The Priest Hole

by Bruce Meyer

Even so, my sun one early morn did shine
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 33

Thomas and Beatrice lived in a Seventeenth-century stone cottage in Gloucestershire. They had a quince tree in the garden, and Beatrice made an effort each year to pick the fuzzy golden fruit, peel the delicate velvet skin from each aromatic bauble, and, with a touch of cardamom to remind the taster of the quince’s exotic origins in the ancient east she made jelly for gammon steaks. Thomas was a poet. Beatrice was his muse. He liked to joke he only married her for her name. That made her blush.

As lunch concluded and Beatrice wrapped up a jar of her precious quince jam for me to take home to Canada, Beatrice said they had a surprise for me. I would enjoy meeting Frank and Angus — two Americans who had purchased an old Tudor at the far end of the valley. The two men were in the process of saving their house from the ravages of its age.

“As you enter,” Beatrice said, “You’ll see a bit of Jane Austen at the gate. Cows are silly creatures. They won’t step over a cow grate and they won’t step on it for fear it will carry them down to Hell.”

Thomas added that Jane Austen mentioned cow grates in her novels. I wanted to tell Thomas Jane Austen had also mentioned baseball, probably without knowing what she was talking about or what sports history she was making when she commented on boys playing stickball on the green across from the Bennett home in Pride and Prejudice.

Frank and Angus’ Tudor manor looked the worse for wear. The house had been a training facility for the Americans during the war. It could just as well have been an artillery target. The right flank of the façade was crumbling. The American couple was standing on the scrolled porch. A pair of mermaids carved into the portal hovered above them, riding on limestone waves. The elegance was unnecessary, but very beautiful. Artistically, the Tudor Age believed in the necessity of unnecessary craftsmanship, the flourish they retained from the smoky incantations of Latin prayers. Those twists and curls can be seen in the eloquence of embroidered gloves, dresses, and even bed curtains, and the visual eloquence of the flourish can be heard in the final couplet of English sonnets, the trumpeting ta-da where the solution to a problem is presented. No poem was complete without a flourish. Shakespeare understood art as a secular theology. His Sonnet 33 longs for an Easter mass as a means of speaking to Him.

My visit to the manor coincided with a moment in literary scholarship when critics argued the premise of Shakespeare as a closet Catholic. The foundations of his home just off the Strand in London, now the basement of a pub, revealed the remnants of a collapsed tunnel leading directly to the Thames. His house must have been a revolving door for soon-to-be martyred Jesuit priests arriving from the continent to spread their version of God. Almost all of them were burned for it.

Shakespeare’s father, John, whitewashed the walls of the family church in Stratford to hide the murals depicting the sacred acts of Medieval saints. William Shakespeare, as a boy, must have been fascinated and tormented by the visions of hell and suffering and the power that visual narrative could have on the mind as he looked up from his prayers to St. Catherine toasting on a rack or St. Lucy carrying her plucked eyes on a plate.

A recent cleaning had proven the whitewash to be as cheap a piece of workmanship as one could have managed in Elizabethan England. At the first splash of water and detergent, the slap-dash whitewash melted away to reveal a labyrinth of Medieval hagiography hidden from the world for centuries. The final act of Taming of the Shrew, for example, can be read as a Catholic-code sermon on an apocalyptic love relationship between Christ the Bridegroom played by Petruchio and Mankind the Bride depicted as Kate. It was an age where even a sonnet such as 33 was woven with imagery of the Easter resurrection mass.

There is another theory that the poet and Catholic pamphleteer, Thomas Campion –  martyred for his adherence to Catholicism — was Shakespeare’s cousin. In his final pronouncements against the vanities of worldliness and those who refused to serve the old faith, Campion had chastised his “cousin” for seeking “shewes” and illusions, a reference to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare, as I studied him closely, revealed himself to be the master of clever disguised, a king of words as a form of greasepaint, and a reveller in the art of casting spells. He mesmerized Elizabethan audiences. He mesmerized me every time I went to one of his plays. I am not sure what he believed, but I am certain of what he made me believe.

