Friday, 3 October 2014

The Life Of Fr John Gerard S.J. (A Hunted Priest) Part 6



" I STARTED then on my homeward journey, in company with Father Oldcorne and two other priests who had been students at the English College.

" On our way through Switzerland, after having passed a night at Basle, we were curious to see the vestiges of the ancient faith, which the Lutherans usually allow to remain, and the Calvinists generally destroy. As we were going round the church we were joined by a certain person, who offered to show us all the curiosities of the place. We were somewhat astonished at this ready civility on the part of a Lutheran towards Catholic priests (for we travelled in clerical habit), and, as our new friend spoke French, I began by inquiring of what country he was. I found out that he was from Lorraine. On inquiring his reasons for thus forsaking the land and the faith of his fathers, he replied that he found the laws of the Catholic Church too stringent. I asked which laws, as the Catholic Church imposes none other yoke than that of the Gospel, which as Christ bears witness, is sweet, and the burden thereof' light. At length I discovered that the unhappy man was a priest, an apostate, who had taken refuge at Basle, and lived there with a woman he called his wife, in the very same house at which we had put up, supporting himself and her by usury. I dealt very earnestly with him to leave this path of damnation, and to return to the way of heaven ; to leave a share of his money to the woman, and to lend no more at unlawful interest; but to his future gains by labour or some lawful traffic. He promised at last to take my advice, and gave me a letter for his bishop, asking for reconciliation. I sent it as I passed through Lorraine, and I hope that the poor man persevered in his good purpose.

"As we passed through Rheims, where there was the English Seminary, and through Paris, we kept the strictest incognito."

The Douay Diary 1 gives us the dates of Father Gerard's arrival at Rheims and his departure thence, together with the names of his fellow-travellers. He reached the College on the 21 st and left it on the 26th of September, 1588, and the two secular priests he speaks of, as travelling with himself and Father Oldcorne, were Ralph Buckland and Arthur Stratford. The Diary does not notice that the two Fathers were members of the Society of Jesus. It is not possible that it was not known there, and we may regard it as a sign of the caution of which Father Gerard speaks. But his passing through Paris was not as little known as he thought, and without being aware of it he then fell into the gravest of the perils that beset the poor Catholics of England, the "perils from false brethren.''

There is a "Secret Advertisement" 2 to Sir Francis Walsingham, dated " From Paris, the 9th of December, 1588," which says, with great exaggeration in the number, no doubt, "There were thirty priests to come over the 14th of this last month of November, whose names I know not unless those that follow: one Beslye and one Tomson, so called, whose right name in very deed is Garret. There is also one Palmer and one White. There were seven of these to come over at some place near unto Ewe [Eu], and one at another place, but for a certainty there are thirty either come or ready to come." We thus learn that Father Gerard had already taken the name of Tomson, by which he was chiefly known in the latter portion of his life.

But a far more dangerous traitor than this "secret advertiser" was the infamous Gilbert Gifford, Father Gerard's second cousin. This man, whom Sir Edward Stafford, the English Ambassador at Paris, called "the most notable double treble villain that ever lived," was the chief agent employed to ripen the Babington conspiracy, which was designed in order to bring Mary Queen of Scots to the scaffold. By him Mary's communications with her friends in Paris and London were carried on, and all of them passed through the hands of Sir Francis Walsingham and of Thomas Phelippes, " the decipherer." In the midst of this treachery he was ordained priest. He " purposely was made priest, as he confessed, to play the Secretary's spy." 3 Fearing lest his English employers might imprison or execute him, to silence his tongue, when the Queen of Scots was dead, he went over to Paris ; but being there arrested for immorality and shut up in the Bishop's prison, other matters soon appeared against him, and he continued in prison till his death in 1590. The Ambassador on his arrest wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham that he thought "that they will put him to a hard plunge, for they mean to take him upon this point, which indeed letters (as I hear that they have of his, with his own hand written to Phelippes) will make hard against him, that he became a priest by cunning to deceive the world, and that he had, being become a priest with that intent, said mass after." 4

This miserable man—who wrote to the Archbishop of Paris, 5 as " prestre Anglois bachelier en Theologie, disant que depuis le 19 du moys Decembre il est constitue prisonier en vos prisons episcopates, suppliant en toute humilite en l'honneur de la Passion de nostre Sauveur et de la tresglorieuse Vierge Marie "—found means under the names of Jacques Colerdin and Francis Hartley, to carry on a correspondence from his prison with Phelippes and Walsingham, continuing thus to earn the pension of 100/. a year from Elizabeth's Government, which he had received as the price of Mary Stuart's blood. 6 This man, who was a " false brother " if ever there was one, found means to learn in his prison the news which he sent to his employers. 7 " There be eight priests over from Rome, whereof John Gerard and Arthur Shefford [Stratford, the Douay Diary calls him], a priest, and his man, will be in England within five days."

In all unconsciousness Father Gerard proceeds : " At length we come to Eu, where a College for English youths had been established, 8 which was afterwards abandoned on account of the wars, and another more extensive establishment erected at St. Omers. Our Fathers at Eu, after conferring with those who had the management of the College in that town, all strongly opposed our venturing into England, as circumstances then were, for the Spanish attempt had exasperated the public mind against Catholics, and most rigid searches for priests and domiciliary visits had been set on foot; guards were posted in every village along the roads and streets ; and the Earl of Leicester, then at the height of his favour, had sworn not to leave a single Catholic alive at the close of the year, but this man of blood did not live out half that time himself, for he was cut off in that very same year. We were compelled then to stay there for a time, until fresh instructions were sent us by Father Persons in the name of Father General. They were to this effect, that the state of affairs had indeed much changed since our departure from Rome, but that as it was the Lord's business that we had to do, he left us free either to wait the return of greater calm, or to pursue the course we had entered upon. On receiving this desirable message, we did not long deliberate, but immediately hired a ship, to land us in the northern part of England, which seemed to be less disturbed."

