Friday, May 29, 2015

To Catch a Priest

by Linda Root

Wikimedia Commons

A group of country folk were walking down a coastal road
north of London when they saw a stranger approaching.  Citizens in the area had been warned to be on the looked for unfamiliar faces.  Elizabeth Tudor’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham’s agents in Paris had sent an alarming message.  Jesuits were coming.  The farmers decided the current warnings could not possibly apply to the gentleman on the road.

And he indeed was a fine gentleman. He was a tall, swarthy man still in his youth, possessed of an aristocrat’s bearing and attitude. He was well groomed and dressed, although his cloak and boots were dusty as if he’d been on the road longer than customary. The poor man was obviously distressed.  He must be lost, the farmers thought.

"Have any of you good people seen my hawk?" he asked with a tremor in his voice. "I must have strayed too far from our usual surroundings and now my poor bird is gone missing."

It was not an unusual for members of the upper class to be as emotionally attached to their hawks as they were to their hunting dogs. In rural England, falconry was a favored sport of young aristocrats. It was rumored the Queen of Scots engaged in falconry from the balustrades while detained at Chatsworth. Much training was involved hunting with a falcon. Over time, a special bond formed between the handler and the hawk. No wonder the man was distraught. "Are ye sure ye have not heard its little bell?"

The farmers assured him they had not seen a hawk or heard the tinkling of a bell. With considerable empathy, they watched the man leave the road and wander off into the woods, desperately calling his bird. They had just encountered John Gerard, S.J., coming back to his English homeland after having been ordained. They would not be the only group to meet up with him and let him go merrily on his way.

I had never heard of John Gerard until I was adding finishing touches to my work-in-progress. The novel interjects a fictional Scottish aspect into the Gunpowder Treason. A mystery surrounding the accountability of Lord Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, for allowing the plot to remain undetected until the Eleventh Hour sent me exploring the impact of the conspiracy on the  Jesuit mission to England.

Almost any historical novelist lured into that last wee bit of clarifying research before declaring a novel finished will have faced the dilemma created by a pestiferous fact challenging the novel’s premise.  Do we go on, or do we set the current work aside and begin anew, perhaps with an entirely different story?  What action should be taken when just before we type the words ‘c’est fin’, we uncloak a larger than life character whose exploits tarnish our protagonist? While we are not historians and can invoke the principle of artistic license and continue, it is often difficult to put the new character aside.  The word that comes to mind is ‘sequel.’

Questioned portrait of Father Gerard-PD Art

I was well into my  recent work In the Shadow of the Gallows, featuring Daisy Kirkcaldy and her husband, Will Hepburn, when I realized the priest I had written into the story sounded incredibly like the Jesuit John Gerard of my research, one of the few Jesuits of the English mission who survived the aftermath of November 5, 1605. The more I wrote, the larger his part in the tale became until I faced the prospect of marketing a tome. In today’s market, a historical novel the size of the Los Angeles Metropolitan telephone directory is doomed. The solution was to shave his role into something manageable and promise myself to do justice to his exploits in my next book in the series. In my case, I call it Deliverance of the Lamb.

Fortunately, in dealing with Father Gerard, there is a plethora of material on which to base a sequel. After his final flight from England in May 1606, a high-ranking Jesuit recognized the potential of using his life story as a recruitment tool.  Gerard was ordered to document his life story in writing. The original was written in Latin, but it has since been translated into English and embellished with excellent notes. Anyone who fears an autobiography written by a cleric in 1611 will be tedious drivel is in for a shock.

The Autobiography of a HUNTED PRIEST reads very much like a prize-winning well-researched historical novel.  Not being a Catholic or having much of a religious bent, I had no idea I was opening a page-turner or that Gerard was one of history’s most notable escape artists.  Research the topic of great escapes and you will find his escape from the Tower of London on the list.

No undisputed likeness of John Gerard survives.  The one shown above has recently been questioned.. However, there are three similar descriptions in his biography. Putting the accounts together, one can surmise he was exceptionally tall, very dark complected with long black hair, dark eyes and a manicured mustachio, and a stylish patch of facial hair on his chin.  Accounts of his phenomenal successes in converting aristocratic women suggests we can comfortably add the descriptors handsome and charismatic to his attributes.

A second work written by Gerard is an essay entitled The Condition of Catholics Under James I: Father Gerard’s narrative of the Gunpowder Plot. Not only is it a comprehensive critique of the Gunpowder Treason from a  Catholic point of view, and hence a bit of an apology, but it also reveals much of the author’s character. It is not as readable as the beautifully translated and edited Hunted Priest, but it is a compelling source, and its Kindle version is free of charge.

Perusing Father Gerard’s works and others writings about Early Jacobean England, a thumbnail sketch of Gerard’s colorful life emerges. Most sources place his birth in the autumn of 1564.  His father had been knighted for acts of valor and was the respected Sheriff of Lancashire. Later, however, the senior Gerard was imprisoned in the Tower for participating in one of many schemes to free the Queen of Scots.   His popularity earned him a favorable disposition of the charges.

