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Henry Garnet

Born : 1555, Derbyshire
Died : 3 May 1606 - St Pauls Churchyard, London

Henry Garnet, later head of the Jesuit mission in England, was born according to most historical accounts in the second half of the year 1555, probably at Heanor, a small market town in east Derbyshire [1]. His early childhood was spent, however, in Nottingham, where his father, Brian Garnet had become the head master of the Free Grammar School in 1565.

His father had a scholarly bent, a predisposition that had a lasting effect on his sons. Bryan Garnet descended from a family that traces its origins back to Ralph de Gernet, a learned gentleman who came to England from Norman France in the time of William the Conqueror. The Gernets had settled mostly in the north-western part of England, became landholders in Westmorland and Lancashire and gained the right to bear arms. One branch of this early Gernet family had distinguished itself as sergeants of the King's Forest throughout Lancaster and by the thirteenth century held vast estates at Halton, Heysham, Lydiate and Coton.

Although holding land and positions of power during the Middle Ages, the later Gernets made their mark more in learning than in politics [1]. Throughout the sixteenth century, the family's surname -- by then written most commonly as Garnet -- occurs frequently in the registers of the colleges at Oxford. When a grammar school in Westmorland was granted a charter in 1591, two Garnets were recorded among its Governors [2].

Bryan Garnet, Henry's father, remained for the rest of his life a devoted classical scholar and outwardly a religious conformist. But secretly he was a Catholic by conviction. Apart from young Henry, Bryan Garnet had at least two other sons who followed academic careers, and four daughters -- three of whom, for their own safety and solitude, became Catholic nuns and entered the English convents at Louvain.

Not much is known of Henry Garnet's mother, Alice Jay, except that she was apparently a lady of less rigorous academic and theological conviction than her husband or her sons. She outlived her husband, and in later life was received back into the Catholic faith. It is very likely that she was related to the Jays of Nottingham, and may have been the sister of a Master Jay of Selston, Nottingham, burgess of the city and a member of Parliament [3].

On the 24th of August 1568, having passed the age of twelve years at his last birthday, Henry Garnet was admitted as a scholar to Winchester college---an institution known for its Catholic sympathies and one of the last schools in England to accept the change to Protestantism. At Winchester, Henry Garnet attained the rank of Captain, and "by his modesty, urbanity, musical taste and quickness and solidity of parts, so recommended himself to his superiors" that he seemed destined to pursue his studies at New College Oxford [4]. Had he continued on to Oxford, he might well have won academic honours and preferment. But while at Winchester he was persuaded to profess the Catholic religion. It was probably at the close of 1571 that Garnet left Winchester, and breaking with accepted tradition of his school and his family, he decided not to continue on to Oxford.

Two facts explain Garnet's decision not to go up to Oxford. First, he would have had to abandon his new Catholic beliefs or at least pretend to do so---something Henry was not willing to do. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, while Henry was completing his last year at school in 1570, his brother Richard Garnet was expelled from Balliol College, Oxford for practising forbidden Catholic rites and harbouring a statue of the Virgin Mary in his rooms. Richard stood steadfast in his Catholic faith and was consequently forced to abandon any hope of an academic career.

On the recommendation of his former headmaster at Winchester, Henry Garnet took an apprenticeship in the London print shop of Richard Tottel, the foremost printer of legal texts in England. At Tottel's offices or at his dinner table, Garnet encountered many of the luminaries in law and letters of that era, including John Popham who, thirty-five years later as the Lord Chief Justice, was to pronounce the sentence of treason on him [1].

It was during his stay in London, and perhaps also in witnessing the daily legal proceedings of the Parliament and the Inner Temple, that set Garnet firmly in his resolve to leave England and to become a priest. As Sir Simonds D'Ewes, the Parliamentary journalist, observed: "Most of the Papists of England did come to our Church and heard the divine service until the eleventh year of the Queen, when the Bull of Pius Quintus enforced not only their wilful obstinate separation, but drew in and necessitated many of these laws that were afterwards made against them." [5]

Henry Garnet stayed with Tottel for three years, and by early 1575 had decided to seek admission into the Society of Jesus. He left England with Giles Gallop, an old school mate from Winchester, sailing first to Portugal and then making their way overland on foot through Compostella to Rome where they arrived in the late summer of 1575 [6].

On 11 September 1575, Garnet entered the noviciate of the Jesuits at Sant' Andrea in Rome, located just across the street from the summer palace of the Popes on the Quirinal Hill [1]. Another English lad, William Weston, arrived at Sant' Andrea less than two months after Garnet, and they became fast friends. Weston later took on leadership of the Jesuit mission in England and was Garnet's Superior for a few weeks in England before being apprehended and imprisoned. Referring to Garnet, Weston later wrote: "There was never a man to whom I was more closely united in bonds of peace and friendship...I will say nothing of our noviceship together, when in the same city, at the same time, in the same house of Sant' Andrea, under the same teacher, we had set before us the same ideals we share today in common." [7]

After two years at Sant' Andrea, Garnet was received into the Society of Jesus on September 12 1577 and immediately began studying for priesthood at the famous Roman College of St. Ignacio, recognised then as the most celebrated educational establishment on the Continent. Its professors, many selected by the Pope himself, were the best in Europe. There, after studying metaphysics, theology, logic, mathematics, astronomy, physics and geography under eminent international scholars such as Robert Bellarmine, Francesco Saurez, and Christopher Clavius, Henry Garnet joined the teaching staff of the College as a professor of philosophy and Hebrew. When Clavius, a resident professor at the college became incapacitated by ill-health, Garnet replaced him in lecturing upon mathematics [1][8][9].

