169:  A Tale of Two Bold Men

Head of a startled-looking black and white catNot long (as I guess) before I was lodged in the Tower two men made an escape from that place.

One was a cheese-wit [Jesuit] priest and the other a gentleman who’d plotted against the Queen.

They was held in separate chambers, but friended each other across a garden that lay between them.  (I’ve seen that garden, most pleasant.)

The gentleman was permitted to walk upon the leads [roof] of his chamber.  His wife came oft to visit him, bringing him clean shirts and other comforts.  She’d been coming for so long the jailers no longer troubled to look in her basket.

The priest perswaded his keeper with golden arguments (I mean good coin) to allow him to visit his new friend.  Whiles he was there he saw how convenient his friend’s chamber was to the moat.

The priest arrkst his friend if he thought it were possible to ’scape by climbing down a rope stretched from the roof across the moat.  His friend sayt: Yes, if there were true friends outside the Tower to aid them.

This priest did not lack for friends.  He hatcht a plot.

He writ and arrkst his friends if they were willing to come to the Tower by night and bring a rope.  They were to tie one end of the rope to a stake.

And he told them he and his fellow prisoner would throw down a lead ball with one end of a piece of stout string tied to it.  The helpers would know where the lead ball fell by its sound. 

They were to tie the string to the free end of the rope.  Then the priest and his new friend would use the string to pull the rope up.

A map of the Tower of London, showing the area in the south-east corner where the escape was made
The Tower of London in 1597.   The escape was made from the roof of the Cradle tower, where the moat is comparatively narrow. John Gerard (the priest) was normally held in the Salt tower, but bribed his jailer to let him spend nights in the Cradle tower.

The first night the helpers came in their boat a man from a house that lay nigh took them for fishermen.  He greeted them, and they durst do nowt until they were sure he was a-bed.  By then it was too late.

They left, but the river had riz so high they were near drowned by the torrents ’neath the bridge.  Honest folk who heard their cries had much ado to save them with ropes and boats of their own.

The priest’s helpers were not discouraged.  They came again.  That night all went well.  The priest and his friend pulled up the rope and fastened it to a great gun on the roof.  His friend clamb down the rope right well.

The priest followed, but near fell off.  He hung a whiles above the water, fearing he could go no further.  He was a long, heavy man, and sore from his tortures.  When his feet touched the Tower’s outer wall, he lacked the strength to shift his body onto it.

One of his helpers clamb onto the wall (he knew not how) to pull the priest on and over.  And so into their boat on the river and away!

During my carceration, that tale cheered my heart.  I believed I too could ’scape the Tower, should I choose.

A black and white cat looking out from under an embroidered and padded coverlet.

Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe two bold men were the Jesuit priest John Gerard (not to be confused with the herbalist of the same name) and a Catholic called John Arden.  John Arden had been held for about 10 years under sentence of death.

John Gerard (1564 -1637) had spent six years undercover as part of the Jesuit mission in England before being captured in 1594.  He was initially held in an unpleasant city prison called the Counter, then transferred to the Clink over the river in Southwark.  The Clink was full of Catholics, with bribeable keepers.  Gerard was able to continue practising as both priest and missionary. 

In early 1597 he was moved to the Tower of London, and held in the Salt Tower.  His chamber was comfortable, and the food good.  His jailer carried messages to the Clink (from where they were passed on to members of the Catholic underground) and would go out to buy him oranges.  Orange juice = invisible ink. 

However, Gerard was taken to the dungeon of the White Tower to be tortured with the manacles.  This meant being suspended by his wrists for long periods of time.  The purpose was to make him reveal the whereabouts of the head of the Jesuit mission, Henry Garnett.  He didn’t.  His hands were so badly damaged that for 3 weeks or so after the third bout of torture his jailer had to help him eat and dress.   

Gerard and Arden made their escape in early October 1597.  The day after, Gerard arranged for one of his contacts to take a horse to the Tower so his jailer could also flee, because he was likely to be severely punished for their escape. 

By 1601/02 (when young Harry was in the Tower) the story must have been well-known among members of the Catholic underground, a number of whom had participated in the Essex rising.  Many years later Gerard wrote his autobiography, a vivid account of his undercover life. 

Here’s an interesting follow-up to Gerard’s story after he was misrepresented in the recent BBC documentary Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents.


21 thoughts on “169:  A Tale of Two Bold Men

  1. kidsofthe50sand60s March 28, 2019 / 10:39 am

    I always find your posts fascinating, especially your historical footnotes, but I was particularly interested in this one. Two weeks ago I was in London and I visited Clink museum and read all about John Gerard. It’s an excellent museum and I love the coincidence of Gerard turning up in my life twice in just a matter of weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi March 29, 2019 / 5:50 am

      I’ve never visited Clink Museum – I must, next time I visit London. In his autobiography John Gerard says that his former jailer from the Clink rowed the boat for the Tower escape. He did that twice, despite nearly drowning when the first boat was swamped at London Bridge. The Tower jailer had a different sort of narrow escape. When Gerard’s contact told him there was a horse waiting, he went to fetch his wife, but was met by another jailer who told him the escape was known and if he was going to make a run for it he’d better not delay. So he had to leave without his wife, but she was able to join him later. John Gerard paid him a small pension, seeing he’d lost his livelihood.

