John Gerard (Jesuit)

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John Gerard (4 October 1564 – 27 July 1637)[1] was a priest of the Society of Jesus who operated a secret ministry of the illegal and underground Catholic Church in England during the Elizabethan era. He was born into the English nobility as the second son of Sir Thomas Gerard at Old Bryn Hall, near Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire.

Gerard notably not only successfully hid from the English authorities for eight years before his capture but also endured extensive torture, escaped from the Tower of London, recovered and continued with his covert mission until the exposure of the Gunpowder Plot made it impossible to continue. After his escape to Catholic Europe, Fr. Gerard was instructed by his Jesuit superiors to write a book about his life in Latin.[2] An English translation by Fr. Philip Caraman was published in 1951 as The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest and is a rare first-hand account of the dangerous cloak-and-dagger world of a Catholic priest in Elizabethan England.[3] A second edition was published by Ignatius Press in 2012.

Early life[edit]

John Gerard was born 4 October 1564, the second son of Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn Hall, and Elizabeth, daughter and co-heiress of Sir John Port of Derbyshire. In 1569, when John Gerard was five years old, his father was imprisoned for plotting the rescue of Mary, Queen of Scots, from Tutbury Castle. His release in 1571 may have been influenced by his cousin Sir Gilbert Gerard who was Attorney General at that time. During that time John and his brother were placed with Protestant relatives, but his father obtained for them a Catholic tutor.[citation needed]

In August 1577, at age 12, he was sent to the English College at Douai, which relocated the following March to Rheims. At the age of 15 he spent a year at Exeter College, Oxford. This was followed by about a year of home-study of Greek and Latin under a tutor, a Mr Leutner (Edmund Lewkenor, brother of Sir Lewes Lewknor Master of the Ceremonies to James I). He then went to the Jesuit Clermont College in Paris. After some months there, followed by an illness and convalescence, in the latter part of 1581 he went to Rouen to see Jesuit priest Robert Persons.[1]

First mission[edit]

As Gerard had left for Clermont without the requisite travel permit, upon his return to England, he was arrested by customs officials upon landing at Dover. While his companions were sent to London, he was released in the custody of a Protestant in-law. But after three months, having still not attended Anglican services, he was remanded to the Marshalsea prison. He spent a little over a year there in company with William Hartley, Stephen Rowsham, John Adams, and William Bishop. In the spring of 1585, Anthony Babington, who was later executed for treason for his involvement in a plot to free the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, posted bond to secure Gerard's release.[1]

Second mission[edit]

Gerard then went to Rome and was given another mission on behalf of the Jesuits to England. In November 1588, three months after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Gerard and Edward Oldcorne landed in Norfolk to begin their task of sustaining Catholics among the English people. Having made his way to Norwich he met there the Lord of the Manor of Grimston, a Recusant called Edward Yelverton. After a two days’ journey on horseback, Gerard—now Mr. Thompson—settled down quietly in the Manor House at Grimston, 8 miles East of King's Lynn, as an honoured guest. He was in great danger, but his retreat was believed as safe as any south of the Humber.[citation needed] Gerard was no ordinary man. He had indeed strange powers of attraction and fascination. He was introduced to the chief families of the neighbourhood, Walpoles and Woodhouses among others, and though only twenty-four he had extraordinary influence among them. His stay in Grimston lasted seven or eight months. After that he lived for some time at Lawshall, near Bury St. Edmunds. Eventually, Gerard was taken to the leader of the English Jesuits, Father Henry Garnet. Gerard soon became a very popular figure in the Catholic underground. To stay above suspicion, Gerard cultivated a respectable public image.[4] By way of disguises, he appeared very secular, being versed in gambling and wearing fashionable clothes. Gerard wrote of many escapes from the law and of occasions when he hid in priest holes, which could often be as small as 1 meter tall and half a meter wide. In 1591 Gerard became the chaplain to the Wiseman household, Braddocks, led by William and Jane Wiseman. The household included Jane Wiseman who was William's widowed mother. Gerard persuaded her to create a new home for herself and a chaplain name Bullocks which would become as additional centre for Catholicism and priest harbouring.[5]

Capture and torture[edit]

