Posts Tagged ‘English Recusants’

Childs: God’s Traitors

November 7, 2015

childs-traitorsGod’s Traitors
Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England
Jessie Childs
(Bodley Head, 2014)
463 p.

I have discussed books about the history of Catholicism in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I before. Jessie Childs has written a very interesting and well-researched volume covering the same period. What distinguishes hers from others, and what gives it considerable appeal, is its focus on several generations of one prominent recusant Catholic family: the Vaux family. They figure in any competent account of the Jesuit mission to England, for they were key players in protecting the priests and sustaining the mission, but putting them at the center of the story has the advantage of letting us see more clearly how the swirling religious and political controversies of the period affected real people.

In the case of the Vaux family, the most important figures were women: Anne and Eleanor, especially. They harboured priests, allowed Catholics to meet in their homes, had hides built into the walls and staircases of their manors, and provided whatever support the Jesuits needed. There is a certain irony in the fact that the prominence of women in this story is largely a result of the social and legal position of women in Elizabethan society. Because they could not own property, they could not have their property confiscated. Because they did not have careers in public life, they were not subject to the variety of impediments facing Catholics in public life. Their private social roles allowed them to act with a freedom that was simply not possible for men.

Childs brings her story up to the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. She is rather critical of the actions of Henry Garnet, SJ, who was the Jesuit Superior in England during most of the period she covers. Garnet learned of the Plot — or at least knew that something was afoot, even if the details were hidden from him — under the seal of the confessional. While acknowledging the inviolability of the seal (and, generally speaking, it should be said that Childs is even-handed but sympathetic in her treatment of Catholicism), and acknowledging that Garnet did take some action to avert the disaster, she ultimately judges him to have done too little. It’s a difficult point, with reasonable arguments on both sides.

Needless to say, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was a calamity for Catholics throughout England. Whatever lackadaisical tolerance they might have enjoyed disappeared overnight. Numerous Catholics, priests and lay-people, including Henry Garnet himself, were captured and executed. Those tenacious Brits still burn Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5. When it comes to the burdens English society placed on Catholics, on the other hand, and to the lives of the roughly 200 Catholics who were executed under Elizabeth in the years preceding the Plot, it is fair to say that they do not remember. Books like this one do the good service of reminding them, and us.

Reynolds: St Nicholas Owen

October 11, 2014

St Nicholas Owen
Priest-Hole Maker
Tony Reynolds
(Gracewing, 2014)
200 p.

The plight of Catholics in England during the tumultuous generations that followed Henry VIII’s self-investment of ecclesiastical authority has been a long-standing area of interest for me, and, of the many Catholic recusants who suffered and struggled through that period, St Nicholas Owen has long been a subject of particular personal interest. In most treatments of his historical period, covering the last few decades of Elizabeth I’s reign and the first few years of James I’s — roughly 1580-1610 — he appears only as a peripheral figure, fascinating but furtive. I was therefore delighted to see this recently published biography devoted to him.

Nicholas was from a staunch, working-class Catholic family in Oxford. As an adult he was, for nearly two decades, a special assistant to Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England. This, of course, at a time when merely being a Jesuit priest on English soil was sufficient grounds for arrest and execution. Nicholas was a layman (probably), and he was widely regarded among the Jesuits and the Catholic recusants as a man of discretion and trustworthiness. He was also a carpenter and a mason, and his principal claim to fame is as the probable architect of many of the most cunningly designed secret hiding places built into the homes of Catholic recusants. All of that romantic tradition of old English manor houses with sliding panels, false floors, pivoting beams, and rotating bookshelves owes much to St. Nicholas, and has its roots in the real, and decidedly unromantic, peril faced by priests of the time. The country homes of wealthy Catholic families served as harbours and safehouses for the priests ministering clandestinely to Catholics, but they were subject to sudden search by government-funded “priest hunters”. If a priest was present in the home at the time of a search, he would, if possible, retreat into a hiding place — a “priest-hole” — and wait out the search, sometimes for as long as 8 or 10 days. Nicholas’ ingenious priest-hole designs were credited with saving the lives of many Catholics, both priests and laymen, over a period of several decades.

In 1606 Nicholas was arrested in a series of general raids upon Catholic homes during the fallout from the Gunpowder Plot. When the authorities realized who they had captured, they had him tortured for information in the Tower of London. Records of these interrogations still exist, and in this book Reynolds does a nice job of showing just how little useful intelligence Nicholas yielded up under duress. After several days of torture his long-standing hernia burst and he died in the hands of his interrogators; the authorities put out a story about his having committed suicide, but Reynolds does a good job picking that story apart. St Nicholas Owen was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His particular feast day is 22 March.

