In the thirteenth century the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire had significance far beyond the artificial twentieth century rivalry of these major northern counties. The houses of Lancaster and York were in a bloody struggle to get their man on the throne of a more or less unified England. Two centuries before the Norman Conquest, the country comprised small kingdoms roughly following present county boundaries, each with its local king. This contributed to continuing jostling between the white and red rose counties to have their own duke as the King of England, and attempts were made to defend and patrol county boundaries. Once over the border a person was beyond the legal jurisdiction of the county he had left. Although the Wars of the Roses came to an end in the fifteenth century by an amalgamation of the two houses by marriage and the accession of Henry VII, a person was still protected by flight over the county boundary from pursuit of the opposite side.
Until the sixteenth century Catholicism had reigned as the dominant Christian religion throughout Europe. A new wave of Protestantism spread from its nucleus in the low countries and culminated in the demarcation of a Church of England, separate from that of Rome, during the reign of Henry VIII.
The north of England was far enough from the seat of power in London to remain unruly in its determination to decide for itself whether to concede to Henry and later Elizabeth's dictates that Catholicism was outlawed. If a local knight or lord determined to worship in the old way for political or personal reasons it was relatively easier to do so in the northern counties. There is also evidence of far more dependence on the order and employment in these areas provided by the monasteries and abbeys. (1)
Robert Hall, Tatham is in Lancashire and always was. John Cansfield had built it in the early sixteenth century (2), the estate having been granted to him for services of a knightly nature to Lord Mounteagle of Hornby and bore his coat of arms over the entrance.
The family adhered to the catholic religion and there are records of incumbent priests from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries when a "mission" was built in Hornby. The population of the area was scanty anyway and therefore the number of worshippers who secretly gathered to hear mass was a small one. The Cansfields as recusants ran the risk of fines, and this did happen. The serfs could skip over the county border into Yorkshire if caught hearing mass where they were relatively protected from the Lancastrian penalties. Hence the significance of county boundaries. The biggest risk was to the priests who were likely to be hanged; and thus hiding places were constructed where they could be concealed for as long as necessary. The catholic population was reported to be 5 in 1717 and 15 in 1767, the priest being named Pennington in that year. Robert Hall is now a farm run by the Hope family and Mrs. Judith Hope is fairly certain that a large space, now with no access, lies behind a chimney on the south side of the house. It appears on the outside as a rounded wall.
Robert Hall like any other old building has been changed greatly over the centuries, the square bays were removed in the mid-nineteenth century presumably because they were rotting and the building had by then become a farm and was no longer a manor. Practical measures may also have dictated the opening of a large barn door into the north facing great hall. The coat of arms was moved to its present position over the arched doorway. One of the splendours of the hall is the fine array of Elizabethan chimneys and chimney breasts on the south side of the house.
Firmly in Yorkshire, Lawkland Hall was another holdout for the catholic faith in the troubled religious times of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Giles Bowring courteously gave me much verbal information and access to historic documents as well as showing me the priest hole. As he said, much myth and folklore is associated with this subject and people believe what they want to rather than observing the facts.
There is a cross on the west front gable of Lawkland Hall which may or may not mark the site of the sixteenth century chapel. The priest hole was discovered this century on the second floor with a two foot square trap door entrance which is easy to get into but not so easy to get out of. It was pointed out to me by the owner that the wood trim of the entrance was not sixteenth century and therefore modification was likely to have taken place over the years. It was a space some 5 ft x 3 ft X 5 ft with a shaft for air into the chimney on the far right. Possibly a stone seat is sited at the opposite end, although in correspondence between Nicholas Squires, who taught at Ampleforth, and a previous owner in 1932, there was scepticism about the stone bench. Once inside, the general impression was of a large hole filled with stone rubble, and I had no emotions of fear, excitement or sanctity, to my disappointment. Priest holes are often incorporated into the chimney systems, as in this building. "The flues were turned into cupboards. Under one, the space was used as a hide. It is well concealed because on the floor below the flue was broken through to make a doorway and the hide occupies the space above the lintel". (3) Nicholas Squires' scholarly correspondence with a past owner, Mr. Ambler, raises all sorts of questions as to fact and fantasy, but he notes the hole seems to be work of Nicholas Owen who travelled the country expertly concealing priests' hiding places. (4)
It is tempting to make certain comparisons between present day Shiite and Sunni Muslims, with their harsh rivalries, and the vicious retributions on both catholic and Protestant sides of Christianity, four centuries ago. However, those intolerances in this country have led to the addition of interesting artefacts such as priest holes in some of the magnificent old buildings standing in this area. Maureen Ellis.
(1) Dr. Christopher Haigh, English Heritage Magazine March 1991 13
(2) Victoria History of Lancashire 8, part 3 of Index
(3) Hide or Hang by Dr. Winifred Haward, Dalesman publication
(4) Private Papers 1932, Granville Squires to Mr. Ambler.
The author wishes to thank Mr. Duckworth and staff of Lancaster Reference Library for their invaluable help and Mrs. Veronica Kelly, the artist who drew the picture of Robert Hall which appears on the cover.
Lord Mounteagle of Hornby's coat of arms