In the parish of Wimbish, about six miles from Saffron Walden, stand the remains of a fine old Tudor house named Broad Oaks, or Braddocks, which in Elizabeth's reign was a noted house for priest-hunting. Wandering through its ancient rooms, the imagination readily carries us back to the drama enacted here three centuries ago with a vividness as if the events recorded had happened yesterday. "The chapel" and priests' holes may still be seen, and a fine old stone fireplace that was stripped of its overmantel, etc., of carved oak by the "pursuivants" in their vain efforts when Father Gerard was concealed in the house.
The old Essex family of Wiseman of Braddocks were staunch Romanists, and their home, being a noted resort for priests, received from time to time sudden visits. The dreaded Topcliffe had upon one occasion nearly brought the head of the family, an aged widow lady, to the horrors of the press-yard, but her punishment eventually took the form of imprisonment. Searches at Braddocks had brought forth hiding-places, priests, compromising papers, and armour and weapons. Let us see with what success the house was explored in the Easter of the year 1594.
Gerard gives his exciting experiences as follows:—
[Footnote 1: See Autobiography of Father John Gerard.]
"The searchers broke down the door, and forcing their way in, spread through the house with great noise and racket.
"Their first step was to lock up the mistress of the house in her own room with her two daughters, and the Catholic servants they kept locked up in divers places in the same part of the house.
[Footnote 2: Jane Wiseman, wife of William Wiseman. N.B.—The late Cardinal Wiseman was descended from a junior branch of this family. See Life of Father John Gerard, by John Morris.]
"They then took to themselves the whole house, which was of a good size, and made a thorough search in every part, not forgetting even to look under the tiles of the roof. The darkest corners they examined with the help of candles. Finding nothing whatever they began to break down certain places that they suspected. They measured the walls with long rods, so that if they did not tally they might pierce the part not accounted for. Then they sounded the walls and all the floors to find out and break into any hollow places there might be.
"They spent two days in this work without finding anything. Thinking therefore that I had gone on Easter Sunday, the two magistrates went away on the second day, leaving the pursuivants to take the mistress of the house and all her Catholic servants of both sexes to London to be examined and imprisoned. They meant to leave some who were not Catholics to keep the house, the traitor (one of the servants of the house) being one of them.
"The good lady was pleased at this, for she hoped that he would be the means of freeing me and rescuing me from death; for she knew that I had made up my mind to suffer and die of starvation between two walls, rather than come forth and save my own life at the expense of others.
"In fact, during those four days that I lay hid I had nothing to eat but a biscuit or two and a little quince jelly, which my hostess had at hand and gave me as I was going in.
"She did not look for any more, as she supposed that the search would not last beyond a day. But now that two days were gone and she was to be carried off on the third with all her trusty servants, she began to be afraid of my dying of sheer hunger. She bethought herself then of the traitor who she heard was to be left behind. He had made a great fuss and show of eagerness in withstanding the searchers when they first forced their way in. For all that she would not have let him know of the hiding-places, had she not been in such straits. Thinking it better, however, to rescue me from certain death, even at some risk to herself, she charged him, when she was taken away and everyone had gone, to go into a certain room, call me by my wonted name, and tell me that the others had been taken to prison, but that he was left to deliver me. I would then answer, she said, from behind the lath and plaster where I lay concealed. The traitor promised to obey faithfully; but he was faithful only to the faithless, for he unfolded the whole matter to the ruffians who had remained behind.
"No sooner had they heard it than they called back the magistrates who had departed. These returned early in the morning and renewed the search.
"They measured and sounded everywhere much more carefully than before, especially in the chamber above mentioned, in order to find out some hollow place. But finding nothing whatever during the whole of the third day, they proposed on the morrow to strip off the wainscot of that room.
"Meanwhile, they set guards in all the rooms about to watch all night, lest I should escape. I heard from my hiding-place the password which the captain of the band gave to his soldiers, and I might have got off by using it, were it not that they would have seen me issuing from my retreat, for there were two on guard in the chapel where I got into my hiding-place, and several also in the large wainscoted room which had been pointed out to them.
"But mark the wonderful Providence of God. Here was I in my hiding-place. The way I got into it was by taking up the floor, made of wood and bricks, under the fireplace. The place was so constructed that a fire could not be lit in it without damaging the house; though we made a point of keeping wood there, as if it were meant for a fire.
"Well, the men on the night watch lit a fire in this very grate and began chatting together close to it. Soon the bricks which had not bricks but wood underneath them got loose, and nearly fell out of their places as the wood gave way. On noticing this and probing the place with a stick, they found that the bottom was made of wood, whereupon they remarked that this was something curious. I thought that they were going there and then to break open the place and enter, but they made up their minds at last to put off further examination till next day.
