A priest hole is a secret compartment which is designed to accommodate one or more people, along with a few objects. Priest holes were originally built to shelter Catholic priests from the Elizabethan government, and they were later used to hide precious belongings and to hide an assortment of radicals and dissidents. Such holes are generally very small, as visitors to Elizabethan manors can attest, and they were designed for temporary concealment only, with no method of obtaining fresh air and no facilities for going to the bathroom.
While homes undoubtedly had various hidden compartments before Elizabeth I came to power, the priest hole flourished under her reign. While the Queen was generally lenient in the early years of her reign, she later cracked down severely on Catholics, viewing them as a threat to the security of the state. Catholics were not allowed to go to Mass or to participate in religious ceremonies, and they were expected to convert or to be very stealthy about the exercise of their Catholic faith.
Numerous Catholic priests and other church officials continued to travel throughout England during the Elizabethan era, determined to bring the sacraments of the church to those who wanted them. They did so at great peril, however, because if they were discovered, they could be severely punished. As a result, the priest hole came into being; when a crew of officials descended upon an estate or home to search for a Catholic priest, the priest could hide in the priest hole until they were gone.
Many people were well aware of the tactic of using a priest hole, and it was common for search parties to bring along laborers to tear up the homes as they searched them, looking for signs of a priest hole. As a result, these compartments had to be very cunningly concealed, and built in secret, so that no one would know whether or not a home had a priest hole. Sometimes, priests were forced to hide in silence for days before the search party finally gave up.
One notable builder of priest holes was Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit who built a large number of such compartments, some of which can still be seen today. He was very skilled at concealing his priest holes in unexpected places, causing search parties to gloss right over the location of the hiding place of a terrified priest.