Hardly had first light hit the Malvern Hills than crashing came to the great oak door. It did not hold long. In rushed the King’s men as servants scurried out. Only the master stood firm. And the sight of his tall still figure momentarily slowed the invasion. Time enough for the Jesuit to slide lithely into the ‘priest’s hole’. There, two storeys down, he would hide until safe or discovered.
The son of the house also took a stealth leave. In fact, expecting this moment for months, he had prepared an escape route through a scullery window and into open country. Luck favoured him. For, keen to eye the house’s treasures, the watchmen had not left a cordon.
The leadsman of the unruly search squad shouted for calm. “Sir John, have we given you enough time to hide your priest?”
“You’ll find no such man here” Sir John Thornton, Squire of Alcester, replied. Although it sounded more a challenge than a bald statement.
The mob parted for the High Sherriff of Worchester. Nearly the same height as Thornton, this commanding figure was soon barking instructions. He ordered the rounding up of all within Coaton Hall. Hustling family and servants into the wood panelled gallery, Sir Richard Walsh, the King’s high representative demanded of the owner, “Where is your son?”
“Dead these long 10 years, as you well know Roger.”
“I mean, as well as you know, James who has been rabble-rousing at Oxford University.”
“I believe he is abroad serving his King.”
“Indeed, but which king, John, which king?”
The question was entirely rhetorical. For the Sherriff turned on his heel intent on starting his interrogations elsewhere. His militiamen too scoured the floor boards and panelling for any concealed entrances.
“Now,” thought Sir John, “the Thornton’s fortunes depend on a loyal carpenter’s skills and a clergyman’s stillness”.
Trials indeed of faith and loyalty in Jacobean England.