The Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609)
John Gerard, S.J. (Longmans, 1951; trans. P. Caraman)
311 p. First reading.
Imagine: you are forced to travel in disguise, using an alias with anyone not a close friend.; to communicate safely by post you use invisible ink between the lines of a benign greeting; anyone who helps you puts themselves at risk; you must be ready to pull up stakes and move at a moment’s notice if the authorities discover your location; when your lodgings are raided, you slip quickly into a secret hiding place, sometimes to stay, cramped and hungry, for four or five days until the searchers exhaust themselves. Are you a spy? Not in this case. You’re a priest in Elizabethan England.
John Gerard was a Jesuit priest who, for eighteen years (1588-1606), ran a very successful, but very dangerous, mission to English Catholics. Unlike many of his confrères, he escaped the country with his life, and, under orders from his Superiors, wrote this fascinating first-person account of his missionary work. It’s a gripping cloak-and-dagger story, full of intrigue and narrow escapes. But he never lets us forget that the stakes were high: too incautious and the result could be death, too cautious and souls would be lost.
Gerard landed quietly on the Norfolk coast late in 1588, together with another priest. They were English by birth, had gone to the continent for training, and now returned to take up the mission of sustaining the Catholic faithful under state persecution, and of winning converts back to the faith if it were possible. At the time of their landing, the Jesuit mission in England was scarcely begun: only four other Jesuits were then active in the country. Gerard took to the challenge manfully. He was a man of great courage, faith, and intelligence, all of which were needed to keep himself safe and his mission fruitful.
The times were difficult for English Catholics. The government had instituted serious fines against recusants who refused to attend the services of the Church of England, which made faithfulness to the old religion difficult or impossible for all but the most wealthy. Attendance at a Catholic service was a more serious offence, and to harbour priests was a capital crime. For their part, priests faced imprisonment and, often, execution if they were captured, and even when they eluded capture, everyone who assisted them placed themselves in grave danger. It was a time for subtlety and heroism.
The modus operandi adopted by the Jesuits was to focus first on the conversion and spiritual care of the wealthiest Catholic families. The large country homes owned by these families were ideal staging points for ministry within the neighbouring countryside. When they did travel, it was in disguise; Gerard often passed as a nobleman out falconing or hunting. To be successful, this model required that the entire family, servants included, be faithful and discreet Catholics, for the authorities stood ready to reward those who would deliver a priest into their hands. Betrayals did, unfortunately, take place. Domestic tensions often ran very high, for it was not uncommon for a husband and wife to have different religious commitments. (It was most common for the wife to be Catholic and the husband Protestant, for Protestantism was near obligatory for anyone wanting to get on in society, especially among the wealthy.)
Gerard’s ministry consisted first in serving the existing Catholic population in his area. He celebrated Mass, heard confessions, and frequently offered the Spiritual Exercises to those who requested them. He also sought to sound out and engage those he discerned were open to the Catholic faith, and he succeeded in bringing a great many people back to the faith. This, you can imagine, was careful work, for he could not reveal himself as a priest until he was quite sure the other could be trusted. He was relentless in his missionary work, and his ministry was incredibly fruitful. Even when imprisoned he continued, like St. Paul, to preach and convert those around him. At least 35 priestly vocations were encouraged under his leadership, not to mention a number of monastic vocations. These young people who accepted the call to religious life were forced to leave the country, of course, but many returned later to carry on the mission.
On several occasions Gerard was surprised by priest-hunting search parties. These Catholic manor houses had been cleverly equipped with a number of priest-holes, secret hiding places built expressly for this purpose. (Most of the priest-holes in England, and there are many, were designed and built by St. Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit lay brother who was eventually martyred for his role in protecting priests.) He was quickly spirited away into the nearest one, together with his vestments, papers, and anything that might betray the presence of a priest. These spaces had been so cleverly built that even large search parties consciously searching for the hiding places, often for a week or more, failed to discover them.
Gerard was obliged from time to time to travel to London, which was always the most dangerous place for priests. Nevertheless, the Jesuits had their headquarters there (in a secret location that moved around), and Gerard himself usually had a house rented for lodging, ministry, and for the use of other priests visiting the city. It was into one of these houses, in Holborn, on 23 April 1594 (Shakespeare’s birthday, I note in an irrelevant aside), that a search party burst, and Gerard had no time to escape. He and Nicholas Owen were both captured and imprisoned. He was moved around: first the Counter in the Poultry prison (I love the English for their endearing names), then to the Clink on the south bank, and then, after three years of imprisonment, to the Tower of London in April 1597.
