From a portrait by Jan Wiericx
Following on from a blog last summer about the trial of Lady Jane Grey at Guildhall, I would like to explore the trial of Henry Garnett, a Jesuit priest, which took place at the Guildhall in 1606.
Henry Garnett (1555–1606) was an English priest of the Catholic Jesuit order.
The Jesuits were a religious order founded by Ignatius of Loyola and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. Loyola was a nobleman and former soldier, who discovered his spiritual devotion after being wounded in battle. Members of the Jesuit Society were expected to accept orders anywhere in the world, where they might be required to live in extreme conditions. Thus, the opening lines of the founding document declared that the society was founded for “whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God” (Jesuit.org.uk)
In 1586, Garnett and another Jesuit Robert Southwell were sent to England to succeed to Jesuit Superior in England, should anything happen to Weston, the incumbent. The Jesuits were banished from England in 1585 so Garnett and other Jesuits ministered and worshipped in secret. There were very few Jesuits in England and most had been imprisoned. The Jesuits needed a network of safe houses to protect them from raids. The government increased surveillance and renewed persecution of the order in the wake of the discovery of the Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and the planned invasion of England by Philip II of Spain. Weston was captured and arrested within a month of Garnett arriving in England and accordingly Garnett became the Jesuit Superior in England.
Anti-Catholic sentiment was high after the successful defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the government wanted to formulate an oath whereby Catholics could proclaim their allegiance to the queen. The government required Catholics to deny the pope’s authority in England. However, Catholics argued that they would show the queen the same obedience owed to any secular prince and would do so until such a time as a papal bull excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I.
Being the leader of the banned Jesuits in the face of increased government persecution weighed heavily on Garnett’s shoulders. Things went from bad to worse after capture of his friend Southwell in June 1592. Garnett wrote: ‘While I cannot help myself in my sadness and anxiety … deprived as I am now of my companion, my dearest father and my helper [I await] his greatest achievements yet’ (Caraman, Garnet, 151).
At Southwell’s trial prosecutor Sir Edward Coke attacked the Jesuit for his use of the controversial doctrine of equivocation. Equivocation was a Jesuit logic that allowed Catholics to avoid incriminating themselves or others, without lying in the eyes of God. This included techniques such as not speaking in complete sentences and finished them by adding any qualification silently in one’s head, with the object of misleading the auditor. Unsurprisingly, English authorities distrusted equivocation: they viewed it as sinful and lying and an attack on language and meaning.
Southwell was executed at Tyburn on 21 February 1595. Garnett implored the Superior General of the Society of Jesuits, Claudio Acquaviva, to send him an assistant who would succeed him as superior. Henry Walpole was sent. Captured soon after his arrival in December 1593, Walpole was executed in York on 7 April 1595.
Upon the accession of James I, Garnett was enthusiastic about Catholic prospects in England. He wrote to fellow Jesuit Robert Persons on 16 April 1603: ‘Great hope [there] is of toleration: and so general a consent of Catholics in the [King’s] proclaiming [that] it seemeth God will work much’ (Caraman, Garnet, 305).
Ahead of his accession to the English throne, James had courted English Catholics and hinted at, but not promised, religious tolerance. Expectation among Catholics quickly turned to disappointment and anger. Rumours of Catholic plots and conspiracies even reached Rome. The Superior General of the Jesuits ordered Garnett to do everything he could to prevent Catholics from resorting to violence.
On 25 July 1605, in confession, and therefore under oath not to disclose anything from his penitent, Garnett learned of a plot from the Jesuit Oswald Tesimond. Tesimond, Robert Catesby’s confessor had been given permission by his penitent to discuss a ‘case of conscience’ with his confessor and superior Garnett. However, despite his admonitions, and warnings, Garnett failed to prevent the Gunpowder Plot. The date of the fifth of November will ever be remembered in English history and continues to be marked by bonfires and firework displays today. The discovery of the plot ended any chance of religious toleration of Catholics and provoked a frantic search for the conspirators and their associates.
On 15 January 1606 the government issued a proclamation for Garnett’s arrest along with Tesimond. It described Garnett as:
of a middling Stature, full Faced, Fatte of body, of Complexion faire: his Forehead high on each side, with a little thinne Haire comming down upon the middest of the forepart of his Head: the Haire of his Head and Beard griseled: of Age betweene fiftie and threescore: his Beard on his Cheekes cut close, on his Chinne but thinne, and somewhat short: his Gate upright, and comely for a Fatte man.
Larkin and Hughes, 133
Garnett was arrested on the 27th Jan and appeared for his first examination on 13 February. He was transferred from the Gatehouse prison to the Tower of London the next day. In early March he was charged with complicity in the Gunpowder Plot and tortured. His trial in the Guildhall began on 28 March. Among those on the bench was Sir John Popham who had known Garnett before he had become a Jesuit and was now chief justice of the king’s bench. According to Coke, Garnett, the instigator of the plot:
hath many gifts and endowments of nature, by art learned, a good linguist and, by profession, a Jesuit and a Superior as indeed he is Superior to all his predecessors in devilish treason, a Doctor of Dissimulation, Deposing of Princes, Disposing of Kingdoms, Daunting and deterring of subjects, and Destruction.
Caraman, Garnet, 403
The Arraignment of Henry Garnet from A Compleat collection of state-tryals and proceedings upon impeachments for high treason and other crimes and misdemeanours 1719 vol. 1.
Guildhall Library Store 62
Garnett defended himself against all Coke’s charges and explained Catholic teaching on papal power and equivocation which Coke had attacked during the trial. The court found Garnett guilty as charged and sentenced him to death. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered on 3 May 1606 in St Paul’s Churchyard, London.
Very soon after his execution, London theatregoers were reminded of the sinister reputation Garnett’s defence of equivocation had earned to him in protestant eyes. The porter in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, welcomes imaginary visitors, an equivocator (Garnett) and a farmer (Farmer was one of Garnett’s pseudonyms) at the gate of hell (Inverness Castle), making mocking references to Garnett and his trial: ‘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’ (Macbeth, ii.iii, 7–11).
Venerated by English Catholics as a martyr, there were even relics associated with Garnett, one being the famous ‘straw’, upon which a drop of Garnett’s blood bore a strong resemblance to his face which was later lost during the French Revolution. Superior General Acquaviva allowed Garnett’s cause for canonization to be initiated but the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773 halted its progression. While Garnett’s name was originally included in the list of martyrs submitted to Rome in 1874 by the archdiocese of Westminster, it was subsequently removed because of fear of possible political involvement, and it has yet to be reintroduced.
By: Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian, Guildhall Library
Philip Caraman, Henry Garnet, 1555–1606, and the Gunpowder Plot (1964)
Guildhall Library Shelfmark: B:G 235
J. F. Larkin and P. L. Hughes, eds., Royal proclamations of King James I, 1603–1625 (1973)
Guildhall Library Shelf mark: 348:02
Shakespeare Third Folio
Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies : Published according to the true originall copies…and unto this impression is added seven playes, never before printed in folio: viz. Pericles Prince of Tyre. The London prodigal. The history of Thomas Lord Cromwel. Sir John Oldcastle Lord Cobham. The puritan widow. A York-shire tragedy. The tragedy of Locrine. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
London : printed [by Roger Daniel, Alice Warren, and another] for P[hilip] C[hetwind], 1664.
The third folio.
Guildhall Library Shelf mark AN 19.3.4 (Please note you will need to bring one form of ID, such as a passport or driving licence or any library or archive membership card, with you when you visit in order to consult this item as is designated rare.)
A link to examination of Henry Garnett from the National Archives