Regular readers may remember I’ve mentioned the fate of Lancashire Catholics several times before (irregular readers may like to use the ‘Search’ facility… ), but the story of Father John Gerard is one of the most remarkable stories you are ever likely to read.
John was born at Bryn, in Lancashire, on October 4th 1564 and spent his boyhood at Etwall, Derbyshire, one of four country estates owned by his father, Sir Thomas Gerard. A couple of miles over the border, in Staffordshire, is Tutbury Castle (which, incidentally, is the property of the Duchy of Lancaster), where, several times during 1569, Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. In 1571, Sir Thomas and two associates, Sir Thomas Stanley and Francis Rolston, were committed to the Tower of London on charges of plotting to free Mary from Tutbury, with the aim of restoring a Catholic monarch to the English throne.
|Mary, Queen of Scots|
John and his elder brother Tom were taken from their mother and placed in the care of a Protestant family until, three years later, Sir Thomas was released and the family were reunited at Etwall. John was a large, strong boy and spent much of his youth hunting with hawks, riding and at other field sports, much to his mother’s concern (although the knowledge he learned then would serve him well in later life). The boys were sent to the English Catholic School at Douai, France (Catholics were prohibited from attending English universities), and then later to Clermont.
Sir Thomas Gerard grew increasingly bitter at the fines and confiscations he was forced to endure, and as his estates shrank he increasingly mismanaged what was left. In a bid to provide for his family, he signed over ownership of his estates to his sons but to his dismay John decided to use his inheritance to pay for ordination into the priesthood. Catholics were not allowed to travel abroad without a permit and John, a member of such a well-known Catholic family, decided it was pointless to even apply, so he and five Catholic companions surreptitiously departed for France in a small wooden boat. Adverse winds in the Channel thwarted their efforts and after five days they were forced into Dover harbour.
All five were immediately arrested and sent under guard to London. John’s family connections gained his release into the custody of a staunch Protestant uncle, who hoped to curb his impetuous nephew’s spirit but John was having none of it. He flatly refused to attend Protestant services, mocked his aunt’s entreaties and almost killed the local minister by fright when he dressed as a ghostly monk and haunted the churchyard at twilight. When the exasperated uncle threatened to horsewhip him, the strapping lad just laughed in his face, so at the end of his patience he returned his recalcitrant charge to the authorities, which sentenced him to the Marshalsea prison.
In prison, he was in the next cell to Father William Thomson and, by removing a large stone in the wall, he crawled through and the two then set about converting the other prisoners, organising masses and smuggling in religious books. When the prison authorities uncovered the goings-on they tried to take action but the situation had reached a level that the Bishop of London complained that the Marshalsea had become “a college of caitiffs.’ In 1585, John was persuaded by Anthony Babington to accept an offer of surety, and on a bond of £200 and the requirement to present himself at the prison every three months, he was released. One day, on his way to the Marshalsea he was passing Tyburn when he saw the condemned Father Thomson on his way to his martyrdom – Thomson made the sign of the cross to his friend from the back of the cart and the devastated John went to Babington, who was rumoured to be involved in a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Babington, it is rumoured, told John, “Your head will be more useful to the Faith while it remains on your neck,” a grim portent, as he was himself hanged, drawn and quartered the following year for his part in the eponymous Babington Plot.
Gerard followed the advice, skipped his bond and slipped out of the country for Rome, where he was ordained into the priesthood in 1587, entering the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in August the following year. In November 1588, just three months after the Spanish Armada, John and Father Edward Oldcorne were put ashore at Bacton, Norfolk, whereupon they separated and made their way to London. John disguised himself as visiting country squire, and by using the ruse of searching for a lost hawk in order to ask the locals for directions, he travelled the country roads and back-ways without arousing suspicion.
|Father Henry Garnet S.J.|
After making contact with Father Henry Garnet, England’s head Jesuit, he returned to Norfolk, where he used the name of Mr Thomson (in memory of his martyred friend) to move in society. He joked and sported and played cards (although he would not allow obscene or blasphemous words in his presence), playing the part of the country gentleman and soon became immensely popular in the area. He began to travel, returning home to Etwall at one stage, and said Mass where and when he could, avoiding the pursuivants (priest hunters) by hiding in priest holes, the secret spaces built into the fabric of houses where priests could conceal themselves.
He carried the altar furniture with him, to spare the families he visited the risk of being found with such belongings in their homes, and would turn over any mattress on which he had slept, so that a casual searcher would not feel the warmth of a body having been there. On one occasion he spent four days and nights hiding beneath a fire grate as pursuivants repeatedly searched a house, who had been tipped off by a servant that there was a priest in the house – he survived by eating biscuits and quince jelly. This treacherous servant, John Frank, repeatedly reported Gerard’s whereabouts to the pursuivants and it became simply a matter of time before he was taken. On the night of April 23 1594 Frank came to Gerard’s lodgings on the pretence of delivering a letter and after making sure that the priest was there, he left. Just after midnight a body of armed men surrounded the house and, there being no way to escape, John Gerard and Nicholas Owen, another Jesuit priest, were taken prisoner.
And that is where things start to get really interesting ...