How the BBC lost (and found) the plot with Fr John Gerard

A scene from Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents – subject of a complaint to the BBC

Until last October, when the BBC surprisingly and erroneously gave him a prominent role in the Gunpowder Plot, few people had heard of Fr John Gerard SJ. Strangely, the publicity surrounding the BBC’s decision to apologise and re-edit the documentary has received far more attention than the programme itself.

So who was the real Fr Gerard? He was one of those courageous Catholic priests who, after training on the Continent, returned to their native land to work on the English Mission, helping to keep Catholicism alive during the years of religious persecution in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. These brave men operated undercover and lived in continual fear of capture, imprisonment, torture and the most barbaric forms of execution.

There were competing claims to the English throne, and numerous plots to unseat the monarch often involved Catholics, and sometimes even priests, rebelling against the intolerable repression of their religion. Protestant England was surrounded by hostile Catholic powers and it is hardly surprising that Catholics were viewed as a potential threat. Indeed, it suited the authorities to represent Catholic priests, particularly Jesuits, as agents of foreign powers.

It was in these dangerous circumstances that Fr Gerard, a tall and dashing young Jesuit, landed by night on the Norfolk coast, shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, when anti-Catholic feelings were at a high. Disguising himself first as a falconer and then as a country gentlemen, he met contacts in Norwich who introduced him to a network of Catholic sympathisers across Norfolk and nearby counties.

Moving from one country house to another, Fr Gerard managed to persuade their owners, at substantial risk to themselves, to use their houses as centres for building local Catholic communities. In the process he made numerous converts to the faith, at least 30 of whom subsequently became priests themselves.

He was far from the only priest operating in this way, but he was certainly one of the most successful. His conviction and commitment, combined with great charisma and intelligence, made him a persuasive advocate for his faith. Fr Gerard was also exceptionally courageous and resourceful, which helped him to escape capture on numerous occasions. But after six years he was seized and imprisoned. He spent three years in the Clink prison, where, remarkably, he managed to turn a cell into a chapel, said daily Mass for Catholic inmates, administered the sacraments and inspired yet more conversions. Many Catholics came to the prison to visit him and receive the sacraments.

He also managed to coordinate the activities of other priests arriving in London from the continent, including renting and maintaining “safe” houses for their use and providing them with financial support. He was able to do all this because he first bribed his gaoler and then befriended him. (The gaoler himself eventually converted to Catholicism.)

After three years Fr Gerard was moved to the Tower of London where he was further interrogated and badly tortured. But despite being weakened by imprisonment and ill treatment, he engineered a daring and ingenious escape across the moat, listed by Time magazine as one of the 10 greatest prison escapes in history. Somehow he managed to resume his activities and continue his mission for another eight years, until he was forced to leave the country in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.

As a priest, he knew several of the plotters and was quite close to at least one of them, whom he had converted to Catholicism. Robert Cecil, James I’s spymaster and principal adviser, wanted to pin the blame for the Gunpowder Plot on the Jesuits and on John Gerard in particular, whose earlier escape from the Tower had not been forgotten.

But despite extreme methods, Cecil was unable to extract any credible evidence against Fr Gerard. Under interrogation and in one case torture, the two surviving plotters “admitted” that he had said Mass for them after their first meeting, but both firmly insisted that he had no knowledge of the plot itself. Another of the plotters wrote that they had deliberately kept him in the dark, because they knew he was opposed to violence and would have talked them out of it.

Fr Gerard lived for another 30 years, latterly as spiritual director of the English College in Rome. On the instruction of his superiors, he wrote his autobiography, The Hunted Priest, which is widely regarded as the most authoritative and readable contemporary account of the life of English Catholics during the persecution.

He has been an inspiration to members of my family for hundreds of years and it came as a shock to see him featured in the BBC historical drama Gunpowder, clearly represented as being “in on the plot”. The characterisation of Fr Gerard was so far removed from all historical accounts that I believed it could only have been a deliberate misrepresentation.

I complained to the BBC that the priest they called “Fr Gerard” was an entirely fictitious character, and that it was unethical to use the name of a real person whom the drama was implicating in a serious crime.

The BBC did not dispute my comments, but its guidelines for historical dramas allow substantial leeway in departing from the facts. They clearly need to be changed.

This was followed by a historical documentary series on BBC Two, Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents. In this series, Fr Gerard was given a starring role at the centre of the Gunpowder Plot, suggesting not only that he had prior knowledge of it, but also that he supported it and, most offensively, that he blessed the plot “in the Blood of Christ”. It was clearly stated that he played a leading role in devising the plot.

The apparent reason for this misrepresentation was to support one of the key dramatic themes in the series: a supposed “arch rivalry” between Fr Gerard and Robert Cecil, which seems to have been based more on creative conjecture than a balanced appraisal of evidence. The misleading statements came mainly in the programme narrative rather than in the contributions of several eminent historians, whose involvement lent the series unwarranted credibility. I was surprised to see that the programme was shortlisted for a Bafta award in the “Specialist Factual” category.

Working through the BBC’s complaints process took a great deal of patience and tenacity: it involved at least six exchanges of letters, as the complaint gradually filtered up to the top level. The eventual outcome, however, was a great credit to the corporation. It accepted that the programmes were “seriously misleading” and a “breach of editorial standards”. It has agreed to publish an apology on its website and has had the series re-edited to reflect my complaints, prior to re-broadcast. I could hardly have asked for more.

Michael Maslinski is a 10-times great nephew of Fr John Gerard

This article first appeared in the May 18th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here