"Next morning, therefore, they renewed the search most carefully, everywhere except in the top chamber which served as a chapel, and in which the two watchmen had made a fire over my head and had noticed the strange make of the grate. God had blotted out of their memory all remembrance of the thing. Nay, none of the searchers entered the place the whole day, though it was the one that was most open to suspicion, and if they had entered, they would have found me without any search; rather, I should say, they would have seen me, for the fire had burnt a great hole in my hiding-place, and had I not got a little out of the way, the hot embers would have fallen on me.
"The searchers, forgetting or not caring about this room, busied themselves in ransacking the rooms below, in one of which I was said to be. In fact, they found the other hiding-place which I thought of going into, as I mentioned before. It was not far off, so I could hear their shouts of joy when they first found it. But after joy comes grief; and so it was with them. The only thing that they found was a goodly store of provision laid up. Hence they may have thought that this was the place that the mistress of the house meant; in fact, an answer might have been given from it to the call of a person in the room mentioned by her.
"They stuck to their purpose, however, of stripping off all the wainscot of the other large room. So they set a man to work near the ceiling, close to the place where I was: for the lower part of the walls was covered with tapestry, not with wainscot. So they stripped off the wainscot all round till they came again to the very place where I lay, and there they lost heart and gave up the search.
"My hiding-place was in a thick wall of the chimney behind a finely inlaid and carved mantelpiece. They could not well take the carving down without risk of breaking it. Broken, however, it would have been, and that into a thousand pieces, had they any conception that I could be concealed behind it. But knowing that there were two flues, they did not think that there could be room enough there for a man.
"Nay, before this, on the second day of the search, they had gone into the room above, and tried the fireplace through which I had got into my hole. They then got into the chimney by a ladder to sound with their hammers. One said to another in my hearing, 'Might there not be a place here for a person to get down into the wall of the chimney below by lifting up this hearth?' 'No,' answered one of the pursuivants, whose voice I knew, 'you could not get down that way into the chimney underneath, but there might easily be an entrance at the back of this chimney.' So saying he gave the place a knock. I was afraid that he would hear the hollow sound of the hole where I was.
"Seeing that their toil availed them nought, they thought that I had escaped somehow, and so they went away at the end of the four days, leaving the mistress and her servants free. The yet unbetrayed traitor stayed after the searchers were gone. As soon as the doors of the house were made fast, the mistress came to call me, another four days buried Lazarus, from what would have been my tomb, had the search continued a little longer. For I was all wasted and weakened as well with hunger as with want of sleep and with having to sit so long in such a narrow space. After coming out I was seen by the traitor, whose treachery was still unknown to us. He did nothing then, not even to send after the searchers, as he knew that I meant to be off before they could be recalled."
The Wisemans had another house at North End, a few miles to the south-east of Dunmow. Here were also "priests' holes," one of which (in a chimney) secreted a certain Father Brewster during a rigid search in December, 1593.
[Footnote 1: State Papers, Dom. (Eliz.), December, 1593. See also Life of Father John Gerard, p. 138.]
Great Harrowden, near Wellingborough, the ancient seat of the Vaux family, was another notorious sanctuary for persecuted recusants. Gerard spent much of his time here in apartments specially constructed for his use, and upon more than one occasion had to have recourse to the hiding-places. Some four or five years after his experiences at Braddocks he narrowly escaped his pursuers in this way; and in 1605, when the "pursuivants" were scouring the country for him, as he was supposed to be privy to the Gunpowder Plot, he owed his life to a secret chamber at Harrowden. The search-party remained for nine days. Night and day men were posted round the house, and every approach was guarded within a radius of three miles. With the hope of getting rid of her unwelcome guests, Lady Vaux revealed one of the "priests' holes" to prove there was nothing in her house beyond a few prohibited books; but this did not have the desired effect, so the unfortunate inmate of the hiding-place had to continue in a cramped position, there being no room to stand up, for four or five days more. His hostess, however, managed to bring him food, and moments were seized during the latter days of the search to get him out that he might warm his benumbed limbs by a fire. While these things were going on at Harrowden, another priest, little thinking into whose hands the well-known sanctuary had fallen, came thither to seek shelter; but was seized and carried to an inn, whence it was intended he should be removed to London on the following day. But he managed to outwit his captors. To evade suspicion he threw off his cloak and sword, and under a pretext of giving his horse drink at a stream close by the stable, seized a lucky moment, mounted, and dashed into the water, swam across, and galloped off to the nearest house that could offer the convenience of a hiding-place.
[Footnote 1: See Life of John Gerard, p. 386.]
At Hackney the Vaux family had another, residence with its chapel and "priest's hole," the latter having a masked entrance high up in the wall, which led to a space under a gable projection of the roof. For double security this contained yet an inner hiding-place. In the existing Brooke House are incorporated the modernised remains of this mansion.