Inspiration behind IDENTICAL

The central setting in Identical is a dilapidated stately home that has been owned by the same Catholic family for generations. The house has a secret priest hole in the attic; a musty, dank space accessed by a swinging beam. This is a place of punishment and terror for the protagonists, Cecily and Alice. But during the sixteenth century, when it was illegal for a Jesuit priest to set foot in England, these cunning hiding places saved many lives.

While I was doing my research for Identical, I became fascinated by the history of priest holes; and as someone who suffers from claustrophobia, I was also horrified by the idea of being shut in one. During the reign of Elizabeth I, a group of men, often led by the local Justice of the peace, would target Catholic houses suspected of harbouring a priest. They arrived with a warrant allowing them to search the house for any fugitives. If any priest or monk was found on the property, the owner would forfeit their home and land, and sometimes their life.

To try and keep their priests safe, wealthy Catholics came up with ingenious ways of concealing them. Priest holes, also known as priest hides, were secret places of concealment built within large houses. These tiny spaces were often made above fireplaces, in cellars, behind staircases or in attics. Inside them, conditions were cramped and dark – and usually boiling in summer and freezing in winter. Some priest holes were as small as 2’7” by 3’9” (like one at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire). The fugitive would have limited food and drink and no sanitation, and they would be forced to remain there for as long as the priest hunters stayed in the house. This could be days, or even weeks. The hunters were always determined to catch their priest. They measured the footprint of the house inside and out and checked to see if they tallied. They tapped on walls to see if they were hollow, pulled up floorboards and stripped back panelling, alert for any sound the priest might inadvertently make.

It must have been terrifying for the hunted priest, and for the family hiding him. If caught, the priest would be imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Some died in the hole, from lack of oxygen or starvation. Sometimes this was because the family had been arrested and taken away – and if, as often happened, the priest hole only opened from the outside, the occupant was effectively sealed up in their own coffin.

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