Having passed eleven years in Rome, Henry Garnet resolved to return to England as a Jesuit missionary. Although his departure from scholarly life was ardently opposed by Christopher Clavius and others at the Roman College, Garnet's zeal for a missionary life weighted heavier with the young Jesuit than the fame for learning, and he left Rome with his fellow priest Father Robert Southwell on 8 May 1856 [10]. He landed again on English shores in 1586, as a provincial operative of his order, to practice the forbidden calling of the Catholic priesthood. The year before it had been legislated as a treasonous act for any Romish priest to come into the Queen's dominions [11] and the ever present dangers of pursuit, persecution and martyrdom faced the priests at every juncture of their journey.

Garnet's old friend from Sant' Andrea, Father William Weston was at that time the only Jesuit in all of England, having landed from Dieppe on the Norfolk coast in September 1584. Upon the arrival of Garnet and Southwell, Weston travelled all the way to London to give the two newcomers a hearty welcome greeting [11].

Only a few months later, Weston was captured and imprisoned at Wisbeach Castle. With Weston no longer able to lead the Jesuit mission, the position of Superiorship of the Jesuits passed by merit and seniority to Father Henry Garnet.

Garnet's eighteen years in that office was one of constant difficulty, danger and uncertainty, having to pass under "a variety of aliases and disguises which were necessitated by the ever watchful spies and pursuivants" [11].

Despite the sudden raids, the arrest of his brethren, the constant possibility of betrayal, and the recurring points of crisis in his life, Father Garnet followed faithfully the liturgical scheme of the year, moving prayerfully from feast to feast [1] even as he relocated from one hiding place to yet another secret lair. For his own religious devotions as well as for his Catholic parishioners Garnet advocated the recital of the Rosary and catechisms as a regularised substitution for the more dangerous and more conspicuous celebrations of the Mass and the Catholic liturgy.

In a letter to his sister Margaret Garnet, who entered the convent at Louvain in October 1593, Henry Garnet reveals something of his own daily pattern of prayer: "In religion you shall continually live and converse with Christ and, as it were, be always brought up with Him: sometimes accompanying Him in the crib, sometimes flying with Him into Egypt, sometimes watching, praying and fasting with him...Finally you shall die with Him, be buried with Him, rise again with Him and ascend with Him into heaven, where your heart, conversation and comfort must be." [12]

The closing years of Queen Elizabeth's reign were troubled times for all Catholics and their spiritual leaders throughout the realm. Two of Garnet's Jesuits, Southwell and Walpole, were captured, interrogated, put to torture and eventually executed. Even with occasional lulls in the persecution of Catholics, more laymen and priests were seized, tortured and conveyed to their deaths. In March of 1597, a bold young priest, Christopher Robinson was hung at Carlisle in a particularly gruesome execution during which the rope broke twice and little humanity was shown in the torment of this hapless victim. On July 4 1597, three Catholic laymen and another priest met their deaths at York on the same day.

An Irishman by the name of Patrick Collins was arrested and executed at Tyburn for "intending the Queen's death". At his trial, Collins was alleged to have been sent to kill the Queen by the Jesuit Father Holt who was safely stationed offshore in the Low Countries. The English Jesuits were maliciously slandered and maligned as subterranean players in Collins' crazy plot.

This Irish incident was followed by a second intrigue---an even more madcap invention contrived to accuse the Queen's Portuguese physician, Roderigo Lopez, of taking bribes to murder the Queen. And once again, motive for the Lopez plot was unjustly laid upon the Catholic community [1].

After the trials and executions of Collins and Lopez, Richard Topcliffe the relentless prosecutor of Catholics, found it easier to persuade Elizabeth that the Jesuits lay behind these nefarious plots. Amid this atmosphere of attempted assassinations and fabricated plots, Topcliffe cunningly selected his moment to strike against the supposed Catholic menace. On the night of March 15th, as Catholic gentlemen were preparing to leave London to spend Easter at their country homes, Topcliffe organised a roundup of all known or suspected Catholics in the city and in the surrounding counties.

The search covered all of London. All over the city Magistrates and JPs were pressed into judicial action as gangs of constables and rabble-soldiery dragged the suspected Catholics from their carriages and beds. Churches were turned into temporary holding cells, and in the cold light of morning the arrested persons were one-by-one interrogated, identified and conveyed into custody. Garnet himself, who until recently had been lodging in Holborn, narrowly escaped capture in the Easter raids.

The search for Garnet and his band of Jesuit followers was not relaxed. If anything, it intensified. After all, Garnet was one priest whose arrest could award the government a nominal victory.

The capture of Father John Gerard was an event of even greater risk for Garnet. For, if under intense torture in the Tower Gerard broke his resolve, he could place Garnet in jeopardy of exposure and imprisonment. The main aim of Gerard's torturers was to discover Garnet's London lodgings that they might arrest him there. To extract a betrayal from Gerard, Topcliffe had him hung up by his hands and arms...his full weight suspended only by iron rings around his wrists. The pain was excruciating, yet Gerard did not break in body or in spirit.

Garnet, hidden in London, gathered every smuggled report of Gerard's agony in the torture chamber. Garnet wrote with great admiration to Rome about Gerard's heroic obstinence and silence: "Twice he has been hung up by the hands with great cruelty on the part of others and no less patience on his own. The examiners say he is exceedingly obstinate and a great friend either of God or of the devil, for they say they cannot extract a word from his lips, save that, amidst his torments, he speaks the word, 'Jesus'. Recently they took him to the rack, where the torturers and examiners stood ready for work. But when he entered the place, he at once threw himself on his knees and with a loud voice prayed to God that as he had given strength to some of his saints to be torn asunder by horses for the sake of Christ, so he would give him strength and courage to be rent to pieces before he might speak a word that would be injurious to any person or to the divine glory. And seeing him so resolved, they did not torture him." [13]

Sir Edward Coke, later the Prosecutor at Henry Garnet's trial, was the chief examiner during Gerard's interrogation. It is clear from Gerard's account of the episode that Coke's real objective was to locate Father Garnet and to implicate him in some treasonous act against the Crown:

"You say," said Coke, "you have no wish to obstruct the government. Tell us then where Father Garnet is. He is an enemy of the State and you are bound to report on all such men."

