Posts Tagged ‘John Gerard’

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.

Best of the Decade: Books

December 31, 2009

I had planned to crown this series of “Best of the Decade” posts by looking at books, but that plan has fizzled.  The trouble is that I’ve read very few books published this decade — so few, in fact, that the exercise hardly seems worthwhile.  I’ll give a short list, but mainly I’d like to use this post to solicit recommendations for good books published between 2000-2009.

My favourites, culled from a list of a couple of dozen eligible volumes, are these:

  • David Bentley Hart — The Beauty of the Infinite (2003): It took me about six months to work my way through this book, and I understood very little of it — I never grasped the meaning of analogia entis, and this proved a tragic fault — but it was still a great pleasure to read, if only for Hart’s brilliant rhetorical flourishes.  (Try this one.Millinerd agrees that it is a great book, and he says why.
  • David Heald — Architecture of Silence (2000): A book of black and white photographs of Cistercian monasteries.  It is a very beautiful and surprisingly instructive book that quietly conveys something of the spirit of Cistercian devotion.
  • Cormac McCarthy — The Road (2006): Quiet and austere on each page, but devastating in its cumulative effect, this was among the most memorable novels I read this decade. (Book Note)
  • Alex Ross — The Rest is Noise (2007): A fascinating overview of twentieth-century history told through its music.  (Book Note)
  • Tom Wolfe — I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004): An unpretentious and heart-breaking portrait of the moral decline and fall of a bright-eyed young woman on one of America’s elite college campuses.  (Book Note)

As I said above, I would like to hear about your favourite books of the decade.  Feel free to leave a comment.


If, for amusement’s sake, I relax the constraint I have been observing and admit for consideration anything I read this decade, regardless of when it was first published, I arrive at a different set of favourites.  Leaving aside those widely acknowledged as classics (The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Confessions, and so on), my list includes:

  • John Gerard, S.J. — Autobiography of an Elizabethan (1609): A fascinating first-hand account of life in the Jesuit underground during the reign of Elizabeth I.  (Book Note)
  • Søren Kierkegaard — The Sickness Unto Death (1849): A rather personal choice, this book found me at the right time, and has had lasting good effects in my life.
  • C. S. Lewis — The Discarded Image (1964): This is perhaps the best book I know about the medieval period in Europe.  Lewis, with great sympathy and insight, describes the worldview of medieval men, helping us to see the world as they saw it.  (Book Note)
  • Thomas Mann — Doctor Faustus (1947): A seriously great story about music, ambition, and the decline of Western culture.  Too big to grasp in one reading, but I grasped enough to recognize its worth.
  • Herman Melville — Moby-Dick (1851): A glorious and heroic eruption of a book.  Reading it was probably the greatest purely literary pleasure I had this decade. (Book Note)
  • Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire (1962): By a wide margin the best murder mystery that I have read.  It is an amazing genre-busting tour de force by Nabokov, and a hilarious one too.
  • Josef Pieper — Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952): A book that brings together many of the central themes of Pieper’s work.  It is a tremendously insightful, wise, and thought-provoking book that ought to be far more widely read.
  • Kenneth Grahame — The Wind in the Willows (1908): Somehow I missed reading this when I was a child, but it is a book for adults too, and I took great delight in it.


Happy New Year!