Readers who do not know much about this absorbing period of English and Catholic history would, I expect, find this little volume fascinating. Reynolds does a good job introducing the main people within Nicholas’ world, and although the focus is on Nicholas himself, Reynolds is able to tell the broad story of the Jesuit mission through those crucial years. He also gives a concise but well-judged overview of the historical background which led to the straitened circumstances in which Nicholas and his Jesuit friends were forced to operate. On the other hand, those who, like me, have previously read some of the first person accounts surviving from this period, such as those written by Fr. John Gerard and Fr. Oswald Tesimond, will find much of the story familiar. Even in this case, however, Reynolds filled in some details drawn from official government records that I did not remember having seen before. There have been a few other books published in recent years covering some of the same territory — such as Michael Hodgetts’ Secret Hiding Places, Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, and Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors — but I appreciated Reynolds’ rather more forthright admiration for Nicholas and sympathy with his cause. It’s a very nice little book.

Related Book Notes:

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.

Miola: Early Modern Catholicism

January 22, 2009

Early Modern Catholicism
An Anthology of Primary Sources

Robert S. Miola, Ed. (Oxford, 2007)
534 p.  First reading.

Robert Miola has done us a good service.  In this book he pulls together dozens of texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that pertain, in one way or another, to English Catholicism.  He cuts a wide swath, taking in devotional texts, biographies, histories, religious tracts, poems and songs, letters, plays, and more. It is a genuine treasure trove for anyone with an interest in this period.

Among his selections one first finds the major authors whom one expects to find.  St. Thomas More is represented by excerpts from his works of religious controversy, by A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, written while he awaited execution in the Tower of London, and by a portion of William Roper’s early biography.  Great poets like Donne, Jonson, and Crashaw are all represented, though the particular poems, all on Catholic themes, may not be well-known.  William Shakespeare is here, not because Miola thinks him a Catholic playwright — he has put the matter this way: “Dante was a Catholic, Milton was a Protestant, Shakespeare was a dramatist” — but because Catholicism does appear in Shakespeare’s plays, and his treatment of it is in some ways atypical for the time.

Just as interesting are the selections from less well-known sources: an anonymous song about the destruction of the pilgrimage shrine at Walsingham, an account of the death by piene forte et dure of St. Margaret Clitherow, beautiful religious poetry by Henry Constable and St. Robert Southwell, and Elizabeth Southwell’s record of the death of Queen Elizabeth (in which she explains that not only was Anne Boleyn an illegitimate child of Henry VIII, but she was graced with “a projecting tooth under the upper lip and on her right hand six fingers”).  Some of the material, like that last, is polemical and scandalous, but other selections, such as Nicholas Sander‘s Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1585), contain serious argumentation and careful reasoning, and would still make edifying reading for Anglicans today.  Bartolomé de Las Casas contributes The Spanish Colony (1583), in which he describes his horror at the brutality of the Spanish conquerors of the New World and pleads that the essential humanity of the natives be recognized and respected.

For a few years now I have had a particular interest in the Jesuit mission in England under Elizabeth I and James I, and Miola had included several excellent pieces in this connection.  We find Edmund Campion‘s famous Letter to the Privy Council (1580), more commonly called “Campion’s Brag”, in which he announces to the authorities with dashing confidence his religious mission among the English people.  Even more absorbing are Campion’s arguments before a panel of clerics during his imprisonment in the Tower, and finally an account, by one Thomas Alfield, of his 1581 martyrdom.  The Jesuit Superior of England from 1586-1606 was Henry Garnet, and Miola includes a selection from his A Treatise of Equivocation (c.1598), which attempts to treat one of the most pressing issues of moral theology for English Catholics facing threats of violence: is it licit to equivocate in answer to the authorities, or is such equivocation tantamount to lying?

I cannot convey the richness of the book in such short compass.  It was a maddeningly complex time, with political and religious loyalties intertwined and often in conflict and confused.  Allegiances were sometimes unstable: John Donne was raised Catholic but became a great Anglican clergyman, Ben Jonson converted to Catholicism and then converted back a decade later.  Religious convictions had to contend, in a quite immediate way, with the threat of physical violence.  Even among the Catholic faithful it was sometimes not clear just what was at stake in the English Reformation, and there was controversy over what changes were or were not licit.  Miola has managed to reveal that complexity in perhaps the only way that it could really be done: by allowing the people to speak to us with their own voices.

God’s Secret Agents – Alice Hogge

November 5, 2008

God’s Secret Agents
Alice Hogge (HarperCollins, 2005)
445 p.  First reading.