"He isn't an enemy of the State," replied Gerard. "On the contrary, I am certain that if he were given the opportunity to lay down his life for his Queen and country, he would be glad of it. But I don't know where he lives and if I did I would not tell you." [1]

Gerard, along with another fellow prisoner, John Arden, contrived his escape from the Tower. With the help of friends from the outside and of the warder, the two prisoners fastened a rope from one tower across the moat and by it managed to cross into safety. Weak from torture, Gerard barely made it, but once in the hands of his friends he fled by boat across the Thames and then taking to horse he sought refuge at Robert Catesby's manor house called Morecrofts in Uxbridge. There Gerard met up with Father Garnet and spent some days in recuperation from his ordeal [14].

At the accession of James I, Catholics across England had grounds to hope for some amelioration to the persecution they had suffered under Elizabeth. In his first appearance at Parliament the new King James appeared to endorse this easing of the anti-Catholic laws. "I acknowledge," the King had pronounced, "the Roman church to be our mother church although defiled with some infirmities and corruptions. My mind was ever so free from persecution".

But clearly James had little idea of the strong Protestant and Puritan feelings that lay beneath the surface of his new realm, nor did he realise the ascending power of Parliament. A later remark uttered only a few months later revealed his change in attitude. "Na, na" he was heard to say, "we'll nae need the Papishes now." [15]

The disappointment and feeling of betrayal that many Catholics now saw in their new King, found expression in a slowly growing desperation and restlessness. The more restless and ruthless of the Catholic hotheads resorted to the hatching of schemes designed to rectify their lot in life. The foolish Bye Plot of 1604, designed apparently to kidnap the king, was devised by an unstable priest named William Watson---the same man who had been helped to escape from the Bridewell in 1588 by St. Margaret Ward. He had already caused trouble among his fellow- priests and it is charitable to regard him as addle- pated. Watson's pathetic but dangerous scheme came to the knowledge of Father Garnet and other priests. Fearing increased retribution from such a criminal act against the Crown, the priests warned the government. Watson and two others involved in the planned kidnapping were arrested, tried and hanged [15].

The failed Bye Plot gave Parliament a reason to pass a new Act of repression "for the due execution of statutes against Catholics". All priests were ordered to leave the country. After 1604, the physical danger faced by Garnet and his Jesuits became even more fearful.

Unhappily this first crack-brained Bye Plot was followed by a far more serious affair that was to inflame anti-Catholic feeling and cast additional suspicion on the Cathlic clergy.

Some conjecture has been raised by pro-Catholic historians that the government--especially in the person of the conniving Sir Robert Cecil--actually knew early on that some kind of plot was in the making, and perhaps even took steps to provoke some act of violence and desperation by the Catholic agitators to force things into the open. There's little doubt that Cecil, like his cunning and ambitious father Lord Burghley, had a wicked and paranoid streak in his character. He established a widespread and efficient network of spies, informers and local officials to track down and persecute suspected Catholic agitators, sympathisers and priests.

For lack of key evidence, it is impossible to reach any definite conclusions about the actual role that Cecil and the government played in detecting or forcing the hand of a subversive movement. Nor does this void of evidence on the government's role really alter the plain fact that there was, as we certainly know to be true, a conspiracy already set in motion by Robert Catesby and his band of desperate and disenfranchised Catholics.

It was in June 1605 that Father Garnet had a first vague hint from his parishioner and host, Robert Catesby, that there was something in the wind. Garnet, knowing his friend, suspected some desperate enterprise; and he immediately wrote to Rome for advice and an injunction against any kind of violent movement. But this opposition put forward by Garnet on theological and moral grounds did nothing to dissuade Catesby from proceeding with his plans.

In simplest terms, Catesby's decision to proceed with the Plot even in the face of Garnet's advice was immoral, criminal and irresponsible. It was clearly immoral because it would result in the possible killing and maiming of innocent people. It was a crime because it sought to overthrow the government and cause harm to the king and the royal family. And it was irresponsible since it risked the future safety of all Catholics throughout the kingdom. [15] Even without knowing the specific details of the planned action, it would have been evident to Garnet that any violent act against the government would be wrong on all counts.

In an attempt to unburden the conscience, Catesby and probably also his servant Thomas Bates, revealed to their confessor Father Oswald Tesimond (alias Greenway or Greenwell) the secret plan to bring about some harm. How much about the plot was told to Tesimond in the confessional is not exactly known, but it was apparently enough that Tesimond attempted to dissuade them from carrying out their plan. Tesimond in turn passed on what he had heard under seal of the confessional to his superior, Father Garnet.

Garnet was horror-struck at the proposal, and since he was bound by confidence not to disclose it, he laboured at least to prevent its execution [10].

On Tuesday 5 November, the day appointed for the opening of the new parliament, all of London was astir with talk of the diabolical attempt that had been discovered that morning to destroy the seat of government with thirty barrels of gunpowder secreted in a cellar below the building. On that very day, Father Garnet was staying at Coughton where he had preached to a gathering of Catholics on the preceding Friday for the observance of All Saints Day. The next day, 6 November, while still at Coughton, Garnet learned of the failed plot from Catesby's servant, Thomas Bates.

Bates was leaving Coughton to return to his master, Robert Catesby then in flight due to the discovery of the plot. Garnet directed him to give a message to Catesby: Garnet "marvelled that they would enter into such wicked actions and not be ruled by the advice of friends and the order of his Holiness given to all." Garnet refused to "meddle but wished them to give over." [1]

Garnet's worst fears had come true. Not only had a wicked action been undertaken despite his own advice to Catesby and the further warnings given by Father Tesimond, but now with discovery of the Plot retribution was sure to fall on the heads of all Catholics and most surely on those surrounding the main conspirators. Garnet must have realised that in the aftermath of the failed Plot, he and his fellow Jesuits were now at the very heart of grievous danger.

