of his clients knew his real name) Owen was of very short stature and suffered ill health, including a hernia. Nevertheless he spent eighteen years doing strenuous physical labour in cramped spaces, always alone and at night to avoid discovery. In 1597 he helped to plan the famous escape from the Tower of London of his Jesuit colleague John Gerard SJ. Fr Garnet said of him:
"I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular."
Owen was finally arrested in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. The authorities were delighted to have caught him, and hoped to extract valuable information under torture. They were disappointed. Nicholas Owen was arrested and taken away to Marshalsea Prison where he endured a great deal of torture. No exact records of what he endured are in existence, but we do know from Fr John Gerard, of the tortures that he endured:
They took me to a big upright pillar, one of the wooden posts which held the roof of this huge underground chamber. Driven into the top of it were iron staples for supporting heavy weights. Then they put my wrists into iron gauntlets and ordered me to climb two or three wicker steps. My arms were then lifted up and an iron bar passed through the rings of one gauntlet. This done, they fastened the bar with a pin to prevent it slipping, and then, removing the wicker steps one by one from under my feet, they left me hanging by my hands and arms fastened above my head … Hanging like this I began to pray … But I could hardly utter the words, such a gripping pain came over me. It was worst in my chest and belly, my hands and arms. All the blood of my body seemed to rush up into my arms and hands and I thought that blood was oozing out from the ends of my fingers and pores of my skin. But it was only a sensation caused by my flesh swelling above the irons holding them. The pain was so intense that I thought I could not possibly endure it … Sometime after one o’clock, I think, I fell into a faint. How long I was unconscious I don’t know, but I don’t think it was long, for the men held my body up or put the wicker steps under my feet until I came to. Then they heard me pray and immediately let me down again. And they did this every time I fainted – eight or nine times that day – before it struck five … The next morning the gauntlets were placed on the same part of my arms as last time. They would not fit anywhere else, because the flesh on either side had swollen into small mounds, leaving a furrow between; and the gauntlets could only be fastened in the furrow … I stayed like this and began to pray, sometimes aloud, sometimes to myself, and I put myself in the keeping of Our Lord and His blessed Mother. This time it was longer before I fainted, but when I did they found it so difficult to bring me round that they thought that I was dead, or certainly dying and summoned the Lieutenant … I was hung up again. The pain was intense now, but I felt great consolation of soul, which seemed to me to come from a desire of death … For many days after I could not hold a knife in my hands – that day I could not even move my fingers or help myself in the smallest way. The gaoler had to do everything for me.
Nicholas suffered all of this and more, made all the worse by the injuries he had incurred through years of manual labour. Yet he wouldn’t say anything. His two confessions stand from those days.
Examination of Nicholas Owen, taken on the 26th February, 1606.
He confesses that he has been called by the name of Andrews, but doesn’t know whether he has been known by the name Little John or Draper, or any other name other than Owen or Andrews.
That he came to Mr Abington’s house the Saturday before he was taken, but refuses to answer from what place he came to the house from.
He denies that he knows Father Garnett or that he has ever served him, or that Fr Garnett is known by the name Mease, Darcy, Whalley, Philips,, Fermor, or any other name.
He denies that he knows a Jesuit called Oldcorne or Hall, and also denies that he knows that Chambers served Hall the Jesuit.
He confesses that he has known George Chambers for six or seven years, and that he became acquainted with him at an ordinarie in Fleet Street and that at this time he served Mr Henry Drury of Sussex.
The confession of Nicholas Own, taken on the 1st March 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.
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.
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.