Thursday, 23 January 2014


A 500-year-old Tudor mansion boasting a 100ft great hall, three priest holes and its own ghost is for sale for £4.75million.

Sawston Hall, described as the finest private house in Cambridgeshire, has five ensuite bedrooms, a moat, and an arboretum with rare trees, but its real draw is its history.

Owned by a grand Roman Catholic family for centuries, the Hall has secret places where outlawed Catholic priests could hide when the terrifying priest-hunters came to call during the Reformation.

Feared by Catholics who continued to practise their religion even after it was made illegal, priest-hunters would arrive with skilled carpenters who would spend up to a week ripping out panelling and pulling up floorboards looking for priests.

Sawston Hall, which was one of the famous Catholic safehouses in the reign of Elizabeth 1, has three such holes hidden in the fabric of the stone, Grade I-listed mansion.  One of them, hidden within a stone turret housing a spiral staircase, was created by master carpenter Nicholas Owen, and is said by experts to be the finest example of a priest's hole in the country.

Owen, who died under torture in the Tower of London in 1606, was later canonised for his role in ensuring the future of British Catholicism, and his work in creating spaces where priests could escape capture played a key role in English Catholic history.

Sawston, which lies seven miles outside Cambridge, was owned by the Huddleston family from 1517 until they sold up in 1982, but much of its original furnishings and artefacts are still there, including paintings, tapestries and furniture.

Hailed as a rare perfect - not added to or rebuilt - example of mid-Tudor building on a grand scale, it was built using stones from Cambridge Castle between 1557 and 1584, replacing a late medieval manor house on the same spot that burnt down.

Mary Tudor, the future Mary I, hid in the original house as a guest of the Huddlestons in 1553 on her way to claim the throne, and it is said the Duke of Northumberland, hot on her heels, burnt it down when he found she had escaped dressed as a dairy maid.

Mary is said to have told her hosts not to worry, and promised to build them a better house, and the current Sawston Hall, which was occupied by the US Air Force during the Second World War, is the result.

After the Huddlestons sold it, Sawston Hall became a language school and was then bought by an internet tycoon who hoped to turn it into a five-star hotel.  But when he lost interest and emigrated to Australia, it was bought by former hedge fund manager Stephen Coates in 2010.
Since then, he and his wife Claire have spent millions of pounds restoring the building, adding a bespoke kitchen by kitchen designer Mark Wilkinson, five bedroom suites, and a sophisticated zoned heating system.

The house is said to be haunted by Queen Mary, but the Coates, who have three young children, say it has never bothered them.

A campaign to raise the money to buy the house and open it for future generations has been launched by historians and is backed by leading Catholics including Ann Widdecombe and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the former Archbishop of Westminster.

Brian Plunkett, of the Sawston Hall Heritage Trust, said the house's rich history made it of interest to everybody, regardless of religion.

He said: 'We want to buy it and open it as a heritage site for everyone to share.  It's just the most beautiful place, and has the most astonishing history.'

He added: 'One of the priest holes at Sawston, said to be the best in the country, is ingeniously hidden within the actual thick stone wall of the medieval spiral staircase and can be accessed by lifting the boards of the landing at the top of the stairs.

'It is a couple of metres long once you get inside it and is a genuine hidden chamber built of stone. As you walk up the spiral staircase you could never spot it without knowing it is there.
'The opening is quite small so the priest would have needed to be quite small to get in through the access. My understanding is that it worked in that nobody was ever caught in it during the bad times.'

He also said Sawston was designed to allow someone to circulate in such a way that would confuse an intruder.

Sawston Hall is for sale through Savills estate agents, who say it may be of interest to the new breed of tech millionaires working in Cambridge.

When Catholics were persecuted by law in England, beginning in 1558 in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it became an offence to celebrate Mass.

Those found breaking the law were fined in the first instance, imprisoned if caught a second time, and imprisoned for life for a third offence.  Imprisonment for a priest often meant torture and execution.

And those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, declaring that the Queen was the head of the Church, would be found guilty of high treason and could be put to death.

After the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, anti-Catholic sentiment became even more rabid.
Grand Catholic families who were determined to continue in their faith built secret priest holes into their large houses, where priests could hide from the dreaded priest-hunters.

They would be carved into thick stone walls, dug deep under wooden floorboards, or hidden in thick chimney breasts, and priests would often have to hide in them for days at a time while the priest-hunters laid waste to a house in their bid to uncover evidence of practising Catholics.

Many grand houses had priest holes, including Boscobel House in Shropshire, where Charles II hid in a priest hole after hiding in a tree known as the Royal Oak, to avoid capture by Cromwell after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

Estate property details : Savills

Story: DailyMail


One famous spectre is that of Queen Mary Tudor, which has been seen gliding through the house and at times flitting through the gardens.

Another ghost is known as the grey lady, and she is reported to appear in the tapestry room and is said to knock three times at the door and then float across the room.

A clairvoyant stayed in the hall back in the 70's and reported that she could not sleep because of the repeated tapping on the door, and someone fiddling with the latch on the door, these sounds also kept a priest awake in the room next door..

Other strange sounds have been heard in the house including distant music, and the laughter of a young girl.

My thoughts:

Any form of religious bigotry is totally unacceptable, but this piece veers it`s way to portraying English Catholics as sole `victims`. Yet the truth was that when Mary Tudor (a staunch Catholic) took the throne, Protestants were persecuted by her in the same way, and she ordered mass public executions - mostly with her victims being burnt alive at the stake.

Under the Heresy Acts, numerous Protestants were executed in the Marian persecutions. Many rich Protestants, including John Foxe, chose exile, and around 800 left the country.The first executions occurred over a period of five days in early February 1555: John Rogers on 4 February, Laurence Saunders on 8 February, and Rowland Taylor and John Hooper on 9 February.

The imprisoned Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer was forced to watch Bishops Ridley and Latimer being burned at the stake. Cranmer recanted, repudiated Protestant theology, and rejoined the Catholic faith. Under the normal process of the law, he should have been absolved as a repentant. Mary, however, refused to reprieve him. On the day of his burning, he dramatically withdrew his recantation. All told 283 were executed, most by burning.

The burnings proved so unpopular, that even Alfonso de Castro, one of Philip's own ecclesiastical staff, condemned them, and Philip's adviser, Simon Renard, warned him that such "cruel enforcement" could "cause a revolt". Mary persevered with the policy, which continued until her death and exacerbated anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feeling among the English people. The victims of the persecutions became lauded as martyrs.`

For fear of this house being made into a biased religious theme park, let`s hope that the owners find a private buyer or it is publicly owned to share the history of both sides of this pointless bigotry.

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