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Book Inspiration: Bugs and Priest Holes

Moseley Old Hall

The idea for my novella, The Last Flight of the Ladybird, sprang from this nursery rhyme:

Ladybird ladybird fly away home,
Your house in on fire and your children are gone,
All except one and that's little Ann,
For she crept under the frying pan.

According to this website, the rhyme might have been chanted when a ladybird landed on somebody, or farmers might also have said it when they were about to burn their fields following a harvest – farmers were warning the bugs who had been effective pest-controllers throughout summer.

However, I was interested in the Catholic connection:

"The English word ladybird is a derivative of the Catholic term " Our Lady". The tradition of calling this rhyme was believed to have been used as a seemingly innocent warning cry to Catholic (recusants) who refused to attend Protestant services as required by the Act of Uniformity. This law forbade priests to say Mass and forbade communicants to attend it." 

A brief history lesson:

Initially, during Elizabeth I’s reign, there was tolerance of the Catholic faith, however, threats against the queen grew. In 1570, the Pope produced a Papal Bull of Excommunication which said Elizabeth was excommunicated and that Catholics should not obey her. From this time on, newly trained Catholic priests as well as specially trained priests called Jesuits, began arriving in England. From 1581, Catholics who refused to attend church had to pay a £20 fine per month, and anybody who encouraged Catholicism could be accused of treason. When war broke out between England and Spain, Parliament ordered all Catholic priests to leave the country – if they were found, they would be executed.

This didn’t stop Catholics continuing to practice their faith. It is from this time that priest holes began to be constructed in Catholic homes. I visited such a house, Moseley Old Hall, in Staffordshire. This house is now owned by the National Trust, and it was a delight to wander amidst its wood-panelled walls and over its crooked floors. It serves as the location inspiration for my novella. It is most famous for being one of the resting places for Charles II during his escape to France following defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The King himself hid in a priest hole to escape the parliamentarians.

Priest holes were concealed in walls, fireplaces, staircases, under floors, and behind wainscoting. Many were designed by Jesuit lay brother, Nicholas Owen, and they saved many lives. Priests would hide in these cramped and dark spaces whilst merciless priest hunters searched the property.

My novella takes place around 1590. After researching the above, I really wanted to depict what life could have been like for people during this time. There was widespread fear and suspicion, and it must have felt as if no one was safe. Looking more closely at the rhyme, the only named character grabbed my attention. Ann. Why was she the only one to survive? She hid ‘under the frying pan’ – what could that mean in terms of Catholicism and betrayal? The rest of her family died – was it in any way because of her?

You will see how my thoughts developed when you read the book.

As this is not my usual time-period, I had to do a lot of research for this novella. And what a joy it was! A huge aspect of the novel is farm work and general life at the time. I would highly recommend a visit to Moseley Old Hall or other properties from the time, where you can step over the thresholds, peep inside priest holes, and sit beside great roaring fires. Tales from the Green Valley, a documentary starring Ruth Goodman, depicts life on a farm in the 1620s. Honestly, if you want to see gorgeous countryside and a simpler way of life, watch this – it is the antidote to the 21st century! Every episode is available for free on YouTube.

The Last Flight of the Ladybird, is a dark, twisting novella with themes of betrayal, faith, and feminism. It is free for my newsletter subscribers. Get your copy now.

About the author

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers. 

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