John Gerard, S.J.: The Adventures of an Elizabethan Priest

In London, at a public place called Guildhall, Catholic prisoners were being examined. The chief interrogator, proceeding methodically, asked one of the prisoners if he recognized that Elizabeth was the Queen of England, even though she had been excommunicated by the pope. The prisoner, carefully weighing his words, admitted that Elizabeth was the Queen, and, at the same time, he acknowledged that there had also been an excommunication. Clearly not satisfied with this evasive answer, the inquisitor delved deeper, laying his trap craftily. As he continued the examination of the prisoner, he now inquired:

What would you do if the Pope were to send over an army and declare that his only object was to bring the kingdom back to its Catholic allegiance? And if he stated at the same time that there was no other way of establishing the Catholic faith; and commanded everyone by his apostolic authority to support him? Whose side would you be on then—the Pope’s or the Queen’s?

The prisoner saw the subtle and cunning question in all of its logical implications. With superb adroitness, he replied:

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I am a loyal Catholic and I am a loyal subject of the Queen. If this were to happen, and I do not think it at all likely, I would behave as a loyal Catholic and as a loyal subject.

The year was 1597. The “question” above was known as the “Bloody Question,” concocted by Elizabeth’s chief counselor, the wily William Cecil, Lord Burghley. It was devised to catch out Catholics and impugn them with disloyalty. It was known to work. The said inquisitor was Richard Topcliffe, the Queen’s chief interrogator and sadistic torturer; the prisoner was Fr. John Gerard, a captured English Jesuit who was being held in the Clink Prison. With great finesse, he had handled the question.

In his work, The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, Fr. Gerard has presented us with a meticulous, insightful, and thrilling description of the life of an Elizabethan Catholic priest on the run. Like other priests on the English mission, Gerard was sent to provide pastoral care to recusant Catholics, to fortify them in their faith, and to reconcile schismatics and heretics to the Church. Beyond that, he also helped foster a number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, guiding his protégés to suitable religious houses on the Continent.

John Gerard was born to Sir Thomas Gerard and his wife Elizabeth (née Port) on October 4, 1564 at Etwall, Derbyshire; he later dwelt at Bryn Hall, Lancashire. The young Gerard matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford in December of 1575. Because they attempted to force him to take the Anglican sacrament, he withdrew from Oxford. Travelling overseas, he attended the English College at Douai in 1577, migrating to Rheims in the following year. In order to acquaint himself better with Jesuit life and to hone his skills in philosophy and Latin, he came to Paris in 1581 to study at the Jesuit’s renowned College of Clermont. Following a sickness, he returned to England in 1583 to settle some personal matters.

While attempting to return to the Continent, Gerard was arrested, and, because he would not conform to Anglicanism, he was committed to the Marshalsea Prison. After an imprisonment of a little more than a year, he was released. Gerard ultimately escaped to the Continent in 1586, where he arrived in Rome to complete his studies at the English College, eventually being ordained a priest in July of 1588. He was then admitted into the Society of Jesus by Fr. Acquaviva, who sent him on the English mission.

During the last quarter of the sixteenth century, Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, had set up a fairly comprehensive espionage system inside and outside of England. His informants lurked in various coastal cities where priests, travelling under aliases and in disguises, embarked and disembarked. Moreover, he even had the Catholic seminaries on the Continent infiltrated with his moles, men who were more than capable of identifying disguised priests.

In November of 1588, under cover of night, Gerard, with Fr. Edward Oldcorne and two other Jesuits, landed near the coast of Happisburgh, Norfolk. Just three months prior, the famed Spanish Armada had passed through the Channel. It was an exceedingly dangerous time for Catholics to travel. Not only were there alerts kept out on the coasts, but watches were also closely kept in the villages. Cognizant of these dangers, Gerard avoided the villages and the more well-traveled thoroughfares as he progressed into Norfolk.

Under Elizabeth’s government, the new Anglican religion and its Book of Common Prayer had been imposed upon the people, reducing loyal Catholics to penury through fines, imprisonment, and even confiscation of property. The last hope of Catholicism was in the great houses of certain members of the gentry. These men and women had enough wealth with which to pay the fines; they had large houses outfitted with chapels, altar supplies, and priest holes; furthermore, they also had networks of influential friends who might shield them from government interference.

For the first six years, Gerard’s missionary and pastoral activities focused on the great houses of the gentry in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Essex. In order to better move in these circles, he ably disguised himself as a well-bred gentleman, wearing fashionable dress, while at the same time commanding a solid grasp of falconry and card games. For security reasons, it was imperative that only a very limited Catholic circle knew that he was a priest.

Much of Gerard’s pastoral work arose from the spiritual solicitude of his hosts for their relatives, friends, and retainers. Through these contacts, he cast his net outward, expanding his connections discreetly. He brought schismatics into full communion, reconciled heretics, heard confessions, and said mass secretly, often before dawn. He directed souls, even delivering the Spiritual Exercises for those contemplating a vocation. In his pastoral work, he might begin with small talk over a hunt, tactfully adverting to the importance of one’s eternal salvation, all the time vigilantly guarding his words, carefully weighing the response, and acting, only when the time was ripe. If the person was clearly convinced and serious about being a Catholic, either Gerard or his host would then privately reveal that he was a priest.