I share these literary details only because they are a preamble to what was about to happen during my visit to the restoration project. They had intentions, perhaps delusions, that their house, rebuilt to its original glory, would make the Nation Trust list of protected properties. What they saw, Frank said as they welcomed us in, was not a house, but a story about faith, love, and persecution. Angus added that both he and Frank understood what the dwelling was telling them. They had survived the bathhouse raids in New York, had marched with Harvey Milk in San Francisco, and fled from one end of America to another in search of a place where they could share their love. Quentin Crisp’s England offered them a small measure of asylum.

The main chamber just off the entrance hall, a vaulted room where gatherings and revels could have taken place, possibly including Shakespeare, Frank said with his voice rising in an inflection of question, had an exquisitely carved ceiling. Set into each arch were small wooden shields.

Angus said he was researching their meaning. They were possibly the shields of families who had connections to the original owners of the house.

Another theory Frank chipped in was that the coats of arms belonged to nobles who shared the same view of faith. Anyone from the secret police of the age might enter the room in search of those who violated the laws governing beliefs, yet never thought to raise their eyes to Heaven or the ceiling to discover who was honoured in the decorative motifs. The two men nodded at each other as if they were in on a secret.

We made our way into a smaller dining room, a breakfast room. The couple suspected it may have served a different purpose in Tudor times as a chapel. The small room had late Medieval stained glass windows, possibly saved from the dissolution of the local monastery. The space had been converted to cozier, domestic use by the Victorian owners. Angus added the Victorians did cozy so very well.

Frank commented the Victorians were collectors of bric-a-brac. We all laughed politely, though it wasn’t funny.  Beatrice said nothing. She accumulated Victorian ‘things,’ to the point her home reminded me of an antique shop.

The door from the breakfast room had been gated to keep two golden retrievers in the kitchen. The dogs were delighted to see us. As we circled the dining room table and Frank and Angus held up their favourite pieces of Tudor pottery, explaining the practical purposes of each and the decorative features that made the Elizabethan household ware far less drab than one suspected. The dogs hung close by. Their tails wagged back and forth enthusiastically and began striking the fat, urn-shaped legs of the Elizabethan oak table, and after repeated blows, the tails began to bleed from enthusiasm. Frank and Angus, at their end of the table, had no idea why Thomas, Beatrice, and I were shielding our faces and throwing our arms across our heads. The dogs were showering us in blood.

I tried to make a joke about golden retrievers being “Dominicans,” based on the Latin word. ‘Domine’ for God and ‘canis for dog’ but no one got it and the conversation drifted over topics such as costs until Frank looked at Beatrice and exclaimed, “My dear you are covered in blood!” I pointed at the dogs.

“Oh dear,” said Frank, as he set down a large jug on the serving board. “Out boys! Out now! Treats in the garden!” He led the dogs away. My shirt was splattered. Angus reached up and pulled a paisley hanky from his jacket pocket and mopped Thomas’ face.

“Oh, look, you poor things are so covered. Let me get you each a damp towel to sponge that off. Terrible of the boys.”

 I couldn’t resist the temptation to tell them that in Spain there was a dog that venerated as a saint and that we had been anointed in holy blood. Thomas realized I was trying to inject levity into the situation to ease the tension.

“That would be Saint Roch, wouldn’t it? You can also pronounce the name the same way you say rock.”

Frank, who had returned from the garden, and Angus got that joke.

“Ah, you are into hagiology?” Frank asked.

“Yes.,” I said because I had done some work on Medieval literature. “I love the Legenda Aurea.” 

Everyone nodded in agreement that it was fascinating though pointless reading.

“Well,” said Angus, “we knew that before you got here. Thomas gave us the old heads-up on you, and we have something special to show you.

