In 1597 the Tower of London was the scene of an incredible and daring escape. Had this happened recently it would end up being re-enacted by Hollywood. As it is, this is a little known event – but hopefully, a better known one when you have read this post.
Having been betrayed and captured by Pursuivants, the Jesuit Priest John Gerard had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, awaiting trial for alleged treason. Gerard had been facing accusations that he had tried to turn people from loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. As part of his examination, he had been tortured which had left him in a weakened physical state. Had he eventually been found guilty then he would have faced a terrible execution. A decision was made that Gerard would try to escape – but how could this be done?
Bribery & a secret message to the outside
After bribing the warder, Gerard had been allowed to visit and conduct mass with a fellow Catholic called John Arden who had been imprisoned following accusations of involvement in an anti-Government plot.
Gerard was being held in the Salt Tower – across a garden from the Cradle Tower, where Arden was being held. Whilst visiting Arden, Gerard realised that the Cradle Tower was close to the outside wall, overlooking the moat. Gerard calculated that with outside assistance, it might be possible to lower oneself by rope from the top of the tower to the other side of the moat and freedom.
A letter (written partly in orange Juice) asking for help was smuggled out to Richard Fulwood, an old servant of Gerards, and also to John Lillie a Catholic sympathiser. Between them they helped to work out a possible, but dangerous escape plan.
A failed escape – which nearly ends in tragedy.
On October 3rd, 1597 Gerard and Arden were allowed to spend the evening together. As soon as they warder had gone they began to loosen the stone around the bolt on a door leading to the roof of the Cradle tower. They reached the roof at midnight, in time to see a rowing boat containing three men approach the walls. As they were about to make contact, a man came from a house below and assuming the men were fishing, began to engage them in conversation.
Gerard waited patiently for the man to leave but by the time he departed it was too late for an escape that night. Meanwhile, the tide had risen on the Thames and as the men rowed back towards Old London Bridge they were pinned by the rising water against the piles of the bridge. At this point there was a danger of the boat capsizing – drowning the would be rescuers. Luckily, they were saved by the presence of a large sea going boat and the skills of a group of sailors who managed to rescue them.
A second attempt is made
Thinking that the escape was doomed, Gerard was suprised to hear next day that the rescusers were going to try again. Waiting again until they had been locked in the Tower together, Gerard and Arden climbed onto the roof. Throwing down a weighted cord they raised up a rope that had been tied to it by the rescuers below. The plan had been to slide down the rope but the angle it made meant that instead the escapers had to pull themselves hand over hand along its length. It is worth remembering that Gerard had recently been tortured by being suspended in manacles, which made a hazardous descent even more difficult.
After his companion managed to climb down, Gerard realised that the rope which had been straight was now sagging – making the climb even more difficult. Holding the rope between his legs, Gerard pulled himself out from the high roof. Half way across he became exhausted and at one point was left hanging in the darkness, strength failing.
‘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’
Incredibly he managed to struggle on, reaching the end of the rope too weak to pull himself up without help from Arden. Gerard was assisted into the waiting boat which was rowed at speed away from the Tower of London.
Escape and exile from England.
Gerard was eventually smuggled out of England and escaped to live the rest of his life as an exile in Rome. Here, he wrote his life story ‘ The Autobiography of an Elizabethan‘ from which the above account is taken. His book is packed with stories about his life in Elizabeths England – well worth a read if you are interested in this period. Also, if you do read it then pass it on to any movie producers you come across as this would make a really great historical epic!