There is no record of Garnet's movements between the time he learned of the plot's unravelling from Bates on 6 November and 24 November when he set off for Hindlip Hall in the company of Nicholas Owen [his 'servant'] and the Vaux sisters. Perhaps Owen, who had constructed many secret hiding places for priests throughout the country, persuaded Garnet that Hindlip was the safest nearby haven and the place most capable of withstanding a prolonged search or siege.

"Father Garnet", writes Gerard in his narrative of the plot, "thought best to retire himself to a house of great safety near unto the place he then was. There [he] meant to lie privately till the heat of his persecution were passed, [when] it might be more safe travelling towards London where he meant to settle as he had been accustomed." [16]

On the way towards Hindlip, Garnet's party met up with Father Oldcorne and his servant Ralph Ashley near Evesham, and they all rode together to within four or five miles of Hindlip then proceeded the rest of the way on foot.

Hindlip, built on high ground about two miles from Worcester, had much to commend it as a hiding place. The house was set in a park with open fields on all sides and giving from its terrets ample warning of any approaching party. Oldcorne had been chaplain at Hindlip for fifteen years and the Hall's owners, Thomas Habington and his wife, were well-known recusants. It had been constructed years before as a refuge for Catholic sympathisers and was interlaced with secret spaces and other cunning hiding-holes designed by Nicholas Owen. The Puritan authorities at Worcester had searched Hindlip Hall on previous occasions, hoping to find priests or Catholic agitators hiding there, but had never found any.

Garnet lay quietly at Hindlip for six weeks without any scent or sight of government pursuivants. He lived in a chamber hidden below the dining room. From Owen's subsequent confession taken on March 1, 1606 we know that during this period Garnet ordinarily dined with his hostess and Father Oldcorne. When any stranger was in the house, the priests dined apart. Oldcorne occasionally was absent from the Hall and Garnet remained alone in his secret chamber.

In December Garnet wrote a letter to the Lords of the King's Privy Council in which he set forth his abhorrence for "the late most horrible attempt" to which he openly admitted being an accessory by administering "the Most Holy Sacrament to six of the confederates at their very undertaking so bloody an enterprise". He asks the King's Council to give him a hearing, and concedes that even though he had ministered to the conspirators they never made him privy to the plot. He offers four arguments to prove that he had no part or sympathy with the conspiracy. Garnet concludes his letter with a protestation of "all fidelity and loyalty" both from himself and all those under his charge and with the assurance that in their "prayers, example, actions and labours" all of them would seek to "preserve and increase the King's temporal and everlasting felicity" and that of his entire family."

Whether or not the Privy Council took any credence in Garnet's testimony, the government issued, on 15 January 1606 a proclamation for the arrest of Garnet, Greenway [Tesimond] and Gerard. The three priests were named as accessories to the Plot and denounced as traitors: "...[they] did maliciously, falsely and traitorously move and persuade Catesby and the other conspirators that our Soverign Lord the King, the nobility, clergy and whole commonalty of the realm of England (Papists excepted) were heretics, and that all heretics were accursed and excommunicated; and that no heretic could be a King, but that it was lawful and meritorious to kill our said Sovereign Lord the King and all other heretics within the realm of England."

It is very likely that Cecil realised, after seeing the logic of Garnet's arguments set out in his testament to the Privy Council, that the only hope of bringing a case against him was to first eliminate the remaining conspirators so that no one knowledgeable about the actual events remained to vouch for Garnet's innocence.

The long-delayed search for Garnet wasn't put into motion until 20 January 1606---five days after the arrest warrant was issued. Seven days later, Cecil heard that Garnet had been arrested. The last surviving conspirators who could testify on Garnet's behalf were hastily despatched to eternity on January 30 and 31. So by the time Father Garnet was transmitted to the Tower, no one was still alive whose evidence could save him [1].

The posse commissioned to search Hindlip for the priests set out early on the morning of Monday 20 January under the leadership of Sir Henry Bromley, the sheriff of Worcestershire.

Hindlip was familiar to Bromley--he had searched it several times before. After some delay at the gates, Bromley's men forced down the doors and went about their search. For three days the search continued and although eleven ingenious hiding places were uncovered, no priests were present. On the fourth day, Bromley's patience was rewarded--two laymen, Owen and Ashley "being almost starved to death did come out of their own accord" looking for food. At first, Bromley thought that he had captured Oldcorne, but when he discovered his error the search resumed.

It is quite possible that Garnet and Oldcorne would have gone undetected had Bromley not pressed his renewed search beyond just two more days. But on the third day after Owen and Ashley's emergence from hiding, the two priests "looking like two ghosts" were finally uncovered in a low closet hidden behind a false chimney. The place was so low that neither of them could stretch their legs which become "much swollen" and they suffered continual pain.

Oldcorne was recognised almost immediately since he was well known for nearly seventeen years in Worcestershire to Protestants as well as to Catholics. But so unknown was Garnet that Bromley strove to identify him [1]. Finally an Appellant priest, Anthony Sherlock by name, came forward and betrayed Garnet's true identity and the other aliases by which he had been known.

Now realising who he had in custody, Bromley first transported his prisoners to Worcester, where Garnet and Oldcorne were entertained at Bromley's own home. There began a friendship between Garnet and his captor that demonstrates the quiet fascination that this unpretentious priest exercised over others. Not only Bromley but his whole household were won over by Garnet's personality: "The gentlewomen, who were very kind to me, as also all the house...were with us continually for the first days." Later they were kept apart from the priests "for fear they might be perverted in religion". Stricter orders were issued to the guards, but Garnet had already won over their goodwill [1][17].

