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CHAPTER XVI
WAS FATHER GARNET GUILTY?

HENRY GARNET, Superior of the Jesuits in England, was aged about fifty, or fifty-one, at the time of his death. He was the son of a schoolmaster at Nottingham; was brought up a Protestant, and educated at Winchester, where (according to Dr. Robert Abbott) he won a good name for himself as regards his scholarship, but a very bad one indeed as regards his moral conduct. His gross immorality was, it is asserted, so notorious that the authorities at Winchester intervened to prevent him going up to Oxford (New College). He proceeded, therefore, on leaving school, to London, where he became a corrector of the Press. After serving a printer for two years, he went abroad,[1] became a Romanist, and in 1575 entered the Society of Jesus. Studying at Rome, Garnet soon became famous for his learning, and it was great regret on the part of those who knew him best in the Eternal City[2] that he was eventually withdrawn from this studious life and sent as a missionary (in 1586) to England, travelling thither in company with his colleague, Father Southwell, the poet. In 1587, he was appointed Superior of the Jesuits in England. From the date of his appointment until the year 1605, he lived chiefly in the neighbourhood of London, but acted entirely under the directions of Father Parsons from abroad. Such is, roughly speaking, briefly the history of the life of the man whose share in the Gunpowder Plot has proved one of the vexed questions of historical controversy.

His position as Superior of the Jesuits proved no easy one. The Jesuits were not only detested by the Protestants, but were also greatly disliked by most of the Roman Catholics themselves. Father Parsons, the greatest Englishman who has ever entered the Society, had to leave England because he knew that his presence had exasperated his co-religionists to such an extent that they threatened to betray him to the Government if he did not return at once to Rome.[3] Father Weston, Garnet's immediate predecessor, was a man of very peculiar character, superstitious, silly, and obstinate, and even hated by the Secular clergy, whom he endeavoured to place under the yoke of the Jesuits, with the result that open war was declared between the Jesuits and the rest of the English priests. One of Weston's peculiarities was that he believed strongly in 'casting out devils' and used to perform the most extraordinary exorcisms upon credulous persons. He even claimed to know the names[4] of the evil spirits whom he expelled from the bodies of the sufferers.

Garnet, therefore, as may be imagined, had no easy task in filling a post which had been previously vacated by persons of such marked unpopularity as the unscrupulous Parsons, the extravagant Hey wood, and the half-witted Weston. On the whole, his reign was more successful than, under the circumstances, might have been expected, and it lasted for as long a period as eighteen years. Amongst that small, but strong faction of the English Roman Catholics which favoured the Jesuits, Garnet was popular, whilst his erudition and pleasant manners made him many friends even in exterior circles hostile to his Society. But the fact that he was practically nothing more than a tool in the hands of Father Parsons served to render his chances of gaining the goodwill of the majority of his co-religionists in England practically hopeless, whilst strange stories about his intemperate habits were widely circulated. His connection, too, with Anne Vaux, however innocent, was not calculated to win either for him or for his Society the esteem of the strictest members of his religion. For it was well known that he had placed this weak and foolish woman under a vow of obedience to him, whereby she was compelled to become little better than a servant to him and his colleagues, who had the disposal of her fortune.

In answer to the oft-repeated question, 'Was Father Garnet guilty?' we may, at this late date, with all the evidence before us, safely assert that he was undoubtedly guilty of having committed high treason, and that the sentence of death passed on him at his trial was the inevitable result of his having known all about the plot from Greenway,[5] and that, too, outside the Confessional. He made no attempt to inform the Government of what was going on. Moreover, he actually was a party to sending Sir Edward Baynham to Rome.[6] In being hanged for treason, he only encountered the same fate which had been served out to Father Watson, whom he himself had helped to betray to the Government, merely because he and his fellow Jesuits were jealous of Watson and the anti-Jesuit party behind him. Garnet's fate, therefore, in the light of his betrayal of Watson, and his constant correspondence with Spain, and Spain's most faithful agent, the notorious Parsons, to say nothing of his not having given the Government due warning as to Catesby's intentions,—cannot be commiserated.

That he died a martyr for the seal of the confessional, as has been asserted by Roman Catholic writers, is absurd, as may be seen by a perusal of the official account of his trial, when all the evidence gathered against him was conclusively shown to have no connection with what passed between him and Greenway sub sigillo, whilst his conversation with Catesby, in a house in Thames Street, London, on June 9, 1605, was also quite sufficient to incriminate him.

It is lucky for Garnet's admirers that the letters of Sir Everard Digby, written in the Tower, were not intercepted. Had they been seized, and produced at Garnet's trial, the question of the prisoner's moral guilt would have, there and then, been settled once and for ever.

