Harvington Hall in Worcestershire stands as a significant testament to the English Martyrs. With its rich history and remarkable collection of priest hides, some potentially crafted by St Nicholas Owen himself, Harvington offers a unique glimpse into the struggles and resilience of the Catholic community during the English Reformation.

This year from 25-30 July the Hall will hold the first ever Harvington History Festival, with a line-up of 17 historians, authors and broadcasters including Jessie Childs, Ruth Goodman and Tracy Borman as well as a concert celebrating the sacred works of Byrd.

This year holds a special significance for the Hall as it celebrates the centenary of its rescue from ruin. In 1923, Harvington was purchased by devoted Catholic Ellen Ferris, who generously gifted it to the Archdiocese of Birmingham. Since then, Harvington Hall has become a place of pilgrimage, honouring the memory of the English martyrs.

Much of the festival will delve into the intricate narratives of Catholics during the English Reformation, exploring topics from disguise and evading detection to making martyrs, rebellions and sieges:

Dr Jonathan Willis: Making Martyrs in Elizabethan England
The English Reformation was violent and bloody. Mary I and Elizabeth I sent hundreds to gruesome deaths (Protestants then Catholics, including priests, for treason). Discover how both Protestants and Catholics constructed accounts of their martyrs, including presenting unruly women as pious Christians.

Dr Sarah Johanesen: Priestly disguise in Elizabethan and Jacobean England
During the reign of Elizabeth I and the following post-Reformation years disguise was essential for gaining access to Roman Catholic sacraments.

This talk discusses how the materials and language of clothing, accessories, and personal appearance were used against Catholics, to emphasise the threat they posed. Both in conflict with Protestants and other Catholics, appearance could become a political weapon.

Professor Maurice Whitehead: Hiding in Plain Sight: Jesuits and seminary priests in late Tudor and early Stuart England and Wales​ ​
Elizabeth I’s government secret service operated an elaborate surveillance network stretching across England and deep into continental Europe: its aim was to track, intercept, and capture Catholic priests as they arrived back home.

So how was it that the majority of priests evaded detection and arrest as they re-entered England or Wales from their priestly training?  Discover a number of hypotheses as to how such a feat was achieved.

Professor Stephen Alford: Plots and traitors, politics and equivocation: Robert Cecil and English Catholics
Elizabeth I's government believed that it was under attack by an organised Catholic enemy at home and abroad. Refusal to worship in the Church of​ England was a subversive act; Catholic priests living secretly in England​ were denounced as traitors.

But what explains all this? Stephen Alford​ will explore, mainly through the career of Robert Cecil, how the​ queen's ministers understood the perils that beset Elizabeth and her​ kingdoms.​

Professor Mark Stoyle: A Murderous Midsummer: The Western Rising of 1549​ (the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’)
The catastrophic story of the causes, course and cruel suppression of the so-called ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ which saw thousands of ordinary people protesting against boy-king Edward VI’s protestant reforms.

Drawing on new evidence Mark Stoyle will consider the terrible consequences culminating in the powerful royal army’s suppression of the protestors and argue that the rising was the most catastrophic event to occur in the West Country between the Black Death and the Civil War. ​

Jessie Childs: The Siege of Loyalty House
The story of one of the most extraordinary episodes of the Civil War. A thrilling tale of war and peace, terror and faith, savagery and civilisation drawing on unpublished manuscripts and the voices of dozens of men, women and children caught in the crossfire.

To the parliamentarians, Basing House in Hampshire was the devil’s seat. To its royalist defenders, it was ‘Loyalty House’.

Over two years, its residents were battered, bombarded, starved and gassed. From within they faced smallpox, spies and mutiny. Their resistance became legendary, but in October 1645, Oliver Cromwell rolled in the heavy guns and the stage was set for a last stand.​


The festival runs from Tuesday 25 July to Sunday 30 July. Tickets and more information:

Harvington Hall - History Festival