The journey from Worcester to London should have taken no more than three days by horseback. But Garnet, as Bromley explained, was a "weak and wearisome traveller." He was suffering from fever and was unable to eat at all except for a little bread, and apple and some wine. Physically weak, totally fatigued, aching in limbs, and anxious of mind, Garnet nevertheless had a pleasing modesty that captivated and won over the Puritan sheriff Bromley. When they reached London, Bromley affirmed to many gentlemen that "never in his life had he met the like man to Mr. Garnet either for modesty, wisdom or learning and that he would kneel before the king to save his life, if he were not found guilty of the Powder [treason]". [18]

Garnet and Oldcorne were confined at the Gatehouse prison. Throughout London, Garnet was something of a celebrity. Cecil, the entire Privy Council and even the King himself were impatient to meet this Father Garnet about whom they had heard so much. During his long tenure as Superior of the Jesuits, Garnet had won a reputation for "virtue, gravity and learning" even among those who were most persistent to bring his mission to an end. So too among the Ambassadors of the Catholic princes of Europe then residing in London, Garnet was held in great esteem.

Cecil and the King's Council now sought ways to present Garnet to the country as an arch-traitor precisely because in the public mind he had already come to represent the arch-Catholic.

On 13 February, the day after arriving at the Gatehouse, Garnet was taken before the Council for his first examination. On the way from the prison to Whitehall, the streets were lined with spectators curious to catch a glimpse of the famous Jesuit. "There goes a young Pope", shouted someone in the crowd.

Assembled around the council table for Garnet's initial interrogation were Sir Robert Cecil, Sir John Popham, Sir Edward Coke, Sir William Waad and the Earls of Nottingham, Worcester and Northampton. From Garnet's days at Tottle's print show, Chief Justice Popham was the only familiar face confronting Garnet.

At the first meeting the Councillors treated Garnet with a great show of respect, biding him not to kneel before them, removing their hats when speaking to him and addressing him as Mr. Garnet. The first day's discussion focused on the topic of equivocation---a subject on which Garnet had written a scholarly treatise. Equivocation is the ambiguous use of words designed to conceal the truth yet avoid telling a direct lie. It was a skill perfected by the Jesuits to protect their friends while avoiding the sin of outright lying.

Cecil's strategy was to prove from the outset that Garnet was an equivocator, not to be trusted in giving the whole truth, and thus to discredit his evidence in advance [19]. So successful was Cecil's ploy that all of London soon knew about Garnet's talent for equivocation even before the trial began.

Shakespeare's play "Macbeth" written at the time of Garnet's interrogation and trial reflects the popular interpretation of equivocation as a tactic of deception:

"Knock, knock! Who's there, i th'other devil's name?
Faith, here's an equivocator that could swear
in both the scales against either scale;
who committed treason enough for God's sake,
yet could not equivocate to heaven: O come in equivocator."

On February 14th, Garnet was moved from a cell in the Gatehouse to a relatively comfortable room in the Tower of London. His friends in London were permitted to provide him with a bed, chairs, bedding, coal, fruit and wine. These small comforts were freely permitted by Sir William Waad to make Garnet feel less threatened and so perhaps to entrap him in a convivial atmosphere. Oldcorne was moved into the adjacent cell with a hole between through which the two priests could converse, their words being overheard and recorded by government eavesdroppers. A friendly but duplicitous jailer named Carey carried letters for Garnet into and out of the Tower, making copies and forgeries of them along the way.

Meanwhile Garnet's interrogation continued on day after day for twenty-three separate sessions, from February 13th until March 28th. when he was finally arraigned for trial at the Guildhall.

The case against him was singularly weak. The multiplied examinations found nothing that linked him criminally with the gunpowder plot. The interrogators resorted to other means to elicit incriminating statements from Garnet---he was threatened with torture [if not actually put on the rack], deprived of sleep, and probably also plied with drugs introduced into his wine by his jailors in an attempt to loosen his tongue.

Throughout the interrogation, Garnet defended himself with remarkable ability from the "odious and false charges" brought against him. During the course of the questioning, it was discovered that he had heard about the plot under the solemn seal of confession, and had used every effort left open to him to prevent it. But the government had no intention of recognising the confidentiality of the confessional or of endorsing any ritual or right of the Catholic Church. It made no difference in the eyes of the court whether knowledge of the Plot had been revealed to Father Garnet in or out of confessional, so on the strength of a technicality, the accusers pressed forward with the charge of misprision of treason against Father Garnet and on that basis sought to condemn him to death [20].

Garnet's trial and sentencing was a foregone conclusion. Coke, the prosecutor, used rhetoric instead of evidence to argue his case against Father Garnet. With the lack of any conclusive evidence against Garnet, Coke resorted to dishonest use of fact, deliberate distortions of the evidence and unwarranted insinuations drawn from it. By brilliant invective and consummate eloquence, Coke was able during the course of the day-long trial to play upon the prejudices and emotions of his listeners and to thus cloud the mind of jury long enough to secure a verdict of guilty.

Coke recited the chronicle of all the various plots that had been conspired against the government and monarch, from the Spanish Armada to the Collins and Lopez episodes, reinforcing his point by emphasising what he alleged to be an inseparable association in each conspiracy with the Jesuits. As the head of the Jesuits, all these treasons were consequently laid at Garnet's doorstep, not as an innocent bystander but as their chief author and provocateur. Garnet's conspiracy had intended the destruction of the kingdom, according to Coke's rhetoric, and now was the time to make sure that the Jesuits were destroyed, and with them the Catholic religion in England.

Not only, as Gerard says, was Garnet as innocent as a child yet unborn, but both Coke and the Judges on the Bench knew that he was innocent [21].