Young John Gerard matriculated at Oxford at age eleven, but when he was asked to make a Declaration of Faith and renounce the Catholic religion to continue, he withdrew.  Surprisingly, he obtained permission from an Anglican bishop to continue his studies abroad. He headed to the Jesuit College in Douai, the institution founded by the militant activist Cardinal William Allen, the man behind the Jesuit mission to England.

When the establishment moved to Rheims in 1578, John Gerard went with it. He was still far too young to be inducted into the Society of Jesus.   Quite incidentally, the timing of his three-year stay in Rheims fits perfectly into my plotline for Deliverance of the Lamb.

He began his mission to England in 1582.

Like all Catholic priests of his day, he was aware of the risks involved if he were identified as a priest.  Early during his mission he spent a year in Marshalsea prison, which left him not the least dismayed.  He had plenty of time to study while confined. Eventually, he was bailed by none other than Anthony Babington of the infamous Babington Plot, a plan designed to place Marie Stuart on the English throne. Gerard's life story is filled with names of aristocrats associated with plots to supplant Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin Marie Stuart. Elizabeth’s fears were more than paranoid delusions.

It helps to remember that until the second quarter of the 16th Century, England had been a Catholic country led by the Pope’s Defender of the Faith, King Henry the Eighth.  The popular mid-Twentieth century adage, You Cannot Legislate Morality applied then as now.

After he was bailed out of jail by Babington, Gerard jumped parole and returned to Europe and eventually settled in Rome.  He was still young to be inducted into the Jesuit order but after a period of accelerated but rigorous study under Cardinal Allen's oversight, he was ordained and ordered to proceed to London. This is the journey north to Paris and the coast which was observed by  Walsingham's spies. He and three other priests including his good friend Father Oldecorne eventually boarded a ship headed for the English coast. They did not disembark until they were north of London, where Gerard predicted matters would be quiet.  However, the Watchers were on the lookout.  To be less obvious, the group split up.  While the incident described earlier went well, a few days later he encountered a patrol and was taken into custody.  At the time, Gerard told a convincing story to the men who detained him and charmed his way out of it.

Many of his encounters follow a similar script.  His good breeding, physical attributes and persuasive words got him out of one fix after another.  On several occasions, appearing before magistrates who had known his father helped.

Henry Garnet, S.J. (Wikimedia)
Soon he was in London hoping to meet Father Henry Garnet, the Superior Jesuit in England. First, he made friends with a Catholic aristocrat who took him into his fine house in Grimston. The man's Protestant brother was curious as to his background, but Gerard's gentlemanly habits assuaged any fears of unwittingly harboring a priest. Gerard used his good manners and his knowledge of falconry and other indicia of membership in the gentry to convince others he was a high-born Englishman touring his country. However, to those who needed his intercession with their God, he abandoned his disguise.  The services he rendered in bringing peace to the many troubled families caught up in the Reformation earned him steadfast friends who were willing to risks their lives to keep him free.  While he did not seek rewards, he accepted them graciously as a means of supporting the lifestyle that kept his true vocation a secret.  The Watchers and Pursuivants were not seeking out well-heeled aristocrats, complete with servants and fine horses. They were looking in hidey holes and secret rooms for impoverished, starving priests.

During the latter days of Elizabeth’s rule, Gerard moved from one host household to another, converting many and sending some of the young men abroad to the Jesuit College. He sent one of the executed Earl of Northumberland's daughters to his friend Father Holt in Belgium. She later became a founder of the English Benedictine convent in Brussels which figures in the plot of my novel 1603: The Queen's Revenge.


Gerard's exploits included a stay in the Tower of London in 1597 where he was tortured for his refusal to lead them to his Superior Father Garnet. Even the account of his suffering has its dramatic twist. His height complicated matters for his tormenters. When they hung him from the ceiling of the torture room by chaining his hands to a pole suspended between the two highest of the hooks, his toes still reached the floor. His abusers had to use shovels to dig a pit to make the device effective.

The Salt Tower- courtesy Richard Nevell
What is more, their tactics failed. His escape from the notorious Tower is well remembered.  Different versions appear on almost every list of famous escapes and prison breaks. He did it by employing remarkable charm, an innovative flight plan, a healthy dose of personal ingenuity and a bit of derring-do. He made friends with an inmate John Arden in another tower by passing notes written in orange juice. He made fast friends with his jailor who helped them pass information to friends on the outside.  The jailor provided a rope to use to climb down the out wall and toss across the moat. Finally, the two escapees and their jailor made it to a spot on the Thames where the jailor had a dinghy hidden.  They rowed to a prearranged rendezvous with Gerard's friends. He was never taken into custody again during the remaining several years of his mission in England.

