Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Owen, Nicholas (d.1606)

1430530Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 42 — Owen, Nicholas (d.1606)1895Albert Frederick Pollard

OWEN, NICHOLAS (d. 1606), jesuit, often called ‘Little John’ from his diminutive stature, which led to his name being sometimes given as John Owen, entered the Society of Jesus as a temporal coadjutor about 1579. Henry More (1586–1661) [q. v.] calls him one of the first English lay brothers. Owen had probably been a builder, and, after joining the society, was at different times servant to Campion, Garnett, John Gerard, and others, who found his architectural skill of the greatest use. He evinced considerable ingenuity in constructing secret cupboards and passages, and by this means saved many jesuits from capture. About 1590 he made his profession after the usual period of probation, and is said to have laboured more than twenty years near London. He was himself imprisoned more than once; in 1594 he was transferred from the Marshalsea to the Tower, whence he escaped; he is said to have planned and effected the escape of John Gerard (1564–1637) [q. v.] from the Tower in 1597. From this time until 1605 he travelled with Henry Garnett [q. v.] , and he furnished the plans for Hindlip Hall, Worcestershire, which was built as a hiding-place for priests; there, in December and January 1605–6, he was concealed with Chambers in one of the secret closets, while Garnett and Oldcorne were hiding in another (cf. Nash, Worcestershire, i. 584). After the house had been carefully watched for four days, Owen gave himself up, in order to save Garnett, by personating him, according to Owen's catholic biographers, but, according to the report in the ‘State Papers,’ because he was almost starved to death. He was imprisoned in the Tower, and examined on 26 Feb. 1606; he denied having ever known, seen, or heard of Garnett or Oldcorne. Persisting in this denial at a second examination on 1 March, torture was applied, and Owen then admitted his attendance on Garnett at Hindlip, but would not disclose any further knowledge of him. He was threatened with further torture at a subsequent examination, but died before it took place. The official account states that he committed suicide, and at an inquest held on his body in the Tower a verdict of felo de se was returned. But it is not improbable that he died from the effects of torture. Owen must be distinguished from an Irish jesuit of the same name who died in 1646. His brother Henry was a catholic bookseller.

[Cal. State Papers, Dom. Ser. 1603–10, passim; Abbot's Antilogia adversus Apologiam pro H. Garneto, 1613, pp. 114–15; More's Hist. Prov. Anglicanæ, 1660, p. 322, &c.; Tanner's Vita et Mors Martyrum, 1675, pp. 73–9; Law's Catalogue of English Martyrs; Challoner's Martyrs to the Roman Catholic Faith; Oliver's Collectanea; Foley's Records, iv. 245–67, vol. vii. pt. i. 561–2; Morris's Condition of Catholics under James I, including Father Gerard's Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot; Jardine's Gunpowder Plot, published separately and in Criminal Trials, vol. ii.; Gardiner's Hist. of England, i. 272; Hepworth Dixon's Her Majesty's Tower, ed. 1887; J. H. Pollen's Father Henry Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot, 1888; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 250.]

A. F. P.