||2 March 1606 - Tower of London
Often called "Little John" because of his diminutive stature, Nicholas Owen has frequently been called
John Owen in error. Owen was the son of an Oxfordshire carpenter, and was himself a skilled builder and
joiner prior to entering the Society of Jesus as a coadjutor around 1577. Henry More refers to him as one
of the first English lay-brothers.
He returned to England with John Gerard in 1588, landing on the Norfolk coast. It is thought that at
around this time he began his job of building hiding places for the Jesuit priests. The earliest examples of
his work can be found at Oxburgh in East Anglia, Braddocks and Sawston. There are over a hundred examples of
his work throughout central England, although he concentrated on a few specific areas. His work, and the
cleverness with which it was executed, saved many a priest from the gallows. His work was most prominent at
Hindlip, where he built no less than eleven secret hiding places for its owner Thomas Habington, including
the one that Owen himself used in the few days leading up to his capture.
Owen was captured on more than one occasion, although he avoided giving the authorities any clue as to his
true identity and thus was released. In 1594 he was transferred from the Marshalsea to the Tower, from which
he escaped. He is said to have orchestrated the escape of Gerard from the Tower in 1597. He managed to evade
the authorities for another nine years until the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. He was with Father Henry
Garnet, Father Edward Oldcorne, and Chambers at Hindlip when Sir Henry Bromley arrived on 20 January 1606
with orders to search the house for priests and others involved in the Plot. Owen hid with Chambers at this
time, and Garnet with Oldcorne.
On the morning of 23 January 1606, due to lack of food, Owen and Ralph Ashley (Chambers) emerged from
their hiding place. In time, Garnet and Oldcorne were also captured. Little John was interrogated for the
first time on 26 February, at which time he told the authorities nothing, denying his knowledge of Garnet,
Oldcorne, and even remained vague about his own aliases. By the time of his second confession, long and
painful sessions in the manacles had severely deteriorated his physical condition, and he admitted to
attending Garnet at Hindlip and White Webbs, but never gave a single detail on any of the hiding places he
had spent his life building. His physical condition at this second interrogation may be judged by the fact
that "that his stomach had to be bound together with an iron plate".
He was threatened with further torture, but died soon after on 2 March, 1606 before this could take place.
One report on his death stated "they tortured him with such inhuman ferocity that his stomach burst open and
his intestines gushed out".
The Government published the story that Owen had taken his own life, but this was clearly untrue: the
ordeal had simply been too much for Owen's frail body to withstand. It has also been suggested that the
infirmities he suffered during the latter parts of the sixteenth century were as a result of incarceration.
Both Garnet and Gerard wrote poignant eulogies on Owen's interesting life and agreed that without his skill,
many of them would not have survived as long as they did. In 1970, the Catholic Church recognised Nicholas
Owen as a martyr, and he was canonised.
 Caraman, Philip, S.J., "Saint Nicholas Owen: Maker of Hiding Holes", Catholic Truth Society
 "Dictionary of National Biography", 1895
 Hodgetts, Michael, "Secret Hiding Places", Veritas Publishing, Dublin 1989