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Henry Garnet in United Kingdom

Henry Garnet (1555-1606), English Jesuit, son of Brian
Garnett (or Garnet), a schoolmaster at Nottingham, was educated at Winchester and
afterwards studied law in London. Having become a Roman Catholic, he
went to Italy, joined the Society of Jesus in 1575, and acquired under
Bellarmine and others a reputation for varied learning. In 1586 he
joined the mission in England, becoming superior of the province on the
imprisonment of William Weston in the following year. In the dispute
between the Jesuits and the secular clergy known as the “Wisbech Stirs”
(1595-1596) he zealously supported Weston in his resistance to any
compromise with the civil government. His antagonism to the secular
clergy was also shown later, when in 1603 he, with other Jesuits, was
the means of betraying to the government the “Bye Plot,” contrived by
William Watson, a secular priest. In 1598 he was professed of the four

Garnet supervised the Jesuit mission for eighteen years with conspicuous
success. His life was one of concealment and disguises; a price was put
on his head; but he was fearless and indefatigable in carrying on his
propaganda and in ministering to the scattered Catholics, even in their
prisons. The result was that he gained many converts, while the number
of Jesuits in England increased during his tenure of office from three
to forty. It is, however, in connexion with the Gunpowder Plot that he
is best remembered. His part in this, for which he suffered death, needs
discussion in greater detail.

In 1602 Garnet received briefs from Pope Clement VIII. directing that no
person unfavourable to the Catholic religion should be allowed to
succeed to the throne. About the same time he was consulted by Catesby,
Tresham and Winter, all afterwards involved in the Gunpowder Plot, on
the subject of the mission to be sent to Spain to induce Philip III. to
invade England. According to his own statement he disapproved, but he
gave Winter a recommendation to Father Creswell, an influential person
at Madrid. Moreover, in May 1605 he gave introductions to Guy Fawkes
when he went to Flanders, and to Sir Edmund Baynham when he went to Rome

The preparations for the plot had now been
actively going forward since the beginning of 1604, and on the 9th of
June 1605 Garnet was asked by Catesby whether it was lawful to enter
upon any undertaking which should involve the destruction of the
innocent together with the guilty, to which Garnet answered in the
affirmative, giving as an illustration the fate of persons besieged in a
town in time of war. Afterwards, feeling alarmed, according to his own
accounts, he admonished Catesby against intending the death of “not only
innocents but friends and necessary persons for a commonwealth,” and
showed him a letter from the pope forbidding rebellion. According to Sir
Everard Digby, however, Garnet, when asked the meaning of the brief,
replied “that they were not (meaning the priests) to undertake or
procure stirs, but yet they would not hinder any, neither was it the
pope’s mind they should, that should be undertaken for Catholic good….
This answer, with Mr Catesby’s proceedings with him and me, gave me
absolute belief that the matter in general was approved, though every
particular was not known.” Both men were endeavouring to exculpate
themselves, and therefore both statements are subject to suspicion. A
few days later, according to Garnet, the Jesuit, Oswald Tesemond, known
as Greenway, informed him of the whole plot “by way of confession,”
when, as he declares, he expressed horror at the design and urged
Greenway to do his utmost to prevent its execution. Subsequently, after
his trial, Garnet said he “could not certainly affirm” that Greenway
intended to relate the matter to him in confession.

Garnet’s conduct in now keeping the plot a secret has been a matter of
considerable controversy not only between Roman Catholics and
Protestants, but amongst Roman Catholic writers themselves. Father
Martin del Rio, a Jesuit, writing in 1600, discusses the exact case of
the revelation of a plot in confession. Almost all the learned doctors,
he says, declare that the confessor may reveal it, but he adds, “the
contrary opinion is the safer and better doctrine, and more consistent
with religion and with the reverence due to the holy rite of
confession.” According to Bellarmine, Garnet’s zealous friend and
defender, “If the person confessing be concealed, it is lawful for a
priest to break the seal of confession in order to avert a great
calamity”; but he justifies Garnet’s silence by insisting that it was
not lawful to disclose a treasonable secret to a heretical king.
According to Garnet’s own opinion a priest cognizant of treason against
the state “is bound to find all lawful means to discover it _salvo
sigillo confessionis_.” In this connexion it is worth pointing out that
Garnet had not thought it his duty to disclose the treasonable intrigue
with the king of Spain in 1602, though there was no pretence in this
case that he was restricted by the seal of confession, and his
inactivity now tells greatly in his disfavour; for, allowing even that
he was bound by confessional secrecy from taking action on Greenway’s
information, he had still Catesby’s earlier revelations to act upon. He
appears to have taken no steps whatever to prevent the crime, beyond
writing to Rome in vague terms that “he feared some particular desperate
courses,” which aroused no suspicions in that quarter. At the same time
he wrote to Father Parsons on the 4th of September that “as far as he
could now see the minds of the Catholics were quieted.”

His movements immediately prior to the attempt were certainly
suspicious. In September, shortly before the expected meeting of
parliament on the 3rd of October, Garnet organized a pilgrimage to St
Winifred’s Well in Flintshire, which started from Gothurst (now
Gayhurst), Sir Everard Digby’s house in Buckinghamshire, included
Rokewood, and stopped at the houses of John Grant and Robert Winter,
three others of the conspirators. During the pilgrimage Garnet asked for
the prayers of the company “for some good success for the Catholic cause
at the beginning of parliament.” After his return he went on the 29th of
October to Coughton in Warwickshire, near which place it had been
settled the conspirators were to assemble after the explosion. On the
6th of November, Bates, Catesby’s servant and one of the conspirators,
brought him a letter with the news of the failure of the plot and
desiring advice. On the 30th Garnet addressed a letter to the government
in which he protested his innocence with the most solemn oaths, “as one
who hopeth for everlasting salvation.”