Garnet argued his own defence. Although certain that he was already condemned, he spoke to the judges with confidence. He used no notes. The plan and clarity of his speech was simple and to the point. He spoke first concerning the Church's doctrines in general [principally about equivocation and the practice of confession], then concerning the recusants in general, next about the Jesuits in general, and lastly concerning Garnet himself in particular.

When he came to rebutting the charges of his own personal treason, Garnet again repeated that while he "understood in general by Mr. Catesby that he would have attempted something for the good of Catholics...I dissuaded him from so effectually that I well hoped he would have desisted from all such pretences."

As for the accusation that he had conspired with Thomas Wintour and Guy Fawkes to communicate with the King of Spain, he answered that "I gave them indeed letters of commendation...but I protest I knew not that they went over about matters of treason for I never inquired of their business...I knew them to be Catholic men and of good conversation...I gave them letters to testify so much to my friends beyond the seas...and the like letters I have given to divers other Catholics that were no ways to be touched with any treacherous attempts".

The jury took less than fifteen minutes to decide their verdict. They found Father Garnet guilty of treason for not revealing the Powder Plot of which he certainly knew. Sir John Popham, the Chief Justice, pronounced the sentence against Garnet---that he should be hanged, drawn and quartered.

The Councillors were concerned most about public opinion. It was not Garnet's conviction they were anxious to secure, for they could have convicted him simply on proof of his priesthood. But it was his conviction on the ground of complicity in the Plot that the government was most anxious to prove in the public mind. Moreover, Garnet's own defence ad his composure during the trial had obviously won him sympathy and much respect.

More than five weeks elapsed between Father Garnet's conviction and his execution---a period during which the Government was much occupied in sedulously spreading false rumours that Garnet was about to recant his Catholic beliefs, and that he would yet be seen preaching Protestant doctrine in public.

Although the death sentence had been passed, the government had failed to win its case---for in the eyes of all Catholics and many Protestants as well, Garnet appeared a true martyr. His condemnation was secured only for concealing confession---surely an heroic cause of conscience, not a devilish crime of treason.

There was much speculation abroad in the city that the death sentence might not actually be carried out. It is likely that the Council itself delayed a final decision about this until the last few days of April. Only when the Council realised that they had failed to convince the public of Garnet's complicity in the Plot did they decide to proceed with his execution.

The first day set for the execution was 1 May. This was later decided to be a poor choice, since the annual May Day celebrations was a public holiday of good spirit in which the public revellers might be uproarious and perhaps sympathetic to Garnet's cause. Upon better advice, Garnet's execution was put off until 3 May, the feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross.

The place appointed for the execution was St. Paul's churchyard, at the west end, opposite the bishop's palace.

Father Henry Garnet said his farewells in the Tower very early on the morning of Saturday, 3 May. The Jesuit, who had by now spent nearly three months as a prisoner in the Tower, said a courteous good-bye to those who had served him. To one of the cooks who called out, "Farewell, good sir," he attempted a mild jest: "Farewell, good friend Tom, this day I will save thee a labour to provide my dinner."

In the final moments at the Tower, as Garnet was being strapped to the hurdle that was to take him to his death, there was a commotion in the courtyard. A woman rushed out of the crowd. It was Anne Vaux. Anne was however dragged away before she could exchange one last word with her friend and mentor, or even utter a prayer over the man who for twenty years had been at the very centre of her world.

The hurdle was drawn by three horses from the Tower toward the place of execution. Father Garnet lay on it with his hands held together and his eyes closed; he had the air of "a man in deep contemplation". All the way, the streets were crowded with citizens eager to catch a glimpse of the condemned man. A scaffold had been erected near St. Paul's for the prisoner, and all around it were wooden stands set up for spectators. The surrounding windows were also packed with onlookers.

The Sheriff of London was present, as were Sir Henry Montague, the Recorder of London, the Dean of Winchester, Dr. George Abott, and the Dean of St. Paul's Dr. John Overal. They were there not to honour Garnet, but determined to secure the last-minute repentance and even the conversion of this notorious Jesuit. When the church officials set about arguing with Garnet on the scaffold about the superior merits of Protestantism, the priest "cut them off quickly", asking them not to trouble themselves---or him: "he came prepared and was resolved". Garnet then desired some place apart where he could pray by himself for a moment.

When Garnet was asked---according to custom---whether he had anything further to say, he apologised for his own weakness, including his failing voice. But he did call attention to the appropriate date on which he was to die: "Upon this day is recorded the Invention [Finding] of the Cross of Christ, and upon this day I thank God I have found my cross..." Although Garnet continued to deny his own guilt, he did take the opportunity to express once more his horror at the fact that Catholics had planned such an enterprise. In the future, he directed all Catholics to remain "quite", possessing their souls in peace: "And God will not be forgetful of them". [22]

At this point, someone standing in the crowd near by shorted out: "But Mr. Garnet, were you not married to Mrs Anne Vaux?" The accusation stung Garnet, in a way nothing else could.

The priest turned to the people and answered: "That honourable gentlewoman hath suffered great wrong by such false reports. For it is suspected and said that I should be married to her, and worse. But I protest the contrary...she is a virtuous good gentlewoman and, therefore, to impute any such thing into her cannot proceed but of malice." [22]

Father Garnet himself assisted in the stripping off of his clothes down to his shirt; this was very long and Garnet had had the sides sewn up almost to the bottom in the interests of modesty. On the ladder itself, he paused and made the sign of the Cross, desiring all good Catholics present to pray for him. One person in the crowd had evidently been assured that there would be a dramatic last-minute conversion to Protestantism---a rumour spread widely in the city by government agents. As Garnet stood at the bottom of the ladder, this disappointed person shouted out: "Mr. Garnet, it is expected you should recant."