In numerous cases, Gerard successfully avoided the surprise incursions and raids of the pursuivants by crawling into a priest hole just in the nick of time. The pursuivants, utilizing spies, sometimes even within Catholic households, would surround the house with a cordon, break down barred doors, and ransack the house completely, tearing up plaster, paneling, and floors in search of their priestly quarry. On one occasion, Gerard had to crawl into a tightly cramped hole for four days without food. It worked, he avoided capture. Many of the best disguised priest holes in England were built by the skillful Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit lay brother, referred to by Gerard as “Little John.”

Eventually, through the aid of a traitor, Gerard, together with “Little John,” was surprised by pursuivants and apprehended in a London house. Subjected to questioning, though he admitted he was a Jesuit, he refused to provide the names of his hosts throughout his missions. He asserted that his purpose in England was purely spiritual, declaring that it was “To bring back wandering souls to their maker.” After interrogation, he was taken to the Poultry Compter Prison where he was put in close confinement.

Eventually, Gerard was moved to the Clink Prison, where he dwelled from 1594 to 1597. Within this prison, he had relative freedom—the warders, with a bit of coaxing and bribing were considerably lax. Within the prison itself, he was able to come and go as he wished. Before the warder awoke, he would say mass and hear confessions, reconciling numerous inmates to the Church. Amazing as it may seem, he was able to correspond with his friends and incoming priests from the Continent through couriers—he even managed to have a house rented in London, overseen by a trusted widow, to provide secure lodgings for newly arrived priests.

Once the authorities finally became aware that Gerard was receiving letters from Jesuits overseas, they moved him to the Tower of London. The Lords Commissioners and the Attorney General, Edward Coke, then carried out a juridical examination of him on Jesuit involvement in political activities. In response, Gerard claimed, as a Jesuit, that he was forbidden to engage in political activities. Even so, they pressed him to find the whereabouts of Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit superior in England. He refused. After they produced a warrant for torturing him, Gerard bravely replied: “With God’s help I shall never do anything that is unjust or act against my conscience or the Catholic faith.”

After Gerard was brought to the torture chamber, his hands were placed in iron gauntlets, and he was made to hang from his wrists for hours. As the pain was so great, he passed out several times. They let him recover enough to hang him up again. Throughout it all, he resigned himself to God’s will and “called on the names of Jesus and Mary.” As more torture was applied, he still refused to confess, responding, “Eamus in nomine Domini … I have only one life, but if I had several, I would sacrifice them all for the same cause.” Eventually, they gave up, seeing his great resolve in asking the Lord for the courage even to be rent into pieces.

Even while imprisoned in the Tower, Gerard was able to communicate with fellow prisoners and correspond with many friends in London. His secret correspondence was often made by using orange juice as invisible ink. On the night of Oct. 4, 1597, with the help of “Little John” and two other friends, Gerard, with another prisoner, brilliantly organized his escape from the Cradle Tower with a rope strung over the moat. The prisoners were then spirited away into the country by horse.

Following his escape, Gerard worked in Northamptonshire, also making forays into Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. At this time, Gerard worked carefully for the conversion of many associated with the court, eventually winning over Sir Everard Digby and his wife. On account of his friendship with Digby and others who participated in the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605, Gerard was accused by the government of involvement in the plot and he was hotly pursued. He defended himself in an open letter, denying any knowledge of plot or participation in it. For the time being, Gerard lay low, looking for the first opportunity to return to the Continent. Ultimately, he left England, disguised as a retainer of the Spanish ambassador on May 3, 1606, the very day on which Fr. Henry Garnet was martyred.

After he returned to the Continent, he was ordered by his superiors to write his Autobiography and the Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, both valuable primary sources. After a short stint at St. Omer, he traveled to Rome. Between 1609 and 1627, Gerard dwelled in the Spanish Netherlands, where he held various supervisory roles for the Society of Jesus. Returning to Rome in 1627, he acted as confessor to the English College, where he died on July 27, 1537.

While Gerard’s Autobiography is a riveting adventure story, it also provides a detailed account of the apostolic field in which English Catholic priests labored diligently in order to save the souls of their countrymen. Like Campion, Southwell, Garnet, and so many others, Gerard played an important role in keeping the Catholic torch lit in an England, increasingly becoming Protestant. He strengthened the resolve of many brave Catholics with his pastoral care, reconciled many others to the true Faith, and encouraged nearly forty vocations to the priesthood or religious life. His narrative has everything in it to make an engaging, compelling, and moving cinematic production. Let us hope that some capable director becomes acquainted with his story and takes up the work.

Suggested Reading: John Gerard, The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, trans. Philip Caraman, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012).


  • Joseph F. X. Sladky

    Joseph F. X. Sladky holds a Ph.D. in Church History from the Catholic University of America. He teaches at Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Virginia.

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