John Gerard (Jesuit)

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John Gerard (4 October 1564 – 27 July 1637)[1] was an English Jesuit priest, operating covertly in England during the Elizabethan period in which the Catholic Church was subject to persecution. He was the second son of Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn, near Ashton in Makerfield, Lancashire.

John is noted not only for successfully hiding from the English authorities for eight years before his capture, but for enduring extensive torture, escaping from the Tower of London and, after recovering, continuing with his covert mission. After his escape to the continent, he was later instructed by his Jesuit superiors to write a book about his life (Latin text).[2] An English translation was published in 1951.[3] This is a rare, first-hand account of the deadly cloak-and-dagger world of a Catholic priest in Elizabethan England.

Early life[edit]

John Gerard was born 4 October 1564, the second son of Sir Thomas Gerard of Bryn, 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 in 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.

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 fifteen, 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, Mr. Leutner. 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 Father 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 the established church, 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 to be executed for treason for being involved 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 the English Catholics. 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.

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 Counter in the Poultry. Later he was moved to the Clink prison where he was able to meet regularly with other persecuted 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.

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."[5]

How he escaped[edit]

A famous exploit of his is believed to have been masterminded by Saint 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. Immediately following his escape, he joined Henry Garnet and Robert Catesby in Uxbridge. Later, Gerard moved to the house of Dowager Elizabeth Vaux[6] at Harrowden. From this base of operations, he continued his priestly ministry, and reconciled many to the Catholic Church, including Sir Everard Digby (one of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot). He later suspected Digby of plotting something, but did not act, thus allowing the plan to proceed undetected. When the plot was discovered, Gerard was a very wanted man due to his links to those involved.

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 incorrectly implicated by Robert Catesby's servant Thomas Bates. Staying a while at Harrowden, then escaping from there to London, he left the country with financial aid from Elizabeth Vaux, slipping away disguised as a footman in the train of the Spanish Ambassador[7] 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 (translated from Latin to English by Philip Caraman), New York, Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1952, 287pp.


  • Bernard Basset: The English Jesuits, London, 1967.
  • Philip Caraman: John Gerard; the autobiography of an Elizabethan, London, 1951.
  • F. 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, December 10, 2012
  5. ^ Garnet, Henry, letter to Aquaviva dated May 7, 1597, Stonyhurst, Anglia 2, 27
  6. ^ "John Gerard", at the Gunpowder Plot Society, accessed 30 October 2007
  7. ^ Pollen, John Hungerford. "John Gerard." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 25 Dec. 2012

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