Sufficient prominence has not been given to these letters in the works of writers on the Plot, and they have, of course, been ignored by Garnet's apologists altogether. The whole tone of Digby's disclosures suggests clearly that the writer laboured under the impression that the Jesuit[7] leaders knew of the plot and tacitly approved of its purpose—

'For my keeping it secret' says Digby, ' it was caused by certain belief, that those which were best able to judge of the lawfulness of it had been acquainted with it, and given away unto it. More reasons I had to persuade me to this belief than I dare utter.' Later on, he writes, 'Before that I knew anything of the plot, I did ask Mr. Farmer (Garnet) what the meaning of the Pope's brief was; he told me that they were not (meaning Priests) to undertake or procure stirs, but yet they would not hinder any, neither was it the Pope's mind that they should.'

This confession by Digby is also supported by a statement in Garnet's own hand-writing, which completely contradicts the story of his having died a martyr in defence of the seal of confession. Writing on April 4, 1606, to the Privy Council, he declares—

'And whereas, partly upon hope of prevention, partly for that I would not betray my friend, I did not reveal the general knowledge of Mr. Catesby's intention which I had by him, I do acknowledge myself highly guilty.'

All the sympathy that Garnet might have received from his co-religionists (exclusive of those submitting to the Jesuit yoke), after he had been sentenced to death, was destroyed by the general feeling of detestation against him excited by his continued equivocation. He literally lied himself to death. For him there was no escape. Lie after lie was detected, and the utter folly of putting faith in his protestations exposed. How great a factor his indulgence in equivocation was in causing his death, and how strongly he disgusted Roman Catholics as well as Protestants by his perjury, is touched upon by nearly all the leading historians who have dealt with his trial. I quote the following criticisms from their works:—

Dr. Lingard[8]:—'Three days later, he was interrogated a second time respecting the doctrine of equivocation, and boldly declared that the practice of requiring men to accuse themselves was barbarous and unjust; that in all such cases it was lawful to employ equivocation, and to confirm, if it were necessary, that equivocation with an oath; and that if Tresham, as had been pretended, had equivocated on his death-bed, he might have had reasons which would justify him in the sight of God. To these and similar avowals I ascribe his execution. By seeking shelter under equivocation, he had deprived himself of the protection which the truth might have afforded him ; nor could he in such circumstances reasonably complain if the King refused credit to his asseverations of innocence,[9] and permitted the law to take its course.'

Dr. Gardiner:—'Garnet was again examined several times after his conviction, and there may possibly have been some inclination on the part of the King to save his life. But the Jesuitical doctrine on the subject of truth and falsehood, which he openly professed, was enough to ruin any man'

J. R. Green:—'Garnet, the Provincial of the English Jesuits, was brought to trial and executed. Though he had shrunk from all part in the plot, its existence had been made known to him by another Jesuit, Greenway; and, horror-stricken as he represented himself to have been, he had kept the secret and left the Parliament to its doom.'

Dr. Franck Bright:—'The trial of Garnet was more difficult, but his knowledge of the plot was at last proved by a conversation between himself and one of his fellow-prisoners, treacherously devised and overheard. It is probable that he might even then have escaped his fate, had it not been for his open avowal of the lawfulness of equivocation and mental reservation on any point which might criminate himself. This destroyed all credit in his assertions, and took from him all chance of popular sympathy.'

Father E. L. Taunton:[10]:—'There seems to have been some kind of desire on the part of the King not to proceed to extremities; but Garnet's avowals on the subject of equivocation practically settled his fate; for it was found obviously impossible to believe a word he said.'

Hallam:—'Whether the offence of Garnet went beyond misprision of treason has been much controverted. The Catholic writers maintain that he had no knowledge of the conspiracy, except by having heard it in confession. But this rests altogether on his word; and the prevarication of which he had proved to be guilty (not to mention the damning circumstance that he was taken at Henlip in concealment along[11] with the other conspirators), makes it difficult for a candid man to acquit him of a thorough participation in their guilt.'

Winwood[12] (letter from Mr. John Chamberlaine to Winwood, April 5, 1606):—'Garnet, the Jesuit, was arraigned at Guildhall, the 28th of the last. . . . The King was present, but unseen, as likewise divers Ladies. . . . The sum of all was, that Garnet 'coming into England in 1586, hath had his finger in every Treason since that time, and not long before the late Queen's death, had two Breves sent him by the Pope, the one to the nobility and gentry, the other to the Arch-priest and clergy of England, that quandocumque contigerit miseram illam feminam ex hac vita migrare they should take care, neglectâ propinquitate sanguinis, or any other respect, to make choice of such a Prince, as either should be Catholic, or else promise and swear not only to tolerate, but to further that religion to his utmost. But for these matters he was not now to be touched, having taken the benefit of the King's pardon the first year of his reign. But for the late hellish conspiracy he was proved to be privy to it, both from Catesby, and Tesmond or Greenway a Jesuit. To which he answered, that from Catesby he had it but in general terms, and from Tesmond sub sigillo confessionis. To which answer, though it were insufficient, yet it was replied, that Catesby having imparted to him the particulars of the very same plot to be performed in the Queen's time,[13] it was not likely he would conceal them from him now; and the continual intercourse 'twixt him and the chief actors, with his directions and letters by Winter and Wright to the King of Spain, by Fawkes to the Archduke, and by Sir Edward Baynham (Captain of the Damned Crew) to the Pope, shew that he could not but be acquainted, and one of the principal directors in it. . . .

