Wimbish through the centuries
published October 2018
20cm x 13cm paperback 123 pages including 18 pages of (monochrome) illustrations
Sample chapter: The Story of Broadoaks
Shortly after the accession to the Throne of Queen Elizabeth in 1588 the laws against Roman Catholics, which had fallen into abeyance for several years, were revived and were rigorously carried out. Any Catholic priest found in the country was liable to execution, so that all but the old and feeble were forced to renounce their vows or to seek refuge abroad.
In order to combat these conditions a number of English Catholic gentlemen went secretly overseas and were trained as priests by the Jesuits. They were then secretly smuggled back into England, and by means of their remarkable organisation, which made full use of disguises, secret communications and cleverly-constructed hiding-places, they contrived to effect a Catholic revival which seriously perturbed the Government. To counteract this movement, a body of priest-hunters known as Pursuivants was formed.
The Wisemans of Broadoaks were Roman Catholics and liable to persecution, but, preferring peace and comfort to being perpetually hounded by Pursuivants, would have no dealings with the Jesuits. There were but few other Catholics in the district and the small congregation, which only assembled four times a year for Mass in this isolated house, quite escaped official notice.
All this was changed, however, when the Wiseman brothers, Thomas and John, went on a visit to relatives in Suffolk and there met Father John Gerard. They became very interested in him and introduced him to their family at Broadoaks, and it was soon arranged that he should make Broadoaks his headquarters. The family consisted of four brothers and two sisters, their widowed mother and the wife and two children of William, the older brother and head of the house. Two other sisters had previously become nuns of the Bridgettine Order; one was an Abbess in Lisbon.
After the advent of Father Gerard the two remaining sisters entered the Augustinian Convent at Louvain. The two brothers who had been instrumental in introducing Father Gerard to Broadoaks, went abroad to be trained as priests by the Jesuits. The third brother, Robert, a soldier, was killed in battle in the Low Countries. The widowed mother, Jane, removed herself with a private chaplain to the original family seat near Felsted, so that there could be one more safe place of call or hiding for priests.
In the autumn of 1592 Broadoaks was visited by Pursuivants. Letters were seized, a collection of armour discovered in a vault behind a door, and a secret place between two walls was found to contain not only the equipment for Mass but a poor old priest named Thomas Jackson. What became of him is not known. Father Gerard was away at this time.
When Father Gerard took up his abode at Broadoaks most of the Protestant servants were replaced by trustworthy foreign Catholics. Fresh precautions for hiding were taken and it was soon considered to be a safe place of call for priests. For this purpose, a Jesuit lay-brother, a carpenter and mason, named Nicholas Owen, was brought to the house, whose speciality it was to devise and construct the Jesuit hiding-places. He observed every precaution and for this reason always made a pretext for his presence in a house by engaging in some job of alteration or repair. The true purpose of his visit was carried out during the night when he could work in secret. His contrivances were simple but clever. He often made one hiding-place within another so that should the first be found the second might be passed over. His favourite trick was to quarry in the thickness of a solid wall a place just large enough to conceal a man, covering the tiny entrance with a substantial secret door. Such an arrangement was practically sound-proof, but its great advantage lay in the fact that no exterior measurements would betray its position. Such a place as this he made at Broadoaks. We know from official records that he was at Broadoaks during December 1593, quite unsuspected in that suspicious atmosphere; yet at least 80 cubic feet of brick work was secretly quarried out and disposed of, though none but he and the Wisemans knew of it. There is in the living-room adjoining the hiding-hole, a carved stone fireplace of early Renaissance work which is of later date than the other fittings of the house. It is reasonable to surmise that the erection of this fireplace, in the days when its design was new and fashionable, was carried out by Nicholas Owen to afford an excuse for his presence in the house.
The room which the Wisemans used as a secret chapel was the long, low attic, which has remained almost untouched to this day. Then, as now, it had only one door, which led in from a dark stair. But there was an exit through a small window to the leads of the roof, and a trap in the ceiling to the spacious garrets above. These places had no connection with the hide, but they tended to lead pursuers on to search far afield for what actually lay under their noses.
In this chapel Nicholas Owen took up the tiles from the fireplace and constructed a false hearth. Beneath this he burrowed downwards into the solid brickwork. The place he made adjoins the large living-room below and is located high up and slightly to the side of the Renaissance fireplace. It was separated from this room only by the lath and plaster covered with a panelled wainscot. The hiding-place is two feet wide and five feet six inches tall at the highest point – not a very comfortable place to conceal such a figure of a man as Gerard who was both broad and tall.