"God forbid", he replied. "I never had any such meaning, but ever meant to die a true and perfect Catholic". [22]

Father Garnet's last prayers were in Latin, the language of the "one" Church into which he had been born and in whose service he had spent his life. The priest crossed his arms over his breast---it had not been thought necessary to bind his arms---and "so was cast off the ladder". His arms remained cross, for he made no struggle against death. He hung motionless at the end of his rope.

At that moment a strange change in mood gripped the crowd. Many of the spectators had deliberately made their way to St. Paul's in order to see a gruesome spectacle which culminated with the bloody axing and quartering of a still living human body. A great number of those present---they cannot all have been Catholics---surged forward. With a loud cry of "hold, hold", they stopped the hangman cutting down the body while Garnet was still alive. Others pulled on the priest's legs, something which was traditionally done by relatives in order to ensure a speedy death.

As a result Father Garnet was "perfectly dead" when he was finally cut down and taken to the block. In their compassion they refused to see him butchered alive; and when he was cut up, his bowels cast into the fire, and his heart held up aloft with the cry, "Behold the heart of a traitor!" it met with no applause, not even the usual response, "God save the king."

"He died like a saint," "he looked not like a contriver of treason," were comment heard among the crowd. Even ministers were heard to say that without doubt his soul was in Heaven.

Thus this holy man passed to his eternal reward, 3 May 1606, aged 51.

Father Henry Garnet's story does not end with his death. Almost immediately stories and legends began to spring up about him. Relics and reminders of him were savoured and passed secretly among his followers.

A priest, who had paid twelvepence to stand on a wall for a better view of the proceedings, approached the wicker basket in which Garnet's hacked remains had been tossed at the foot of the scaffold in hope of obtaining a relic of a martyr. But the priest found there many others already there looking for the same prey. One Catholic gentleman was given the shirt that Garnet was wearing. Other Catholics acquired different parts of his apparel "which are now esteemed of more than their weight in gold" [23]

It was Anne Vaux, in the early states of her grief at the death of Father Garnet, who was probably responsible for nurturing the story of a miraculous husk of straw [an "ear void of corn"] found near the scaffold that was later discovered to bear the image of the martyred priest.

The story of the straw-husk began with the usual desperate search for holy mementoes among those Catholics covertly present, after the death of Father Garnet. One of these was a young man called John Wilkinson who had been asked by a fellow recusant, Mrs. Griffin, a tailor's wife, to procure her some kind of relic. Wilkinson was therefore standing right by the hangman as he deposited Garnet's severed head in the usual strawlined basket. All of a sudden an empty husk of corn stained with the priest's blood "did leap...in a strange manner" into his hand. Wilkinson gave the husk to Mrs. Griffin, who put it in a crystal reliquary [22].

John Gerard recounts what happened next to this piece of "Garnet's straw". "After three or four days, a devout Catholic gentleman coming thither, she showed him the bloody straw, which he was also glad to see and reverence. But beholding the same more curiously than the others had done, he saw a perfect face, as if it had been painted upon one of the husks of the empty ear, and showed the same unto the company which they all did plainly behold, and with no small wonder, but with much greater joy did acknowledge the mighty hand of God..." [25].

Many of the most prominent Catholics in London heard of this holy relic and "who much desiring to see this wonder" came to examine it. So great were the rumours of this miraculous relic throughout the city that the Council heard of its existence and desired to see it for themselves. It was given into the safe keeping of the Spanish Ambassador so that it would not come to harm. The Council feared the stories that were growing up around Garnet and the straw. "Now the fame did grow so great of this image of Father Garnet drawn by the hand of God, whose image and memory they sought to deface in all they could, that they feared the evidence of the miracle would plead against their proceedings and prove him innocent whom they had punished as guilty."

They Bishop of Canterbury [Dr. Richard Bancroft] asked that the straw be brought forward to him for examination, but his request was denied. He sent for the husband of Mrs. Griffin, who was a known Catholic and a virtuous man. The Bishop examined him about the straw, but Griffin said that the straw was no longer in his keeping, and that he knew not where to find it.

The Council even tried to find painters in London to make "a like portrait to that which they had seen in the empty ear of corn...but they all answered it was not possible for them to do it. Neither could the draught of that face, in so little a room and so loose a groundwork as the empty ear, be otherwise drawn than by supernatural power." [25]

Other accounts of Garnet's straw and the affect that it had on Catholics of the Faith have also survived in both secular and church sources.

Father Richard Blout, who saw the straw, writes in a letter dated March 1607: "It cannot be a thing natural or artificial. The sprinkling of blood hath made so plain a face, so well proportioned, so lively shadowed as no art in such manner is able to counterfeit the like." Further witness of the straw was given by John Wilkinson [a silk mercer] who was the prentice who first retrieved the straw from the executioner's basket [26]. Zuniga, the Spanish Ambassador in London, was in fact among those who inspected the straw-husk. He did so, as he told Philip III, "from curiosity" after hearing about the husk from several sources, although he denied that he had paid for the privilege, being "never such an enemy to my money as to give it for straws" [22].

The husk was probably concealed at the Spanish Embassy for a while, before being smuggled abroad. There it found a place among the relics in the possession of the Society of Jesus, before disappearing in the general turmoil of the French Revolution [22]. Father Henry More in his "Historia Provinciae Anglicanae" says that the piece of straw was kept in safety at the House of the Jesuits at Liege in France [27]. The last recorded mention of the straw is by the Abbe Feller in his "Dictionnaire Historique" published at Liege in 1797. In an article titled "Garnet", the Abbe writes: "L'epi est adjourdhui entre les mains d'un de mes amis, qui le conserve soigneusement". ('The straw today is in the hands of one of my friends who safeguards it carefully') [28]. On the continent, a print of the miraculous straw was made and sold extensively and was eventually reproduced as the frontispiece to the book "Eudaemon Johannes's defence of Garnet" published in 1610 [29]

Other accounts of miraculous happenings also circulated during the months following Garnet's death. A mysterious spring of oil emerged on the place where the scaffold had stood near St. Paul's. And a strange new flowering grass with a blue "halo" which had never been seen before in England, began to grow at Hindlip Hall where Garnet had been captured.

