John Gerard was a key religious figure in late Elizabethan and Stuart England. John Gerard was very much known to the Gunpowder conspirators of 1605 and it was Gerard who blessed the original group of conspirators at a house he rented in London.
John Gerard was born on October 4th 1564. He was the second son of Sir Thomas Gerard who was imprisoned in 1569 in the Tower of London for planning to free Mary, Queen of Scots who was in prison herself in England. Thomas spent three years in prison and John had to be looked after within another family. At the age of twelve, John went to Exeter College, Oxford but he left after about a year when both he and his brother Thomas refused to received the Protestant sacrament. Between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, Gerard was educated at a seminary in Rheims. Aged seventeen, Gerard decided to devote his life to God and joined the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits. Gerard spent a year at a Jesuit school just outside of Paris. However, he fell badly ill and returned to England where he hoped to make a full recovery before continuing with his education. When his ship docked at Dover, Gerard was arrested and he spent a year in jail. He was released when Sir Anthony Babington paid a bond that secured his release. Gerard made his way to Rome where he continued with his education.
Gerard received a Papal dispensation to return to England so that he could start his work there. Along with a few others, Gerard landed at night on the southern coast. The small group planned to get to London but went their separate ways so and travelled as individuals so as not to attract attention. Once in London, Gerard met up with Father Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior. He quickly assumed a disguise that did not attract attention. Gerard dressed in the manner of a young courtier and he learned to play cards. He also developed a sound knowledge of hunting. As a result he blended up well with his background – so well that the wife of Everard Digby could not believe that he was a priest. A Protestant Dr Jessops wrote in 1881 that Gerard was:
“A man of gentle blood and gentle breeding – of commanding stature, great vigour of constitution, a master of three or four languages, with a rare gift of speech and an innate grace and courtliness of manner – he was fitted to shine in any society and to lead it.”
However, Gerard lived a dangerous life. On more than one occasion he was nearly caught and households where he sometimes stayed unknowingly could contain a servant who worked for the Crown – providing the likes of Cecil with information to supplement their meagre incomes. As a result, Gerard was caught in April 1594.
He was imprisoned and questioned. However, he gave up no information. Gerard was sent to the Salt Tower at the Tower of London but also refused to give up any information – especially the whereabouts of Father Henry Garnet. Gerard’s refusal to help led to a warrant being issued that allowed torture to be used on him. Gerard was tortured on three separate occasions but he still refused to provide the authorities with any information. As a result, he was put on trial. At his trial he stated quite openly that he hoped that all of England would return to Rome – including Elizabeth.
On October 4th 1597, Gerard escaped from the Tower. He fled London and went to the house of Robert Catesby in Uxbridge. Here he met up with Henry Garnet and spent time recovering from his ordeal.
Everard Digby, a man who was converted to Catholicism by Gerard, always stated that Gerard never knew anything about the 1605 plot to kill James I. However, Gerard became a hunted man. For a short time he hid in London where it would have been easy to avoid the authorities such was the size of the city. However, Gerard took the decision that to stay in England was simply too dangerous and he decided to leave. On May 3rd, 1606, Gerard left for Europe – the same day that Henry Garnet was executed.
In 1614, Gerard became the head of a Jesuit school in Liege and in 1622 he took charge of the English Jesuits school in Ghent. In 1627, Gerard joined the English College in Rome. He died in 1637.