The gripping autobiography of a Catholic priest in the time of Elizabeth I
Autobiography of an Elizabethan
Translation by Philip Caraman SJ
(First published 1951, 1956, Family Publications, 2006, 336pp, $44.85. ISBN 9781-871217-63-6. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
The standard account of the Tudor period of English history paints the English Reformation as a much needed and desired change to the religious landscape which was welcomed by the people with very little resistance during the golden age reign of "Good Queen Bess" aka Elizabeth I.
However, a closer examination of the historical facts - the memory of which was kept alive by Catholics for centuries and which has now entered the popular historical discourse, due in no small part to the work of scholars such as Eamon Duffy - suggests otherwise: namely, Catholicism was the popular religion whose passing was lamented by the ordinary people, some of whom chose to resist, supported by English priests ordained abroad who entered England knowing the likely result would be a hideous death.
John Gerard is a fascinating autobiographical account of the life and ministry of such a priest, one that is hard to put down.
Born into a wealthy family and having matriculated at Oxford, John Gerard could have had a comfortable life and impressive career had he chosen to conform to the new church. Instead, he remained true to his Catholic faith, in which he had been raised, eventually escaped from England, joined the Jesuits and was ordained a priest before being sent back to England in 1588.
By the 1570s the Catholic Church realised that the only way the faith could be sustained was by training and ordaining abroad priests to be sent back to work secretly. The English government responded by making such activity treasonable; hence, any priest who returned did so at the risk of his life.
Such priests were supported in their ministry by loyal Catholics, particularly wealthy ones, who were able to provide safe houses for them, replete with hiding holes in the event of sudden raids. The government responded by recruiting spies who attempted - in many instances successfully - to infiltrate Catholic circles.
Returning in 1588, Gerard spent the next 18 years in England. During much of this time he was able to move freely around the countryside and London, celebrating Mass and other sacraments in secret and bringing many people to the Catholic Church. However, on a number of occasions he narrowly avoided capture via a priest's hiding hole for a number of days whilst government agents in some instances literally ripped a house apart searching for him.
Even upon his arrival in England, he narrowly avoided capture. For in the wake of the Spanish Armada, those living on the English coast were alert to the possibility of foreign agents and priests entering England. Through his extensive knowledge of falconry, Gerard was able to convince those suspicious of him that he was a hunter.
Perhaps some of the most exciting moments in the narrative are those surrounding his escape from the Tower of London in 1597. Captured in 1594, he was held in a number of prisons. The details of his imprisonment range from the horrific - such as descriptions of him being tortured - to the amusing, for example, being able to conduct the solemn ceremonies of a Good Friday liturgy under the noses of prison authorities without their suspicion!
Eventually, Gerard had to leave England in the wake of the Gunpowder plot: the hunt for him became more intense such that he could no longer move about and minister to people. The escape itself was an anti-climax. While he intended to return to England, his superiors never let him; instead, at their direction, he wrote the autobiography (in Latin), which Fr Caraman translated in the 1950s.
What strikes the reader is Gerard's sense of divine providence, to which he attributed his survival and evasion from near capture on a number of occasions.
This book has particular appeal being not an historian's reconstruction but an eyewitness account. As such it raises a question uncomfortable to many: if the Church of England were the authentic continuation of the pre-Reformation Church in England, why were priests such as Gerard hunted down, tortured and killed by authorities for celebrating Mass and other sacraments and teaching the doctrines that predecessors had done for centuries?
The reprint of this engaging book is long overdue. However, as noted in the forward, a revision of the text and Caraman's extensive and insightful footnotes has not been done, hence the book reflects the scholarship of the time, with material discovered over the past 50 years not incorporated.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.