'Garnet, being brought into a "fool's paradise," had divers conversations with Hall, his fellow-priest in the Tower, which were overheard by spies set on purpose. With which being charged, he stifly denied it; but being still urged, and some light given him that they had notice of it, he persisted still, with protestation upon his soul and salvation, that there had passed no such interlocution: till at last, being confronted with Hall, he was driven to confess.'

Garnet's manifold perjuries cannot, of course, possibly be excused or defended, and there is some satisfaction in knowing, as the above authorities demonstrate, that his lying did him and his a great deal of harm. At the same time, the stratagems to which the Government had recourse, in the efforts to entrap him, can hardly be commended, and Dr. Gardiner only speaks the plain truth when he exclaims: 'If all liars had been subject to punishment, it would have gone hard with those members of the Government, whoever they were, who, in order to involve the Jesuits in the charge of complicity with the plot, deliberately suppressed the words in which both Winter and Faukes declared that Gerard, when he administered the Sacrament to the original conspirators, was ignorant of the oath which they had previously taken.'

Finally, in dismissing the case of Father Garnet, for the convenience of the reader it is worth while to name the principal charges brought against the Jesuit Provincial, of all of which he was shown to have been guilty,[14] and, therefore to have committed high treason; viz.:—

'1. He had been a party to sending Sir Edward Baynham to Rome. Baynham, a man of bad character, was (as Faukes explained) to inform the Pope of the result of the Plot, had it succeeded.

'2. He had heard of the Plot (outside the confessional) from Father Greenway.

'3. He knew, from two conversations with Catesby, that the plot was in active progress.

'4. He sent Father Greenway to visit the conspirators at Huddington.

'5. On All Saints Day, 1605 (Nov. 1st), he asked his congregation at Coughton, "to pray for some good success for the Catholic cause at the beginning of Parliament" (Nov. 5th).

'6. He made no (known) attempt to save the Parliament from its doom.'

In conclusion, although we may regret that King James and his Government did not temper justice with mercy and commute the death-sentence passed on Garnet to banishment, it must not be forgotten that, in those harsh times, there would have been no precedent for such a course. Moreover, Garnet, as the head of a branch of a Society determined on subjugating England, was as much a national enemy as any Spaniard. The Jesuits were fighting hard to destroy the liberties of England, and it was necessary, therefore, to deal with them severely. In the interests of their Society, they would stop at no offence, however shocking, when occasion served. In removing Garnet, then, the Government of James I. only put to death a man whose existence at large in London constituted a ceaseless danger to the commonwealth. Moreover, it must not be forgotten, so far as our means at this late date of arriving at a correct idea of Garnet's position are concerned, that several of the most damning pieces of evidence against him have been removed by the loss of certain documents, taken by the Jesuits from the Collection of State Papers during the reigns of Charles II. and James II. As to this, Mr. David Jardine, in a letter[15] to Mr. R. Lemon, dated November 17, 1857, says—

'That thievery of some kind abstracted such documents as the Treatise on Equivocation, with Garnet's hand-writing on it, the most important of the Interlocutions between Garnet and Hall in the Tower, and all the examinations of Garnet respecting the Pope's Breves, is most clear!'


  1. First to Spain, and thence to Italy.
  2. At Rome he won the esteem of such men as Bellarmine, Suarez, and Clavius.
  3. Father Heywood, his successor, was so unpopular with the English Romanists that he was recalled. He was imprisoned for seventeen months before returning to Rome.
  4. Some of these went by the following curious appellations: 'Flibertigibet,' Hobbydicat,' 'Lusty Dick,' 'Killicorum,' 'Wilkin,' 'Smolkin,' 'Captain Philpot,' and 'Captain Pippin.'
  5. If not also directly from Catesby, which is most probable.
  6. The Venetian Ambassador calls Baynham the 'special messenger sent to beg his Holiness to incite the Catholics to assist and support the good effects' of the proposed explosion at Westminster.
  7. Gerard excepted. It must be remembered that every one of the plotters had a Jesuit for his confessor.
  8. Lingard, it is hardly necessary to state, was a Roman Catholic priest.
  9. Garnet, said the Venetian Ambassador, 'scandalized the very heretics' at his trial, by 'excusing his previous perjury.'
  10. History of the Jesuits in England.
  11. This is, of course, an error on Hallam's part.
  12. Memorials of State collected by Sir JR. Winwood in the Reigns of Q. Elizabeth and K. James I.
  13. There undoubtedly had been a wild scheme, formed during the last years of Elizabeth's reign, with the object of blowing them alone up with powder.
  14. Irrespective entirely of all the treasonable acts he had committed, as regards his correspondence with Spain, prior to 1605.
  15. This letter, preserved in the Gunpowder Plot Book (1) at the Record Office, relates to the operations of 'those fellows the Jesuits.'