But the strangest stories of all concern the miraculous preservation of Henry Garnet's severed head which was placed atop a pole near London Bridge---as was the customary treatment for the heads of traitors in those times. Although these heads were customarily parboiled (which made them black), Father Garnet's pallor was so remarkable as to cause general wonder.

Father John Gerard says in his "Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot" that Garnet's face according to many witnesses "did continue some comely and with so pleasing a countenance as it seemed rather the head of a man alive than separated from his body; and also his quarters [remained] so purely white that it was much admired by all that did behold them".

This strange phenomenon was reported more fully in a contemporary document from the 17th century that is now contained at the British Museum: "...his head appeared in that lively colour as it seemed to retain the same hue and shew of life which it had before it was cut off, so as both heretics and Catholics were astonished there at, and so much the more, in that according to custom being cast into hot water it received no alternation at all; as neither it did after it was placed upon London Bridge, and set up there upon a pole." [30]

The sight of Garnet's lifelike head staring down from London Bridge attracted such a continuous throng of spectators that, after six weeks, the government had to order the face to be turned upwards away from the inspection of the curious. "Whereupon the magistrates of the city, and Council confounded with the miracle, and displeased with the continual resort of people to behold the unexpected event, gave order that the head should be put so as the face should be turned upwards, and the people thereby not able to view the face as they had been accustomed. There have been so many to see it at once sometimes, what from the bridge, what from places near thereunto, as from the water and houses, as divers there present have thought them to have been to the number of four or five hundred persons." [30]

The very hour that Garnet died, his friend Father John Gerard escaped to the Continent. Gerard saw in his safe passage a sign that his late Superior was already protecting him before God. "Twice on the 3 May, the day on which Father Garnet went to heaven, I received signal favours, which I believe were due to his intercession. The first was this: When I arrived by arrangement at the port from which I was to pass out of England with certain high officials, they took fright and said they could not stand by their promise. Right up to the time I was due to embark with them, they refused to let me come. Then, just at that moment, Father Garnet was received into heaven and did not forget me on earth. Suddenly they changed their mind. The ambassador came to fetch me personally and himself helped me to dress in the livery of his attendants so that I could pass for one of them and escape. I did escape and in my own mind I have no doubt that I owed this to Father Garnet's prayers." [31]

Almost four centuries have passed since Father Henry Garnet suffered a brutal and unjust death. Of all the cast of characters in the drama of the Gunpowder Plot, no other represents the great archtypical struggle between the conflicting forces of Good and Evil.

He committed no crime; incited no riot or rebellion. Yet Henry Garnet was caught between opposing forces that he could neither change nor control. He intended no harm to anyone and fought to prevent harm being done to others. Despite his good intentions, he suffered and died at the hands of desperate and ruthless men. He was the victim of circumstance---a humble servant of Good confronted by unspeakable Evil. Though Henry Garnet sought no power or position for himself, it was the Evil connivance for power that finally brought him to unavoidable destruction.


[1] Caraman, Philip, "Henry Garnet 1555-1605"
[2] Heilbrun, Carolyn G., The Garnett Family, Allen & Unwin, 1961
[3] Stevenson, W. H., Records of the Borough of Nottingham (1914), vol. 4, 142.
[4] Oliver, G., Biography of Scotch, English and Irish members of the Society of Jesus, 1845.
[5] D'Ewes, Sir Simonds, Journal of all the Parliaments of Elizabeth, 1682.
[6] Garnet, Henry, in a letter to Robert Persons dated June 2, 1601, Stonyhurst.
[7] Weston, William, in a letter to Fr. Oliver Manares dated March 27 1598. Stonyhurst.
[8] Chalmers, A. The General Biographical Dictionary, vol. 32, 1812-17.
[9] Watkins, J., The Universal Biographical Dictionary, new edition, 1821.
[10] Gillow, J., A Literary and Biographical History of the English Catholics, 5 vol., 1885-1902.
[11] Becket, W., Universal Biography, vol. 3, 1836.
[12] Garnet, Henry, letter to Margaret Garnet dated October 1, 1593, Stonyhurst.
[13] Garnet, Henry, letter to Aquaviva dated May 7 1597, Stonyhurst, Anglia 2, 27.
[14] Gerard, John, SJ, "The Autobiography of an Elizabethan", Philip Caraman, tr.
[15] Reynolds, E.E., The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales: A Short History, 1973.
[16] Gerard, John, Narrative of Henry Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot, page 149.
[17] Garnet, Henry, letter to Anne Vaux, March 4 1606.
[18] Gerard, John, Narrative of Henry Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot, page 170-1.
[19] Parkinson, C. Northcote, "Gunpowder, Treason and Plot", 1977
[20] Gillow, J., A Literary and Biographical History...of the English Catholics, 5v. 1885-1902.
[21] Bowen, C. D., The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, 1957, page 228.
[22] Fraser, Antonia, "Faith & Treason - The Story of the Gunpowder Plot", 1996
[23] Gerard, John, Narrative of Henry Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot, page 297.
[25] John Gerard, Narrative of Henry Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot, pages 301-5.
[26] Foley, Records, volume 4, pages 195-201.
[27] More, Henry, Historia Provinciae Anglicanae, 1660, page 330.
[28] Feller (Abbe), Dictionnaire Historique, Liege, 1797.
[29] Williamson, Hugh Ross, The Gunpowder Plot, London, page 243.
[30] Anonymous, Papers Relating to the English Jesuits, in the British Museum, MSS 21, 203, Plut. clii. F.
[31] Gerard, John, Narrative of Henry Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot, page 209.

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