 We ascended the grand staircase and entered their bedroom. A red velvet brocade bedspread lay crumpled on the floor, the sheets ajar.

 “Forgive the sinner and bless the sin,” Frank said. I wasn’t sure if that was a cliché I should know or an obscure reference to St. Augustine’s Confessions. We stepped into a bay window.

“Did you see this tower as you came up the drive?” asked Angus.

I hadn’t, but I let him continue with his explanation.

“The tower,” he said, stacking one hand atop the other, “is far taller than either the floor or ceiling space of this room. This puzzled us. There was an old carpet nailed to the floor –”

“We found out after we had mangled it that it was a Persian carpet dating from about 1400 and worth a king’s ransom,” Frank interjected while tossing a slightly angry glance toward Angus.”

“Let me finish,” said Angus as he slapped Frank’s hand. “Well, we took up the carpet, as delicately, of course, as we could using only the meanest of d.i.y. tools, and what should we find underneath …Voila!”

Angus opened a trap door on the floor and reached behind a curtain to switch on a light.

“We just had the light installed. We’re trying to fix the place up to impress the folks from the National Trust.”

I peered into the hole.

“Have you ever seen anything like it?” asked Thomas? I shook my head.

“It’s a priest hole. When Catholic families continued to say mass after it was banned on pain of death by the Tudors — Edward and then Elizabeth — wealthy families hired priests from the continent to come and secretly perform mass.”

I stared into the pit on the floor. Beneath me was a room with a bed, a small desk, and a chair. The bed was dressed in tea-coloured linens. A blanket, worn to holes by moths, was spread upon the bed. A crude wooden chair was set back from a small table as if someone had just stood up, having dipped a quill pen in their hand. A pewter inkwell sat to the right-hand side of the desk, its lid up, the ink inside dried and black with a scattering of drips running down the tarnished grey side. In the middle of the desk were papers, and I could make out the scrawl of Elizabethan hand – a leaning cursive of the variety used on the continent, a script favoured by the Jesuits. On the left was a candle. Nubs of wax pooled on the brass bobeche, and a random teardrop of yellow wax clung to the base of the sconce.

“Aside from the cobwebs we cleared with a broom as delicately as we could, the room is exactly as we found it except for the shoes. We found them under the desk as if the priest had kicked them off while working on what appears to be a letter,” Frank noted. “Those shoes were so sad we had to put them in a glass case as a kind of memorial to the priest. We’ll show them to you. They are down the hall outside the loo.”

“They never found a cassock, did they?” asked Thomas.

Angus looked at the floor and replied, “Alas, no. We speculate, and the historians we’ve had in agree, that he was likely interrupted in the middle of his work and either ran away barefoot or was hauled away.”

“Barefoot?” I asked. “What does the written material say?”

Frank handed me a card. “The priest had been describing his progress in the community. It appears the authorities got their man but not his work, and the family, likely imprisoned, or worse, for having a priest in their house, kicked the carpet into place, until someone centuries later nailed the ancient rug down. The family likely had their library confiscated. We’ve combed Francis Walsingham’s secret police records. He was a meticulous record-keeper, though most of what he collected was gathered under torture. We don’t have any record of an arrest being made in connection with this house or this area around the time the letter is dated. Perhaps the more ardent of the locals took matters into their hands.”

I imagined a young man in a cassock running barefoot through the dawn dews of the green overgrowth. I could feel his heart racing, his lungs breathless, the cold of the darkness before sunrise chilling up through his legs and eating into his shins. With each laboured breath, he tries to whisper a prayer to God or the Virgin to help him in his hour of need, and all he hears are the sounds of owls in the woods, the brush of his feet against the dewy weeds, and the padding of his feet in patches of soft mud.

 “I can almost picture him,” I said.

“Would you like to put your imagination to the test?” Frank asked.