During the remainder of his mission, he did not spend his time in hidey-holes like so many of his counterparts. He played the role of an aristocrat too well to resort to secret rooms and false cabinets to keep him free.  He was a master at hiding in plain sight. At the time of the Gunpowder Treason, he had been living in the Strand.

Midway through his autobiography, a student of early Jacobean history will recognize familiar names in the footnotes. Gerard described his friends but never named them in the original Latin text.  Gerard was far too wily to kiss and tell.  The single noteworthy exception is in several references to Everhard Digby, one of the plotters who came into the conspiracy in the middle stages. For years, he had been among John Gerard’s closest friends.  The intensity of their relationship is the one point which makes Gerard's disclaimer of guilty knowledge of the conspiracy disingenuous.

In discussing the Gunpowder Treason, there is no doubt where Gerard's passions lay. He empathized with the men involved and considered their deaths acts of martyrdom.  Although he believed their grievances were legitimate, he did not endorse the violence, and he did not know the details until the plan was in motion. He did not join their conspiracy, but he was not blind to the emotions driving it.  While at least two other Jesuits knew what was planned, they had received their information under seal of the confessional. Had he been caught, he would not have the sanctity of the Confessional as a defense, for whatever good it might have done.

After the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered, Jesuits were fair game, even though they had not been active in it.  Cecil used the event to launch a purge. At least four former Catholics who knew members of the English mission offered their services to Cecil, one of whom was a woman whose husband was in exile. She was anxious to get her lands and privileges restored, and offered to deliver Gerard. When the house where he was staying came under scrutiny, she arrived with the pursuivants, waving a king’s warrant in her hand. On that occasion, Gerard’s escape was less spectacular than his Tower breakout. He withdrew into a secret room with a scant supply of water and a jar of rich preserves. He stayed there under unhealthy circumstances for nine days before the searchers moved on.

Other women--especially Ann and Elizabeth Vaux, risked their lives to help Gerard and others escape.  The celebrated recusant Elizabeth Vaux was taken to London and interrogated as to Gerard's whereabouts and remained defiant.  By then, others of Gerard’s associates including his superior Father Henry Garnet had been apprehended.

The Discovery of Father Garnet and Father Oldecorne

After her release, Elizabeth Vaux made certain Father Gerard had everything he needed to subsist until an escape could be arranged. She offered to finance his flight to the tune of five thousand florins and gifted Gerard a thousand florins in travel money.

Gerard’s last escape was brilliant, but likely he had little to do with its planning. It appears to have been arranged by people with rank and  power in the Spanish Netherlands or France.  He left the country of his birth disguised as a manservant in the entourage of the Spanish Ambassador and a diplomat sent by the Hapsburg co-rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Albert and Isabella Clara. The Dutchman had been in London setting the ground rules for peace negotiations between England and the Hapsburgs scheduled for later in the year 1606. Shortly before they were scheduled to board ship, the Spanish Ambassador balked, but on the morning of May 3, he rethought his position and welcomed Gerard  into the group of departing dignitaries, playing the part of a footman. The ship set sail on the day of his mentor Father Henry Garnet's suffering.

 Father Gerard remained an active Jesuit engaged in the education of seminarians and the spiritual preparation of novitiates, and he was the first Rector of a Jesuit House of philosophy and theology at Liege.  Later he returned to Flanders to take a similar position in Ghent, supervising the newly ordained during their year of probation.  In the last ten years of his life,  he served as confessor to the English College in Rome. He died there in 1637, one of the few survivors of Lord Robert Cecil's purge.  Since the annexation of Rome to the Italian State, the Collegio Roma is now houses the Italian Ministry of Heritage and Culture.

Collegio Roma-Wikimedia Commons
His autobiography is a gem, filled with anecdotes and what modern readers might call 'war stories' told with a light touch that captivates and entertains. It is a small wonder he was successful as a recruiter. What I have reported is but a small sampling of a life even the best historical novelist would be hard pressed to surpass.

I plan to enjoy assisting Father John Gerard’s escape in The Deliverance of the Lamb, which, God willing, I will have ready to launch by the end of the year.  I invite his spirit to guide me in my endeavors. I can hear his ghost whispering as I write, ‘Greetings, Madame. The name’s Gerard. John Gerard.’


Linda Root


  1. Great post! You succeeded in making me interested in a period and topic that has never before captured my imagination. Thank you!

  2. Terrific post. Gerard's Autobiography is an amazingly exciting tale.

  3. Of course you have to remember that it was Nicholas Owen, the designer of all those priest holes, who masterminded Gerard's escape from the Tower, so don't dismiss their importance. Many other priests also hid in plain site. Father Edmund Campion used the disguise of a jewel merchant for example.

  4. A fascinating story! I looked in ibooks for his writing, and the second one was there for 99c, but the download was huge. There must be pictures in it, or perhaps a facsimile of the Victorian edition.


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