Tesimond: The Gunpowder Plot

March 22, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas Owen, Jesuit lay-brother and maker of “priest-holes” in Elizabethan England, who was captured in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot and died under torture in the Tower of London in March 1606.  He was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.  To mark the day, I thought I would post a few thoughts about a book written by one of the priests whose life was saved by one of Nicholas’ hiding places.

The Gunpowder Plot (c.1630)
Oswald Tesimond, S.J. (Folio Society, 1973; trans: F. Edwards)
257 p.  First reading.

Fr. Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway was a Jesuit priest living and working in England during the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth I and the early years of James I.  He was a friend of Fr. John Gerard, whose autobiography I read a few years ago and praised highly.  Both priests served the Catholics of England at a time when such was considered treasonous, and capture meant death.  The circles in which they moved overlapped with the circle of conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot.  In the aftermath of the Plot, when several priests were arrested and executed (including the Jesuit superior Fr. Henry Garnet), Fr. Tesimond managed to escape to France by posing as a pig farmer, and he died in 1636 in Naples.

The activities of the Jesuits had been a thorn in the side of the English monarchs since Edmund Campion began his priestly ministry in 1580.  Elizabeth sought a religious accomodation that mediated between the Catholic faith and the radical innovations of the Puritans, and those on both sides who resisted this accomodation were considered troublesome.  Severe punitive measures were put in place to discourage Catholics: failure to attend Anglican services incurred large fines; aiding or harbouring a priest could (and did) result in seizure of property, imprisonment, or death.  It was a capital crime for a priest to set foot in the country.  Nonetheless, courageous men did take up the challenge.  They used aliases, wore disguises, and occasionally were forced to flee or hide from pursuers, but with the assistance of wealthy Catholic families they often succeeded in establishing successful ministries.

The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of about a dozen young Catholics planned to blow up the Parliament with the king and his officials inside, was a disaster for the already perilously situated Catholics of England.  The authorities used the opportunity to ascribe the treasonous intent not just to the condemned conspirators, but to all Catholics, and especially to the Jesuits.  Accordingly, those Jesuits who survived the aftermath, including Fr. Tesimond and Fr. Gerard, wrote accounts defending their actions and teachings, and denying foreknowledge of the Plot.

Fr. Tesimond’s account introduces us to the difficult situation of Catholics in the years preceeding the Plot.  He describes the hopes which attended the accession of James I, and how they were disappointed.  He knew most of the conspirators in the Plot, and he tells us something of their character, as well as relating how the Plot developed.  He takes pains to stress that the priests did not encourage the Plot, and in fact actively counselled patience and respect for authority in order to forestall any such desperate remedy.  We learn that, quite understandably, there was disagreement among the Catholics about how best to improve their lot.  After the Plot was discovered, several priests were formally implicated and condemned, and Tesimond passionately defends their innocence — convincingly, in my judgement.

The book covers much the same ground as Fr. Gerard’s Autobiography of an Elizabethan, though of course from a somewhat different point of view.  Of the two, I would recommend Fr. Gerard’s, for his life is more dramatic and his writing is livelier in style.  Tesimond’s book, however, might be easier to find, and either would serve as a good introduction to this fascinating period of history.

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