He went behind one of the bay window curtains and pulled out a rope ladder. “Get the total experience,” he said as he dropped the ladder into the space. “But first, take off your shoes. You may have noticed the woven, thatched mat on the floor, and we’d like to keep that as pristine as possible. I took off my shoes and descended the ladder.

Frank pulled the ladder up after I reached the floor of the secret room and then shut off the light and flipped the trapdoor shut.

I sat at the desk in darkness. I waited. I couldn’t see the glowing numbers on my watch face. I could hear my breath and then my heartbeats. The pounding in my chest drew me deeper and deeper into my thoughts. Had an hour passed? I realized I was in the same place I had been as a youth when I went for my first confession, a dark recess of my soul where I was alone with myself yet sensing a presence that lurked just beyond the edges of my inner depths.

 “Okay, I get the point. Fun and games. Time for me to move on.” No one replied.

I thought I had closed my eyes. I felt as if I was dreaming. I could imagine a winter morning somewhere in the future when I felt I had hit rock bottom when the academic world I was pursuing with such vehemence and scholarly fervour had turned its back on me.

A voice spoke out of the darkness. The voice asked me what I had done, and I confessed all my faults to it, reaching deep within myself to fathom my own life in a way that I had never explored before. I told the voice that I had suffered at the hands of my enemies — a bad graduate supervisor who had written a lousy reference for me without any palpable reason; a boss who had abused me by overworking me and belittling my efforts until I was beyond breaking, and crying out into the night that I couldn’t stand my job any longer. My life had gone off course and I didn’t know how to fix it.

And then, I told the voice I forgave my tormentors. I could no longer carry the burden of my sins or the wrongs they had inflicted, and I wanted more than anything in my heart to forgive them, to be free of their wrongs to restart my life. I wanted to know the love of God at work in this world so my soul to know and understand. I wanted to become a better person in my encounter with the Almighty. And with that, the voice absolved me.

The trap door opened. Light from the bedroom window blinded me. Frank, Angus, and Thomas were peering down at me.

“Watch it now,” said Frank. I was blinded by the light of green trees, fields, and low grey clouds lurking over the English countryside. Beatrice grabbed my arm to steady me as I ascended the ladder.

“How was it down there?” asked Angus?

“Did you meet any ghosts?” Thomas questioned. “I doubt you could see anything down there.”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell them I had hallucinated in the priest hole and some of what I saw spoke of possible futures spreading before me — things to come over which I might not have any control.

I couldn’t speak of the barefooted priest, his breath hanging heavy in a cloud before his eyes as he hid in a thicket while Queen’s men beat at the bushes with long sticks as if they were trying to flush out a pheasant. I could not tell them the places I had been, the horrific sense of forever and darkness and loneliness I had felt in the priest hole. They would have thought I was mad.

So I said nothing except, “I am glad to be up here again.”

They laughed. I am not sure they knew just what I was glad about, but Thomas looked at me and nodded and smiled with a sense that he, too, had experienced something personal when he had gone down the priest hole and emerged to write poems about the beauty of cowslips and the first signs of spring, writings that he proudly showed me over tea when we went back downstairs.

As my eyes adjusted to the daylight, I paused for a moment to stare through the leaded bay windows onto the green, pastoral setting where a flock of cloud-white sheep bleated amongst themselves as if they were singing matins in the dead of night. They chewed on tufts of a field beyond a crumbling garden wall.

I looked down at where an Elizabethan garden had once been laid and saw the shadows of an ancient maze still visible in the risings and fallings of the grass. And one thought entered my mind: the world, for all its cruelty and suffering, was struggling to seek out the fragments of Eden time had left behind. It would be more than a life’s work to piece them together like a puzzle or the remains of a crumbling and possibly irredeemable house. And the sun was shining, not as a late afternoon sun on an overcast spring day, but as if it had just risen, bright and blinding, and my future was about to begin as if I had never had a life before.


Bruce Meyer is an award-winning author of more than 70 books of short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and bestselling non-fiction. He is Professor of Communications at Georgian College.

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