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In mediaeval England, when feuds were violent and justice swift and brutal, it was common for castles and mansions of the powerful and the wealthy to have secret chambers or hidden passageways that allowed the owners to hide or escape from pursuers in the event of a surprise attack. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the number of such secret chambers and hiding-places increased sharply, especially in the houses of the old Catholic families.

The 16th century was a time of strong religious tension. Europe was torn between the Roman Catholic Church and the gaining Protestant movement that eventually led to the separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII. The English Reformation continued under the rule of his son, Edward VI, who—during his short reign—introduced new forms of worship and more radical reformation. But Edward’s successor, Queen Mary, had strong opposing views and she dragged England kicking and screaming back under the authority of the Catholic Church. Those who refused to give up their Protestant beliefs were burned at the stake, earning Mary the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.

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A priest hole at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk. Photo credit: Jim Barton/Flickr

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