Last year I wrote about Fr. John Gerard’s account of his years as a Jesuit priest under Elizabeth I.  To be a Catholic priest in England at that time was a capital crime, and Gerard and his confreres lived cloak-and-dagger lives to bring the sacraments to English Catholics.  Theirs is a thrilling tale, and Gerard’s account of his part in the drama was excellent.  In this book, Alice Hogge covers much of the same ground — Gerard is one of the central figures in her account — but she broadens the scope to fill out the historical background.

The Jesuit mission began in 1580, when Edmund Campion and Robert Persons landed on English soil.  They caused a great stir, but were both soon arrested and executed.  Not until the mid-1580s did the Jesuits establish an enduring presence in the country.  The mission was organized and maintained by Henry Garnet, who landed in 1586 and served as Jesuit Superior of England until 1606, when he was arrested and executed in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot.

Despite their determination to remain apolitical, the Jesuits were hunted by the government from the beginning.  All Catholics were suspect at the time, for in 1570 Pope Pius V had issued Regnans in Excelsis, a Papal Bull formally excommunicating Elizabeth.  The Bull forced upon English Catholics a division of loyalties between their monarch and their faith.  This conflict was especially acute for Jesuits, who take a special vow of obedience to the Pope as part of their religious profession.  Furthermore, the Jesuit order had been founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spaniard, and political tensions between England and Spain were high.  The launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588 did not help.  Being well aware of the perception that they were foreign agents hostile to the crown, the Jesuits forbade any of their priests to even discuss political matters in England; theirs was to be an exclusively religious mission.  The government, however, did not trust them, or just did not want them in England, and whenever a priest was captured and executed it was on charges of treason to the crown.

At the same time the government placed diverse pressures on Catholic laymen to conform to the new state religion: fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment, and even death were prescribed for various kinds of resistance. Interestingly, it was women who were best able to resist these pressures.  They faced none of the career-related pressures with which men had to contend (government employees, lawyers, clergy, schoolmasters, and university students had all been required to take the Oath of Supremacy since 1563, something a faithful Catholic could not do).  Furthermore, since under English law married women could not own property, they could not be fined.  This allowed them to harbour and assist priests with a certain amount of freedom, at least until 1593 when the law was changed to permit fining of husbands whose wives were recusant.

The secret weapon on the Catholic side, without which the mission could not have survived as long as it did, was a man named Nicholas Owen.  Owen was from Oxford, where he trained as a master carpenter and mason.  He became a Jesuit lay brother sometime in the 1580s, and began putting his talents at the service of the mission.  Throughout the English countryside, in the great houses of the Catholic gentry, he began constructing hides: cunningly concealed hiding places into which priests could slip if they should be present when the house was raided (as they frequently were) by priest-hunters.  Many of these hides still survive today, under false floorboards or behind secret panels.  They were so well-hidden that often the search party could continue their search for weeks without discovering them.  Owen is credited with saving the lives of many priests, as well as the lives of those who harboured them.  He too was arrested after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered, and though he was not involved in the plot, he was tortured in the Tower for information and died of his injuries.

As I said, Hogge broadens the perspective to set the Jesuit mission in context.  She treats the early reign of Elizabeth, the political tensions with Spain and the Netherlands, the changing legal situation faced by English Catholics, the transition to the reign of James I, and, though it is not the focus of her story, she does discuss the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath.  It is a compelling story, and she tells it well.  I enjoyed the book thoroughly.


An aside: Hogge writes of Elizabeth’s first visit, in 1566, to Oxford University, at which she was entertained by debates and orations from the students.  One speaker was the young Edmund Campion, who won praise for his defence of the thesis “that the tides are caused by the moon’s motion”.  I haven’t seen the text of his oration itself, so can’t be sure exactly what he was arguing, but it is worth noting that this is 70 years before Galileo attempted (incorrectly) to explain the tides as caused by the earth’s rotational motion, and 120 years before Newton (correctly) attributed the cause to the moon’s gravitational pull.  Clearly, the question was a live one, and Campion may have been on the right track.  It makes me wish I knew more about the history of this idea.

[Campion exhorting his fellow seminarians]
Listen to our heavenly Father asking back his talents with usury; listen to the Church, the mother that bore us and nursed us, imploring our help; listen to the pitiful cries of our neighbours in danger of spiritual starvation; listen to the howling of the wolves that are spoiling the flock.  The glory of your Father, the preservation of your mother, your own salvation, the safety of your brethren, are in jeopardy, and can you stand idle? … Do not, I pray you, regard such a tragedy as a joke; sleep not while the enemy watches; play not while he devours his prey; relax not in idleness and vanity while he is dabbling in your brother’s blood… See then, my dearest and most instructed youths, that you lose none of this precious time, but carry a plentiful and rich crop away from this seminary, enough to supply the public wants, and to gain for ourselves the reward of dutiful sons.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam

December 15, 2007

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.