For the first two days after his capture Father John Gerard was held by the magistrates, who questioned him about his links with the Jesuits. He was initially questioned by Sir Thomas Egerton, a former Catholic who “went over to the other side, for he loved the things of this world,” but Gerard refused to name any others, so Egerton had him committed to the Poultry Compter, “’But tell the gaolers,' he added, 'to treat him well on account of his birth’.”
|Entrance to the Poultry Compter|
There were three Compters in London at the time, one at Southwark, a New Compter in Wood Street and the Poultry Compter at Cheapside, so called because of the trade in poultry at the market there. Also known popularly as Counters, the Compters were used to hold petty criminals – vagrants, drunks, debtors, prostitutes, religious dissidents and so on – and were notoriously insalubrious; Ned Ward, in his London Spy, described how
“the mixture of scents that arose from mundungus, tobacco, foul feet, dirty shirts, stinking breaths, and uncleanly carcases, poisoned our nostrils far worse than a Southwark ditch, a tanner's yard, or a tallow-chandler's melting-room.”
|The Road to Prison|
Here Gerard was questioned by a magistrate called Young and the notorious Richard Topcliffe, now in his sixties, grey-bearded and “a man of cruelty, athirst for the blood of the Catholics”. The wily Topcliffe began softly, trying to get Gerard to sign a prepared confession but he refused, offering instead to write his own which countered everything on Topcliffe’s paper. Gerard had written in a feigned hand, so that if any papers in his real handwriting were discovered in the homes of Catholics, they could not be matched to this ‘confession’, and he signed it so close to the bottom that nothing else could be inserted later. Topcliffe was furious but Gerard refused to implicate others and denied that the Jesuits were involved in politics,
“As for matters of State we are forbidden to have anything to say to them, as they do not belong to our Institute. This prohibition, indeed, extends to all the members of the Society; but on us Missioners it is particularly enjoined in a special instruction.”
He was put in iron shackles and left in a cell for three months – “My fetters were rusty when I first put them on, but by moving about and wearing them every day I had rendered them quite bright and shining,” after which, due to the interventions of friends, he was moved to the Clink at Southwark.
|Winchester Palace (The Clink, lower right)|
The Clink was the oldest prison in England – it has become a generic name for any prison, possibly from the onomatopoeic ‘clinking’ of either the gaolers’ keys or the prisoners’ chains – and belonged to the Bishop of Winchester, standing next to his palace, but Gerard described the move there as going from ‘Purgatory to Paradise’. Gaolers at the Clink were very poorly paid but supplemented their incomes by bribing the prisoners for ‘privileges’, and Gerard paid well. In a repeat of his imprisonment at the Marshalsea, he began to say masses, hear confessions and make converts. There were many other priests in the Clink and through bribery they established a firm Catholic community in the prison. When word reached the higher powers Topcliffe was sent into the prison and threatened Gerard with execution on grounds of treason but his plans were sharply halted when he was brought before the Council after his son had stabbed a man to death with his sword in the hall of the Queen’s Bench. Topcliffe’s insolent manner and contempt for the authority of the Council so offended them that he was sentenced to the Marshalsea himself. But suspicions had been aroused and the Justice and two pursuivants searched Gerard’s cell, hoping to find incriminating documents, but everything had already been hidden away in an assortment of hiding places throughout the prison.
|The Salt Tower|
On the orders of Lord Lieutenant Berkeley, Gerard was moved again, to the Salt Tower at the Tower of London. In a bare pentagonal cell fifteen feet across, he saw carved in the soft stone the name of Henry Walpole, a Jesuit who had been martyred at York, and he took solace in this. The strength of his charisma won over the gaoler, who had him moved to a more comfortable cell, with a bed and linen, although he was allowed to return to the smaller cell to pray. On the third day, he was brought before the Lords Commissioner and the Queen’s Attorney, who again pressed him to reveal the whereabouts of Father Garnet and to admit to treason, and again he refused, so he was handed a warrant for putting him to torture, which he read calmly before replying, “Do what God permits you, for you certainly cannot go beyond.”
|Examination by Torment|
He was led through a tunnel under the Lieutenant’s house to the White Tower, where he was shown instruments of torture and asked to repent and reveal his associates. Again he refused, so he was taken to a wooden pillar, at the top of which were strong iron bands. His wrists were placed in iron bracelets and he was raised up two or three wicker steps, the bracelets passed onto the brackets on the pillar and secured with a rod, then the steps were withdrawn. Gerard was too tall for the torture, so the gaolers had to dig away the earth beneath his feet, until he hung suspended by his wrists. The bracelets cut into his wrists and hands, and the weight of his body dragged him down, making breathing almost impossible, but he continued to pray as the kindly gaoler wiped the sweat from his face. He begged Gerard to ‘tell the gentlemen what they wanted to know,’ but he would not and the torture continued into the night.
|Torture in the Tower|
At about one, Gerard fainted and the steps were replaced under his feet, but when he revived and started to pray again, they were taken away and he hung again. This happened several times during the night, until at about five the Commissioners returned and again asked for the whereabouts of Garnet. Once more he refused and the Commissioners departed in a rage, one snarling, “Hang then till you rot.” After they had gone he was taken down and returned to his cell, although as he was led past the cells of other prisoners he had the presence left to ask, in a loud voice, if he had been asked for the whereabouts of Father Garnet, which he could not have given as it was a sin to betray the innocent – a clever move, which denied the authorities of claiming he had cracked under torture and allowed the possibility of word reaching Garnet, both warning and reassuring him.
The next morning, dressed in a loose cloak as his arms were too swollen to pass through his sleeves, he was brought again before Commissioner Wade, who repeated the questions and received the same denials, and so passed again into the hands of the superintendent of torture. His swollen wrists were forced into the bracelets and he was hung up on the pillar again, until eventually he fainted once more. He awoke to find Lieutenant pouring water into his mouth and who begged him to relent, but Gerard yet again refused and tried to walk back to the pillar himself, although he was too weak to stand. He was hung up for over another hour but his bravery had shaken the Lieutenant, who ordered that he be taken down - this official soon resigned from his position, refusing ever to be a party in the torture of innocent men. Back in his cell, the gaoler tried to feed Gerard, whose throat was swelled almost as much as his wrists.
He expected to torture to continue, but it didn’t – for some reason he was left to recover, and after about two months was able again to use his hands. His friends outside had some large oranges delivered to him, which he shared with his gaoler who was especially fond of the fruit, and carved from the skins crosses that he stitched into rosaries. He got the gaoler to deliver these to his friends in the Clink, for which he received a few welcome pennies, but Gerard had another plan in mind. He saved the orange juice in a cup and made a dip pen from a toothpick, and using the juice as ink, he wrote secret letters to his friends. Orange juice will reveal itself when heated by candle flame but unlike lemon juice it does not disappear again when cold, thus proving that the message had not previously been read.
He passed letters this way for over six months, using the paper to wrap seemingly innocent items, and received letters back in the same fashion, until one day he discovered the friendly gaoler was unable to read – the man had stood by his shoulder as he wrote, and then asked the priest what he had written, so one day Gerard wrote one thing but recited something else and thus discovered the gaoler’s illiteracy, who simply liked to hear Gerard read aloud. He became more open, writing letters in pencil on one side of the paper and in invisible orange juice on the other side, and began to receive information from the outside world. There were plans being made, he heard from Garnet, for his execution so he decided he must act quickly.