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The martyrdom of St Nicholas Owen

The martyrdom of St Nicholas Owen


The following description of the death of St Nicholas Owen is taken from The Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser:

“Most brutal of all was the treatment given to Nicholas Owen, better known to the recusants as Little John. Since he had a hernia caused by the strain of his work, as well as a crippled leg, he should not have been physically tortured in the first place. But Little John, unlike many of those interrogated, did have valuable information about the hiding places he had constructed; if he had talked, all too many priests would have been snared‘like partridges in a net’. In this good cause the government was prepared to ignore the dictates of the law and the demands of common humanity. A leading Councillor, on hearing his name, was said to have exclaimed: “Is he taken that knows all the secret places? I am very glad of that. We will have a trick for him.”
The trick was the prolonged use of the manacles, an exquisitely horrible torture for one of Owen’s ruptured state. He was originally held in the milder prison of the Marshalsea, where it was hoped that other priests would try to contact him, but Little John was ‘too wise to give any advantage’ and spent his time safely and silently at prayer. In the Tower he was brought to make two confessions on 26 February and 1 March. In the first one, he denied more or less everything. By the time of the second confession, long and ghastly sessions in the manacles produced some results (his physical condition may be judged by the fact that his stomach had to be bound together with an iron plate, and even that was not very effective for long). Little John admitted to attending Father Garnet at White Webbs and elsewhere, that he had been at Coughton during All Saints visit, and other details of his service and itinerary. However, all of this was known already. Little John never gave up one single detail of the hiding places he had spent his adult life constructing for the safety of his co-religionists.
The lay brother died early in the morning of 2 March. He died directly as a result of his ordeal and in horrible, lingering circumstances. By popular standards of his day, this was a stage of cruelty too far. The government acknowledged this in its own way by putting out the story that Owen had ripped himself open with the knife given him to eat his meat – while his keeper was conveniently looking elsewhere – rather than face renewed bouts of torture. Yet Owen’s keeper had told a relative who wanted Owen to make a list of his needs that his prisoner’s hands were so useless that he could not even feed himself, let alone write.
The story of the suicide was so improbable that neither Owen’s enemies nor his friends, so well acquainted with his character over so many years, believed it. Suicide was a mortal sin in the Catholic Church, inviting damnation, and it was unthinkable that a convinced Catholic like Nicholas Owen should have imperilled his immortal soul in this manner.