      Liked by 1 person

    • kidsofthe50sand60s March 29, 2019 / 6:09 am

      It’s an impressive story. Yes, do seek out Clink museum on your next visit. It’s small, quite low key but very well presented. A little gem!

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi March 29, 2019 / 6:30 am

      Those small, low key museums are often very rewarding.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. larrypaulbrown March 28, 2019 / 10:56 am

    Now I know what a cheese-wit is. Thank you.😁 Not to be confused with Chez-wiz or Cheeto

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi March 29, 2019 / 5:52 am

      Say the word Jesuit to a cat and he or she will immediately think of cheese. We hear what we want to hear.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. April Munday March 28, 2019 / 8:16 pm

    That’s an interesting article about Elizabeth”s Secret Agents. It was on again recently and I wish now that I’d watched it. I enjoyed it the first time round. I’m not sure, though, why we should accept Fr. Gerard’s own account as the true one. If he was involved in the plot, he was hardly going to admit that he had been lying for 30 years. He was clearly very good at inspiring people to risk their lives for him.

    It was a very daring escape. No wonder it gIves Harry hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi March 29, 2019 / 6:19 am

      Unsurprisingly, the article is biased in Gerard’s favour – the Clink, for example, seems to have been operating as a Catholic cell before Gerard arrived there. Nor did his jailer at the Clink later convert to Catholicism. He was what Gerard refers to as a “schismatic” – an outwardly conforming Catholic.
      On the other hand, if the BBC had any evidence at all that Gerard had known in advance about the Gunpowder Plot they would have produced it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • April Munday March 29, 2019 / 7:18 am

      It will be hard to get out of the habit of trusting BBC documentaries. It’s one thing to know that the interpretation of the facts depends on the bias of the person who’s presenting them or who wrote the script, but it’s another thing entirely to think that the facts might just be wrong. I don’t mind if there’s uncertainty. “They might have been lying” or “We just don’t know” are always acceptable. One of the things I admired in Kathryn Warner’s biography of Edward II was the number of times she said that we can’t know something and her refusal to speculate too much. She was careful to be clear about what was fact and what she thought might have happened.

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi March 29, 2019 / 7:51 am

      Several historians who write for the popular market present old myths and improbable stories as facts. That makes me wary of taking anything they write seriously. Even when they include a reference, it’s often a very dodgy one. As you say, the practice of noting “we just don’t know” and making clear what’s personal opinion is admirable. And easily enough done.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Timi Townsend March 29, 2019 / 4:25 am

    History is truly fascinating! Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi March 29, 2019 / 6:27 am

      The escape story is a great one. It amazes me how physically fit Elizabethans must have been. Gerard was around 33 at the time, and John Arden was probably about the same age, but one had been tortured and the other had spent 10 years in prison and wouldn’t have had much exercise.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Robyn Haynes March 30, 2019 / 1:46 pm

    I agree. No mean feat to execute such a challenging escape.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi March 30, 2019 / 2:26 pm

      And in silence too, because there was a sentinel in the garden below, and the two escapees could only communicate in very low whispers.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robyn Haynes March 30, 2019 / 2:34 pm

      A bit of luck involved then. The sentinel had only to glance up.

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi March 30, 2019 / 9:21 pm

      I’d say so, but they’d probably picked a moonless night, and I’m not sure what the sentinel’s eye-lines between the garden and Cradle Tower and the moat would have been like.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robyn Haynes March 31, 2019 / 4:08 pm

      Perhaps he was distracted by an accomplice? Or even slipped a sleeping draught? Did those things just happen in historical fiction?


    • toutparmoi April 1, 2019 / 1:54 pm

      Such things would have been possible, but Gerard makes no mention of them in his autobiography. He thought that the fewer people that knew about the plan, the safer they’d be.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Dave Ply April 2, 2019 / 4:44 pm

    Interesting story, it’s all new to me. It does make one wonder what the real facts are. An autobiographer is no more likely to air his or her dirtiest laundry than a blogger is, and as for someone looking to add drama to a story – ever heard of poetic license? (At least the Gunpowder Plot part.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi April 2, 2019 / 5:56 pm

      I don’t think there’s any doubt that they escaped in the manner described, because most of the rope was left behind, but whether or not Gerard knew about the Gunpowder Plot (and how much) is unknowable.

      Liked by 1 person

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