Torture at the Tower: The Case of John Gerard

On the anniversary of the birth of John Gerard, Curator Alden Gregory reflects on the dark history of the Tower of London and how it resonates today. Please be aware that this blog post contains descriptions of torture that some people might find distressing.

Few accounts of life or death at the Tower of London are as shocking, visceral, and as difficult to read as that recorded by the Jesuit priest John Gerard in his autobiography. Gerard was only 32 years old when he was moved from the notorious Clink Prison to the Tower in April 1597. For all its gruesome reputation, the Clink did not possess instruments of torture; the Tower, on the other hand, most certainly did.

A Paranoid State?

Gerard’s crime was his Catholic faith. He had been arrested and locked away by an increasingly paranoid and persecutory Protestant government some three years earlier and had spent his time in incarceration in prayer and ministering to the many other Catholic prisoners occupying the cells. By 1597, the government’s fear of a growing conspiracy to bring down the Elizabethan State by an underground Catholic network had reached fever pitch and new avenues were being explored to uncover the supposed plot. Gerard was a Jesuit priest who, before his capture, had travelled widely on the Continent and in England, illegally serving the recusant Catholic community. With his web of high-level Jesuit contacts and with direct access to the growing band of Catholic prisoners, he was marked for interrogation at the Tower.

Despite the increasing frequency of its use by Elizabethan and Jacobean inquisitors, torture was not formally recognised as a means of interrogation under English law. However, the officers who subjected prisoners to the horrors of the rack, the Scavenger’s Daughter, and the manacles in the Tower’s torture chamber did so with the full knowledge and authority of the Privy Council and the monarch. Torture was not, on the face of it at least, used as a punishment – it was a method of getting information from the prisoner – but in a period well-used to violence and bloodshed, it remained a controversial practice. In arguments that echo those used to reject torture today, Catholics and Protestants alike recognised that torture created martyrs, increased hostility to the State, and risked extracting unreliable evidence from prisoners willing to say anything to end their distress.

The Tower of London © Historic Royal Palaces

Imprisoned at the Tower

Such concerns did little to help John Gerard. Initially confined to his cell within the Salt Tower, he was soon taken before a panel of inquisitors in the former great hall of the Queen’s House (a room later converted into the Council Chamber). There he was questioned at length about his Catholic networks in an attempt to uncover how messages were passed amongst the group. But Gerard was unwilling, or perhaps unable, to answer their demands.

Having failed to extract satisfactory answers from their prisoner, the inquisitors led Gerard in an ominous candlelit procession to a dark ‘underground’ chamber where he was threatened with violence by the torturer (probably one of the Yeoman Warders) and shown the instruments they would use on him. The theatricality of the procession and the direct warning of his painful fate were designed to scare him into submission and avoid subjecting him to physical pain. However, it was to no affect and Gerard remained unable, or unwilling, to cooperate.

Illustration of John Gerard by Iain McIntosh © Historic Royal Palaces

A Terrible Ordeal

What happened next is best told in Gerard’s own words:

“They took me to a big upright pillar, one of the wooden posts which held the roof of this huge underground chamber. Driven into the top of it were iron staples for supporting heavy weights. Then they put my wrists into iron gauntlets and ordered me to climb two or three wicker steps. My arms were then lifted up and an iron bar was passed through the rings of one gauntlet, then through the staple and rings to the second gauntlet. This done, they fastened the bar with a pin to prevent it from slipping, and then, removing the wicker steps one by one from under my feet, they left me hanging by my hands and arms fastened above my head… Hanging like this I began to pray.

The gentlemen standing around me asked me whether I was willing to confess now. ‘I cannot and I will not,’ I answered. But I could hardly utter the words, such a gripping pain came over me. It was worst in my chest and belly, my hands and arms. All the blood in my body seemed to rush up into my arms and hands and I thought that blood was oozing from the ends of my fingers and the pores of my skin. But it was only a sensation caused by my flesh swelling above the irons holding them… The pain was so intense that I thought I could not possibly endure it…

Sometime after one o’clock, I think, I fell into a faint. How long I was unconscious I don’t know, but I think it was long, for the men held my body up or put the wicker steps under my feet until I came to. Then they heard me pray and immediately let me down again. And they did this every time I fainted – eight or nine times that day – before it struck five”

Gerard endured the horrific pain of his torture refusing throughout to confess. Eventually, his torturers admitted defeat and sent him back to his cell. So damaged were his hands and arms that he recorded that it was three weeks before he could hold a knife.

Modern studies of the effects of the type of suspension torture used on Gerard, reported by organisations such as the Danish Institute Against Torture, show that it can cause dislocations and permanent and lasting damage to the nerves and blood vessels of the hands. While Gerard seems to have made a full-enough recovery that he was later able to scale the walls and moat of the Tower in a daring escape, others who have suffered the same torture have not been so lucky.

The Torture of Cuthbert Simpson “upon the racke” from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (Book of Martyrs). 1563 Edition. Selected Woodcuts © The Ohio State University

The Past is not a Foreign Country

At a time when television news reports are filled with stories of State-sponsored persecution on the grounds of religious belief and ethnicity and when the use of torture is still evident in 141 countries in all regions of the world, it is incumbent on all of us to remember that the past is not such a foreign country. Nor should the distance of 400-or-so years between us and the violence metered out on real men and women at the Tower of London in the name of religion and State security make those horrors any less real or uncomfortable to contemplate.

At Historic Royal Palaces, we tell the stories of history in the very places where they happened; it is both a privilege and a deeply felt responsibility. Some of those stories are light-hearted and fun, and we present them in ways that we hope will entertain our visitors, but other stories are dark and complicated, and it is our job to tell them with the dignity and respect they deserve. We cannot and will not shy away from telling stories that are uncomfortable and that shed light on the darkest moments from our past. In doing so, our task is always to ensure that we never downplay nor trivialise the very real moments of human suffering that have happened within our walls.

Dr Alden Gregory
Curator of Historic Buildings
Tower of London

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