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 us.

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.