October 5, 1597—An escape made with the help of orange juice acting as invisible ink and with a rope thrown across a moat sounds like something out of a James Bond movie in the Cold War. Instead, it was employed by Fr. John Gerard, a charismatic Jesuit who, after being tortured to force a confession of conspiracy against the British government, became one of the very few prisoners to escape from the infamous Tower of London.
At the height of Prince Charles’ marital difficulties with Princess Diana, David Letterman joked that the heir to the crown was thinking of solving his problems by confining his wife to the Tower of London. That remark indicated how the passage of time and lack of recent use (Nazi Rudolf Hess was the last inmate, in the early 1940s) had eroded the sense of that structure’s terror.
True, the Tower has, over time, also served as an observatory, an armory, a mint and even a menagerie. But its use by the royals—particularly the Tudors—as a means of punishing enemies has made it, according to John McPhee, “to poisoning, hanging, beheading, regicide, and torture what Yankee Stadium was to baseball.”
Prominent among the Tower’s inmates were Roman Catholics. In fact, its first, in 1100, was the Bishop of Durham, Ralph de Flambard, who also became the first escapee by getting his guards drunk. By the time of Henry VIII, the Tower had become the scene of state-sponsored injustice and terror, with Saints Thomas More and John Fisher confined their before their martyrdom.
Historians have painted Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, far more kindly, particularly when it came to bridging the differences between her own faith, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism. But if she was not as capricious as her father, she could be just as ruthless—especially in the closing years of her reign, following the foiled invasion of the Spanish Armada, when Catholics fell under suspicion as a potential fifth column against the crown.
The title of Elizabeth’s longtime adviser, Francis Walsingham, was Principal Secretary (or, as the post became known, Secretary of State). In actuality, he was Britain’s first spymaster. He and a later holder of the office, Sir Robert Cecil, orchestrated a network of informants—people who could be bribed or coerced into giving evidence, true or not, against enemies of the state. Their tactics were an early example of what the West has been forced to confront to this day: Just how far a supposedly civilized country is prepared to go to counter a perceived internal threat. In the case of Her Majesty's intelligence henchmen, that was very far indeed.
Gerard was one person the regime sought to break, with no luck. His story and times are recounted in his own autobiography, his autobiography, Narratio P. Joannis Gerardi de Rebus a se in Anglia gestis (A Narrative of the Things That Happened to Pastor John Gerard in England, translated into English and published in 1955 as The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest) and Lady Antonia Fraser's account of the Gunpowder Plot, Faith and Treason. The son of a Catholic jailed in the Tower for an attempt to free the Queen’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, Gerard ended up receiving his education in France, where he was ordained. When he returned home, he was left in secret on a Norfolk beach at night, from which he and his small group of Jesuit companions split off separately from each other, mingling into the countryside.
The secrecy was necessary because of the grave risks run by Catholic priests. They were, quite simply, hunted men—constantly assuming false identities lest they be betrayed by ordinary Catholics afraid of the regime, or simply by the household servants in the homes of rich but secret Catholic adherents. Once in the hands of the regime, priests could be seized, locked up on charges of treason, tortured, and executed.(That was, in fact, the fate of Gerard's other companions.)
Gerard’s feigned identity was as a country gentleman—an easy enough disguise for the tall, elegant cleric, who spoke excellent French and Latin, was an accomplished horseman and became a minor expert on falconry, cards and the chase. But even the outer facade he was careful to assume--a doublet covering his monastic hair shirt, a saddlebag hiding his Mass kit and Latin breviary--was no proof against a servant in the home of a longtime protector, who betrayed him to the authorities. After a couple of years in prison and a trial (in which he bluntly said he hoped the entire country, the queen included, converted back to Catholicism), he was locked up in the Tower of London. It was a gloomy, brutal 21-tower complex, with a design of concentric fortifications making it virtually impregnable to assault.Worst of all, out of the many prisoners housed there over the prior four centuries, only about a dozen had managed to escape.
On three separate occasions Gerard was tortured. His jailers and torturers, including Elizabeth's notorious principal interrogator in the intelligence network, Richard Topcliffe (described memorably by Gerard as "old and hoary, and a veteran of evil") were especially intent on discovering the whereabouts of Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England. But Gerard wouldn’t break, despite being hung from a ceiling by his manacled hands for hours at a time.When his captors were done with him, he was left to stare at the walls at his cell in the Salt Tower, where other Jesuits had scrawled makeshift religious scenes.
Receiving a respite from the torture, Gerard was allowed to minister to fellow prisoner John Arden, with whom he conceived an ingenious plan. Using orange juice that acted as invisible ink, he communicated with Catholic sympathizers outside. He had noticed that the Cradle Tower, where Arden was confined, was close to the outside wall. If they could descend the Cradle Tower swing across a moat near that outside wall, they could make their way to a boat waiting to take them away.
Gerard and Arden’s first attempt failed when their boat nearly capsized and they had to return. Amazingly, they learned that their friends on the outside were ready to make the attempt again the following night.
As they made their midnight escape, the escape attempt became complicated because of the damage to Gerard’s hands during his torture sessions. He could not simply slide down the rope across the moat as planned. Instead, he had to pull himself down, hand over hand. "I managed to work myself as far as the middle of the rope, and there I stuck," he remembered later. "My strength was failing and my breath, which was short before I started, seemed altogether spent."
Gerard was helped the rest of the way by Arden, struggled into the boat and was rowed away rapidly in the darkness. Once outside, he was hidden by another Catholic sympathizer until 1606, when the Guy Fawkes “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up Parliament made it simply impossible to stay in England. He fled the country (disguised again, this time as a footman in the retinue of the Spanish Ambassador) on the same day that Garnet, his Jesuit superior, was executed. He spent his remaining three decades in English colleges on the Continent, an exile from his native land, sustained, as he had during his years on the run, only by his indomitable faith and courage.
(Map of the Tower of London by Thomas Romer, 2012.)