Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back one for a great review of Artemis Awakening and a discussion of the German Spotted Tiger. Then join me and Alan as we answer a riddle and tangent all over the place!
ALAN: Our discussion of landfills seems to have crossbred inside my skull with our discussion of British history to remind me of something. The idea actually popped into my mind back when we were discussing the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants under Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth, but it popped out again as the discussion took a different path…
JANE: Is this a riddle of some sort? What do you get when you cross landfills and religious controversy? If so, I can’t guess. Tell me!
ALAN: Priest holes!
JANE: Oh, of course. Priest holes! Why didn’t I think of that? I always wondered if they were for real or simply made up for mystery novels.
ALAN: They’re real all right. I’ve been in one.
Religious persecution in England didn’t end with the death of Bloody Mary. When Elizabeth came to the throne, she reversed her sister’s policies and actively persecuted the Catholics. The religion was driven underground and many Catholic houses in England began to construct priest holes where itinerant priests could hide from Elizabeth’s forces. Clandestine services would be held in the houses when the coast was clear…
A school friend of mine lived in a house that dated from this time. It had a priest hole, which was a small enclosure carved into the sandstone that the house was built from. It was behind the fireplace and presumably, when a priest was hiding in it, the fire would be lit to camouflage it and to discourage the troopers from searching too closely…
JANE: That sounds seriously uncomfortable!
ALAN: Very much so. I was quite surprised at how small and cramped the priest hole was. There was barely enough room to stand upright in it and, when the fire was lit, it must have been very hot and uncomfortable. Also the priest would have had to be careful not to cough from the effects of the smoke. Coughing coming from behind the fire would have been a dead giveaway!
JANE: It certainly would have been. Although I don’t believe we have priest holes, as such, here in the United States, many houses in the eastern part of the country boast similar hiding places. Can you guess why?
ALAN: I presume that there’s some historical reason, but I truly don’t know what it might be.
JANE: The slave trade. Have you ever heard of the Underground Railroad?
ALAN: Oh, of course. Yes – I’ve come across references to it in various novels, but I never really understood exactly what it was.
JANE: Well, this railroad was neither a railroad (although sometimes it used it) nor did it run underground. Instead, it was a network of people devoted to getting black slaves out of those southern states where slavery was legal into the “free north” and often into Canada. In north and south alike there are still buildings with secret rooms, or rooms with false walls, or hidden basements in which the escapees could be kept protected from searchers.
When I bought my house in Virginia, the cellar was just a hole dug into the red clay soil. There’s no indication it ever was a hiding place (in my day it held the hot water heater and furnace), but if the entry had been hidden behind a wall, rather than made obvious by a door, it would have been a dandy “stop” on the underground railroad.
ALAN: That sounds exactly like the kind of scheme that was used in Europe during WWII. The various European resistance groups passed escaped prisoners of war and the survivors from downed Allied aeroplanes from one safe house to another, eventually smuggling them out to (usually) Spain and from there back to England. There was a wonderful BBC series called Secret Army which dramatised the story, and later there was an absolutely hilarious parody of the series called ‘Allo ‘Allo which took the story to such utterly ridiculous extremes that I find I can no longer watch the original series – my memories of the parody are so strong that the drama no longer works for me.
JANE: Oh! That’s a nice comparison. There’s an inherent drama in such situations. Since I grew up in Washington, D.C. – which was “free” but bordered by slave states – stories of the Underground Railroad had a real resonance. One of my childhood heroes was Harriet Tubman. She was slave born, escaped to free Philadelphia, but returned repeatedly to help others to freedom. She began with members of her own family, but expanded to help others.
She did this so often that she was known as “Moses.” She was also at far greater risk than most would be because she was subject to seizures and narcoleptic fits as a result of having been hit on the head with a weight. Nonetheless, despite not being able to trust her own body, Tubman kept rescuing others and was famous for having “never lost a passenger.”
ALAN: Isn’t it interesting how often women play such decisive roles in these kinds of things? Secret Army made much of this, in fictional terms of course. In real life, one of the heroes of the resistance was Nancy Wake, known as the White Mouse. I’m particularly fond of her because she was born in New Zealand. She wasn’t directly involved in the people-smuggling networks – she was far too busy fighting hard at the sharp end. Interestingly though, she herself was passed through the network to England in 1943 when the Gestapo were getting too close to her for comfort.
JANE: I wonder if women were particularly suited for such roles because of the tendency to underestimate them?
One of my favorite anecdotes about Harriet Tubman went as follows. Harriet Tubman was travelling on a train and saw two white men looking at her suspiciously. She realized they were comparing her to a “Wanted” poster. She picked up a newspaper and pretended to be reading it – terrified that she might have it upside down, because she couldn’t read. She heard one man say to the other “Oh, that can’t be her. She’s illiterate.”
ALAN: Thank goodness the 50/50 chance of getting it the right way round worked out for her!
JANE: Yes! I’ve told that story to many people and the reaction is always the same. In those days, newspapers weren’t as likely to be illustrated, of course. Today, the pictures would be great clues.
Well, this has been a classic Tangent in that we started with a queen and ended with escaping slaves… I wonder where we’ll go next?