Escape from the Tower of London


I wrote yesterday about Fr John Gerard’s plan to escape from the Tower of London in 1597, a story I must have read as a child, but had then completely forgotten, even though it has everything you could possibly want from a great escape story.

Having bribed his guard, so he could gain access to a fellow prisoner’s cell on the outer wall of the Tower, the incarcerated priest wrote to some friends, asking “whether they were prepared to take the risk, and, if they were, to come on a certain night to the far side of the moat, opposite the squat tower I had described, near the point where Master Page had been seized. They were to bring a rope with them and tie it to a stake; we would be on the roof of the tower and throw them an iron ball attached to a stout thread, the kind used in stitching up bales. They must listen in the darkness for the sound of the ball touching the ground, find the cord and tie it to the free end of the rope. This done, we would draw up the rope by pulling the other end of the cord which we held in our hands.”

With the plan in place, Fr John Gerard’s fellow prisoner got cold feet and suggested simply bribing the guard to let the priest walk out of the prison in disguise. They tried this but “the warder would not hear of it. If he allowed it, he said, it would mean that he would be an outlaw for the rest of his life, and he would be hanged if he were caught. So the matter was dropped and we went ahead with our first plan.”

The night of the escape arrived and Fr Gerard bribed the guard to allow him to visit the other man’s cell. However, what he had not catered for was the guard locking the stairs to the roof so “we had to cut away with a knife the stone holding the socket of the bolt.” At midnight the boat arrived, but it was spotted by a local who engaged the would-be rescuers in conversation, thinking they were fishermen. As time dragged on, the oarsmen – one of whom was the priest’s former warder in the Clink! – realised they had to abandon the attempt and try again another night. However, as they rowed back towards London bridge, they got into trouble and had to be rescued themselves (after throwing the rope into the river to cover their tracks).

Nothing discouraged, they tried again the next night. After leaving letters in his cell so that his guard didn’t get into trouble, Fr John Gerard again made his way to the roof (because the guard hadn’t noticed that the bolt had been forced).

The rescuers arrived once more, but this time with a much thicker rope, which proved almost impossible to haul up. Fr Henry Garnet, the Jesuit superior, had ordered this improvement, as he saw it, to ensure that the rope didn’t snap, but he almost scuppered the whole plan in doing so.

“Now a fresh difficulty arose which we had not foreseen. The distance between the tower at one end and the stake at the other was very great and the rope, instead of sloping down, stretched almost horizontally between the two points.” Instead of sliding down as they had hoped, the two men had to work their way along the rope. The first man managed successfully but Fr John Gerard struggled because this first journey had slackened the rope:

“I had gone three of four yards face downwards when suddenly my body swung round with its own weight and I nearly fell. I was still very weak [because he had been tortured], and with the slack rope and my body hanging beneath I could make practically no progress. At last I managed to work myself as far as the middle of the rope, and there I stuck. My strength was failing and my breath, which was short before I started, seemed altogether spent.”

(Any film-makers out there? This story cries out for cinematic treatment.)

“At last, with the help of the saints and, I think, by the power of my friends’ prayers below drawing me, I moved along a little way and then I stuck again.”

Eventually, he inched his way along to the wall, but even then it was touch and go.

“But my feet just touched the top of the wall and the rest of my body hung horizontally behind, with my head no higher than my legs – the rope had become so slack. I don’t know how I would have got over the wall, if it had not been for John Lillie. Somehow or other (he could never say how he did it), he got me up on to the wall, seized hold of my feet, pulled me over and put me safely down on the ground.”

Clambering into the boat, the priest was taken to a place where St Nicholas Owen was waiting with horses and they galloped away to a safe house, where he immediately wrote a letter to his warder, explaining what had happened and offering a hiding place and annual income if he wanted to make good his escape, an offer the warder eventually accepted. The Elizabethan authorities did everything they could to track down the escapees but to no avail.

Remarkably, Fr John Gerard chose not to flee to the continent but continued to serve in the underground mission for another nine years before eventually crossing the channel and writing his jaw-dropping autobiography. He died in Rome in 1637.

Now, how on earth did I forget that story? The answer, I think, is that I didn’t have any context for it. I had no idea, as a child, about the persecution that Catholic priests suffered under Queen Elizabeth and so I skipped ahead to what I did know and understand: World War II. Those stories were great too but I clearly missed out by skimming over Fr John Gerard’s story. If you would like to know more, I can heartily recommend his autobiography, with its tower breaks, priest holes and a great deal more besides.

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