In the Tower he was tortured, twice, in the manacles. His torturers wanted to discover who had assisted him, how the Jesuits operated in the country, and so forth. He revealed nothing, and writes that he was ready to give his life rather than betray his friends and his cause. Though his torture lasted only six or eight hours in toto, it took nearly six months for him to recover sensation and function in his hands.
Who knows how long the authorities intended to keep him in the Tower? Gerard cut them short, for he devised and carried out a brilliant escape. This is perhaps the best part of the story for sheer adventurousness. He befriended, bribed, and earned the confidence of his gaoler, convincing him to permit Gerard to visit John Arden, a fellow Catholic imprisoned nearby in the Cradle Tower, which borders the moat on the Thames side of the Tower of London. Using letters written in invisible ink (in orange juice, specifically), he arranged with two friends on the outside to aid in the escape. On the night of 4 October 1597, Gerard and Arden sprung the lock on their cell and ascended to the top of the Cradle Tower. Gerard’s friends arrived by boat. Gerard tossed them a ball of twine, to which they tied a heavy rope, which was then drawn up to the tower’s roof. Securing it, they slowly crawled down the rope, over the moat, to the banks of the Thames, and were spirited away. It was a marvellously daring stunt. To my knowledge — and I did do some looking — this is the only successful recorded escape from the Tower.
Having escaped the authorities, Gerard once again disappeared, and continued his ministry, very successfully, for another eight years. All was going well, considering the circumstances at least, until November 1605 when the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. If the plot to detonate a bomb in Parliament failed, the plot was certainly a bomb dropped into the heart of the Catholic Church in England. It was a disaster. Gerard insists, convincingly, that he himself knew nothing of the plot until news of its discovery was broadcast. (One of the peripheral conspirators, Sir Everard Digby, had been converted by Gerard.) The Jesuit Superior of England, Henry Garnet, did learn of the plot through one of his priests some time before it was attempted. Since the knowledge was protected by the seal of the confessional, they did what they could: the priest was instructed to try to dissuade his penitent from persisting with the plan, and Garnet himself petitioned the Pope to issue a condemnation of violence to the English church, hoping it would stop the conspiracy from proceeding. The condemnation did not come, at least not in time, and the result was turmoil and tears for all English Catholics, far beyond the circle of conspirators. Many arrests were made, and many were executed. Gerard was able to escape. He lay low for several months and then departed the country, stealthily, on 3 May 1606. To my knowledge he never returned to England, but continued to serve his Order until 1637, when he died in Rome.
One final point: When priests or their friends faced interrogation, they could not simply reveal the information the authorities sought, for to do so would imperil all those whom they named, and destroy the Catholic mission itself. Sometimes prisoners were simply asked to admit that they were Catholics, which in itself could be a dangerous admission. And yet, at the same time, it was not permissible to lie, nor to deny Christ. The Jesuits, therefore, devised a technique, frequently employed by Gerard, for answering questions. For the most part, they simply refused to answer questions put to them, or, more controversially, they gave equivocal responses. Their rationale seems to have been two-fold. First, the burden of proof lies with the authorities, who must prove their case without the assistance of the prisoner. In modern law, the court can compel a witness to answer, but that principle may have stood then too. In the end, no one can really compel an answer — not even with torture. The second arm of the rationale was this: since to give answers which would endanger others “offends against both justice and charity” (the formula used by Gerard), there could be no obligation to answer. In this he seems to be appealing to a law higher than the English law, which judges the English laws themselves to be unjust. It was a long-standing principle of Catholic political philosophy that there can be no obligation to obey unjust laws. I find this issue quite interesting, for in one sense it seems an abstraction of moral philosophy, yet in those circumstances it had very tangible, and even grisly, consequences. I believe that their defence of equivocation has given us the adjective “Jesuitical”. I wonder if the word has cognates in other languages.
I loved this book. It’s a great story, well told. It is certainly among the most absorbing historical documents I have read, having all the hallmarks of a great suspense story, and yet the colour of truth. He was a real man, and those he served were real, and their suffering was real as well. Highly recommended, if you can find it (which is criminally difficult to do).
Since my grasp of English geography is quite weak, I relied on maps to orient myself as I read. I created this map showing a number of the sites where Gerard visited or lived. It doesn’t show everything, but it does show whatever I was able to identify from the text.