Gerard was finally captured in London on 23 April 1594, together with Nicholas Owen. He was tried, found guilty and sent to the Compter in the Poultry. Later he was moved to the Clink prison where he was able to meet regularly with other imprisoned English Catholics. Due to his continuation of this work, he was sent to the Salt Tower in the Tower of London, where he was further questioned and tortured by being repeatedly suspended from chains on the dungeon wall.[4] The main aim of Gerard's torturers was to identify the London lodgings of Fr. Henry Garnet that they might arrest him. He would not answer any questions that involved others, or name them. He insisted that he never broke, a fact borne out by the files of the Tower.[citation needed]

Henry Garnet wrote about Gerard:

Twice he has been hung up by the hands with great cruelty on the part of others and no less patience on his own. The examiners say he is exceedingly obstinate and a great friend either of God or of the devil, for they say they cannot extract a word from his lips, save that, amidst his torments, he speaks the word, "Jesus". Recently they took him to the rack, where the torturers and examiners stood ready for work. But when he entered the place, he at once threw himself on his knees and with a loud voice prayed to God that ... he would give him strength and courage to be rent to pieces before he might speak a word that would be injurious to any person or to the divine glory. And seeing him so resolved, they did not torture him.[6]

Escape from the Tower[edit]

Gerard's most famous exploit is believed to have been masterminded by Nicholas Owen. With help from other members of the Catholic underground, Gerard, along with John Arden, escaped on a rope strung across the Tower moat during the night of 4 October 1597. Despite the fact that his hands were still mangled from the tortures he had undergone, he succeeded in climbing down. He even arranged for the escape of his gaoler (jailer), with whom he had become friendly, and who he knew would be held responsible for the jailbreak. It is speculated that he befriended the jailer so that if circumstance favored an escape, it could be turned to his advantage. Immediately following his escape, he joined Henry Garnet and Robert Catesby in Uxbridge. Later, Gerard moved to the house of Dowager Elizabeth Vaux[7] at Harrowden, near Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. From this base of operations, he continued his priestly ministry, and reconciled many to the Catholic Church, including Sir Everard Digby (one of the future conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot).

Later life[edit]

For the next eight years he continued his ministry among the English people before he was recalled to the continent to train Jesuits for the English Mission.[4] He was implicated by Robert Catesby's servant Thomas Bates in the Gunpowder Plot although he denied any involvement. He stayed at Harrowden again, hiding in a priest hole. During a nine-day search of the house he wrote an open letter protesting his innocence, and contrived to have copies scattered about the streets of London, denying the charges allegedly made by Bates.[8] He eventually escaped from there to London. He left the country with financial aid from Elizabeth Vaux, slipping away disguised as a footman in the retinue of the Spanish Ambassador,[9] on the very day of Henry Garnet's execution. Gerard went on to continue the work of the Jesuits in Europe, where he wrote his autobiography on the orders of his superiors. He died in 1637, aged 73, at the English College seminary, Rome.


  • The Autobiography of a hunted priest (trans. from Latin to English by Philip Caraman), San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-58617-450-7


  • Bernard Basset: The English Jesuits, London, 1967.
  • Philip Caraman: John Gerard; the autobiography of an Elizabethan, London, 1951.
  • Francis Edwards (ed.): The Elizabethan Jesuits, London, 1981.


  1. ^ a b c Morris, John. The Life of Father John Gerard, London, Burns and Oates, 1881
  2. ^ The autobiography of an Elizabethan John Gerard (ISBN B0000CI1BG)
  3. ^ Philip Caraman, transl. The autobiography of a hunted priest by John Gerard
  4. ^ a b c McNamara, Pat. "A View from the Tower of London", Patheos, 10 December 2012
  5. ^ Walker, Claire (2004). "Wiseman [née Vaughan], Jane (d. 1610), recusant and priest harbourer". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/69040. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. Retrieved 8 February 2021. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ Garnet, Henry, letter to Aquaviva dated 7 May 1597, Stonyhurst, Anglia 2, 27
  7. ^ "John Gerard", at the Gunpowder Plot Society Archived 2012-02-09 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 30 October 2007
  8. ^ Herber, David. "The Gunpowder Plot Society". Archived from the original on 9 February 2012. Retrieved 7 November 2017.
  9. ^ Pollen, John Hungerford (1909). John Gerard. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 25 December 2012.

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