It was not till the 4th of December, however, that Garnet and Greenway
were, by the confession of Bates, implicated in the plot; and on the
same day Garnet removed from Coughton to Hindlip Hall, near Worcester, a
house furnished with cleverly-contrived hiding-places for the use of the
proscribed priests. Here he remained some time in concealment in company
with another priest, Oldcorne _alias_ Hall, but at last on the 30th of
January 1606, unable to bear the close confinement any longer, they
surrendered and were taken up to London, being well treated during the
journey by Salisbury’s express orders. He was examined by the council on
the 13th of February and frequently questioned during the following
days, but refused to incriminate himself, and a threat to inflict
torture had no effect upon his resolution. Subsequently Garnet and
Oldcorne having been placed in adjoining rooms and enabled to
communicate with one another, their conversations were overheard on
several separate occasions and considerable information obtained. Garnet
at first denied all speech with Oldcorne, but subsequently on the 8th of
March confessed his connexion with the plot. He was tried at the
Guildhall on the 28th.

Garnet was clearly guilty of misprision of treason, i.e. of having
concealed his knowledge of the crime, an offence which exposed him to
perpetual imprisonment and forfeiture of his property; for the law of
England took no account of religious scruples or professional etiquette
when they permit the execution of a preventable crime. Strangely enough,
however, the government passed over the incriminating conversation with
Greenway, and relied entirely on the strong circumstantial evidence to
support the charge of high treason against the prisoner. The trial was
not conducted in a manner which would be permitted in more modern days.
The rules of evidence which now govern the procedure in criminal cases
did not then exist, and Garnet’s trial, like many others, was influenced
by the political situation, the case against him being supported by
general political accusations against the Jesuits as a body, and with
evidence of their complicity in former plots against the government. The
prisoner himself deeply prejudiced his cause by his numerous false
statements, and still more by his adherence to the doctrine of

Garnet, it is true, claimed to limit the justification of equivocation to cases “of necessary defence from injustice and wrong or of the obtaining some good of great importance when there is no danger
of harm to others,” and he could justify his conduct in lying to the
council by their own conduct towards him, which included treacherous
eavesdropping and fraud, and also threats of torture. Moreover, the
attempt of the counsel for the crown to force the prisoner to
incriminate himself was opposed to the whole spirit and tradition of the
law of England. He was declared guilty, and it is probable, in spite of
the irregularity and unjudicial character of his trial, that substantial
justice was done by his conviction. His execution took place on the 3rd
of May 1606, Garnet acknowledging himself justly condemned for his
concealment of the plot, but maintaining to the last that he had never
approved it. The king, who had shown him favour throughout and who had
forbidden his being tortured, directed that he should be hanged till he
was quite dead and that the usual frightful cruelties should be omitted.

Soon after his death the story of the miracle of “Garnet’s Straw” was
circulated all over Europe, according to which a blood-stained straw
from the scene of execution which came into the hands of one John
Wilkinson, a young and fervent Roman Catholic, who was present,
developed Garnet’s likeness. In consequence of the credence which the
story obtained, Archbishop Bancroft was commissioned by the privy
council to discover and punish the impostors. Garnet’s name was included
in the list of the 353 Roman Catholic martyrs sent to Rome from England
in 1880, and in the 2nd appendix of the Menology of England and Wales
compiled by order of the cardinal archbishop and the bishops of the
province of Westminster by R. Stanton in 1887, where he is styled “a
martyr whose cause is deferred for future investigation.” The passage in
_Macbeth_ (Act II. Scene iii.) on equivocators no doubt refers
especially to Garnet. His _aliases_ were Farmer, Marchant, Whalley,
Darcey Meaze, Phillips, Humphreys, Roberts, Fulgeham, Allen. Garnet was
the author of a letter on the Martyrdom of Godfrey Maurice, _alias_ John
Jones, in Diego Yepres’s _Historia particular de la persecucion de
Inglaterra_ (1599); a _Treatise of Schism_, a MS. treatise in reply to
_A Protestant Dialogue between a Gentleman and a Physician_; a
translation of the _Stemma Christi_ with supplements (1622); a treatise
on the Rosary; a Treatise of Christian Renovation or Birth (1616).

AUTHORITIES.–Of the great number of works embodying the controversy
on the question of Garnet’s guilt the following may be mentioned, in
order of date: _A True and Perfect Relation of the whole Proceedings
against … Garnet a Jesuit and his Confederates_ (1606, repr. 1679),
the official account, but incomplete and inaccurate; _Apologia pro
Henrico Garneto_ (1610), by the Jesuit L’Heureux, under the pseudonym
Eudaemon-Joannes, and Dr Robert Abbot’s reply, _Antilogia versus
Apologiam Eudaemon-Joannes_, in which the whole subject is well
treated; Henry More, _Hist. Provinciae Anglicanae Societatis_ (1660);
D. Jardine, _Gunpowder Plot_ (1857); J. Morris, S.J., _Condition of
the Catholics under James I._ (1872), containing Father Gerard’s
narrative; J.H. Pollen, _Father Henry Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot_
(1888); S.R. Gardiner, _What Gunpowder Plot was_ (1897), in reply to
John Gerard, S.J., _What was the Gunpowder Plot?_ (1897); J. Gerard,
_Contributions towards a Life of Father Henry Garnet_ (1898). See also
_State Trials II._, and _Cal. of State Papers Dom._, (1603-1610). The
original documents are preserved in the _Gunpowder Plot Book_ at the
Record Office.

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  • Article Name: Henry Garnet
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  • Description: Henry Garnet (1555-1606), English Jesuit, son of Brian Garnett (or Garnet), a schoolmaster at Nottingham, was educated at [...]

This entry was last updated: October 14, 2016

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