The "desirable message" is described a little more fully by Father Gerard in his " Narrative of the Powder Plot," 9 where in his own English he relates this journey and his own and his companion's landing in England. " They received answer from Father Persons that the times were much more periculous than was expected when they went from Rome, yet sith the cause was God's, and their will so good to prefer the safety of others' souls before the safety of their own bodies, they might in the name of God proceed, if their desire still continued, but that it was left unto their own election. These letters were received with great joy, and the two Fathers, within few days after, got a ship wherein they embarked."

When did they embark ? " It was about the end of October," wrote Father Gerard twenty-one years afterwards, but it is plain that he has not placed their voyage across the Channel sufficiently late in the year. We have seen that they left Rheims on the 26th of September. They went first to Paris, and then to Eu ; and at Eu they remained long enough to receive an answer to a letter sent to Rome. The very earliest date that we can assign for their leaving Eu for England is that given in Walsingham's "Secret Advertisement," already quoted, which names the 14th of November. When Gilbert Gifford, at the beginning of October, said that they would "be in England in five days," he was not of course aware of the delay that would be caused by their writing to Rome from Eu.

Both Gilbert Gifford and the other spy speak of eight priests crossing the Channel. We know of only six—the two Jesuit Fathers, Ralph Buckland, and Arthur Stratford, who had accompanied them from Rome, and the two of whom he now comes to speak. "Two priests from Rheims joined us, as our former companions preferred to take time before they faced the dangers which awaited them on the opposite shores. The ship then set sail with four priests on board, a goodly cargo indeed, had not my unworthiness deprived me of the crown, for all those other three suffered martyrdom for the faith. The two priests were soon taken, and being in a short space made perfect, they fulfilled a long time. Their names were Christopher Bales and George Beesley, 10 but my companion, the blessed Father Oldcorne, spent eighteen years of toil and labour in the Lord's vineyard, and watered it at length with his blood.

" After crossing the Channel, as we were sailing along the English coast on the third day, my companion and I, seeing a convenient spot 2 in which the ship's boat might easily set us on shore, and considering that it were dangerous if we were to land all together, recommended the matter to God and took counsel with our companions.

We then ordered the ship to anchor off that point until dark ; and in the first watch we were put ashore in the boat and left there, whereupon the ship immediately set sail and departed. We remained there awhile commending ourselves in prayer to God's providence; then we sought out some path which might lead us further inland, at a greater distance from the sea, before the day should dawn. But the night being dark and cloudy we could not strike out any path that would lead us to the open country, but every way we tried always brought us to some dwelling, as we were made aware by the barking of the dogs. As this happened some two or three times, we began to fear lest we might rouse some of the inhabitants, and be seized as thieves or burglars. We therefore turned into a neighbouring wood, where we proposed to rest during the night. But the rain and the cold (for it was about the end of October [or rather, November]) rendered sleep impossible, nor did we dare to speak aloud to one another as the wood was in the neighbourhood of a house, but we deliberated in whispers whether to set out together for London or to part company, so that if one were taken the other might escape. Having pondered the reasons on both sides, we determined to set forth each by himself, and to take different routes.

1. "1588, Sept. 21 die, Roma ad nos venerunt D. Rodolphus Buckland, D. Joannes Gerard. Alius D. Thomse Gerard equitis aurati, D. Arthurus Stratford, D. Edouardus Oldcorn, presbyteri. Die 26 Angliam ituri discesserunt D. Jo. Gerard, D. Rodolphus Buckland, D. Arthurus Stratford, et D. Edouardus Oldcorn. Second Douay Diary.

2. P.R.O., Domestic; Elizabeth, vol. ccxix. n. 26.

3. Stonyhurst MSS., Angl A. vol. i. n. 70.

4. Letter-Books of Sir Amias Poulet, pp. 257, 380.

5. P.R.O., Domestic, Elizabeth, vol. ccxvii. n. 81.

6. Ibid., vol. cxcix. nn. 95, 96.

7. vol. ccxvii. n. 3. The Calendar gives for its date Oct. I, 1588. The postscript of the letter bears the date " 8 Septembris."

8. Troubles, Second Series, p. 28.

9 Condition of Catholics, p. 280.

10 They both suffered in Fleet Street; Christopher Bales on March 4, 1589/90, and George Beesley on July 2, 1591. They were condemned under the statute if Elizabeth, for having been made priests beyond the seas and exercising their functions in England. The martyrdom of Christopher Bales and of a layman named Nicholas Horner is related by Father Southwell in a letter dated London, March 8, 1589/90 P.R.O., Domestic, Elizabeth, vol. ccxxx. n. 104.

11 A complete examination of all the questions that arise connected with Father Gerard's landing and residence in Norfolk will be found in a note appended to this chapter, kindly drawn up some years ago by the Reverend Dr. Jessopp, now Rector of Seaming, who unites to his accurate local knowledge a singularly wide acquaintance with the recusant families of the county.