Whilst these preparations were going on, two noted Pursuivants, acting on the treacherous information of an old and trusted Protestant ex-servant of the Wisemans, named John Frank, raided Mrs. Jane Wiseman’s house at Felsted on the day after Christmas of 1593. A priest named Brewster escaped by taking to a hiding-place constructed in the chimney, from whence he was later smuggled by night t Broadoaks and thence to another district. Mrs. Wiseman was arrested and taken to London to appear before the officials who acted as judges in cases concerning Roman Catholics. The Magistrate reported that her house was “a house of resort for all wicked persons.” She was kept in prison for two years and it then came to the ears of the authorities that a priest brought her Holy Communion on fixed days. The Law was again invoked against her and she was brought up for trial. She received the sentence of death by the torture of the pressyard. On hearing the sentence “she said with a cheerful countenance Deo Gratis,” according to Father Gerard. He continues,
“Her position and good name gave the Queen’s councillors second thoughts. They did not want to shock London by their barbarity, so after her condemnation they had her removed to another and worse prison (the Clink) and kept her there. What they were after was the property for the Queen. And had she been executed, this would have gone, not to the Queen, but to her son, William Wiseman, my host.”
It is also stated by the compiler of St. Monica’s Chronicle, on information given by her daughters, Bridget and Jane, who were nuns in this Belgian convent, that the Queen on hearing how “for so small a matter she would have been put to death rebuked the justices of cruelty and said she should not die.”
Father Gerard writes: “There in a filthy cell she lingered on until the accession of King James when she received the pardon usually granted at the coronation of a new king. On her return home she continued to serve God’s servants as she had done before and still kept two priests in her house.”
She was in prison for nine years and lived for five years more, dying happily after a severe illness. She was a Welsh woman, her father being a Vaughan and her mother a Tudor of the blood royal, and she had all the courage and tenacity of her race.
At the time that Mrs. Wiseman was arrested at Felsted, Father Gerard was away in London. He was staying at a house in Southwark which William Wiseman had purchased. By trickery on the part of the authorities a message was sent to William Wiseman at Broadoaks which caused him to hurry to London to consult Father Gerard. He was immediately arrested and sent to the Tower. Father Gerard hastened back to Broadoaks to discuss events with Joan Wiseman, the wife of William, and to make preparations for the Easter services. The treacherous ex-servant followed with the most reliable Pursuivants available and a body of soldiers.
The story is best continued in the words of Father Gerard, translated by Philip Caraman from the Latin in which it was written.
“On Easter Monday 1st April 1594, we rose earlier than usual for Mass, for we felt there was danger about. As we were preparing everything for Mass before daybreak we heard, suddenly, a great noise of galloping hooves. The next moment, to prevent any attempt at escape, the house was encircled by a whole troop of men. At once we realised what was afoot, We barred the doors; the altar was stripped, the hiding places opened and all my books and papers thrown in. It was most important to pack me away first with all my belongings.
“I was hardly tucked away when the Pursuivants broke down the door and burst in. They fanned out through the house, making a great racket. The first thing they did was to shut the mistress of the house in her own room with her daughters, then they locked the Catholic servants in different places in the same part of the house. This done, they took possession of the place (it was a large house) and began to search everywhere, even lifting the tiles of the roof to examine underneath them and using candles in the dark corners. When they found nothing, they started knocking down suspicious-looking places. They measured the walls with long rods and if the measurements did not tally they pulled down the section they could not account for. They tapped every wall and floor for hollow spots, and on sounding anything hollow they smashed it in.
“Two days of this revealed nothing. On the second day the justices went off thinking that I must have left the house on Easter Sunday. Some Pursuivants remained behind to take the mistress of the house and Catholic servants, men and women, up to London to be examined and imprisoned. They were going to leave the other servants, I mean the non-Catholics, to watch the house. The traitor was one of them.”
Presumably, from what follows, they were taken for temporary confinement to a neighbouring house. When nothing could be proved against them they were allowed to return.
Father Gerard continues: “This pleased the lady and she hoped with his (the traitor’s) help to save me from dying of slow starvation, for she knew I had made up my mind to die in this way between the two walls rather than come out and save my life at the sacrifice of others. Indeed, during those four days of hiding all I had to eat was a biscuit or two and a little quince jelly, which my hostess happened to have by her and had handed to me as I was going in. As she had not expected the search to last more than a day she had looked for nothing else.
“But now two days had passed and she was to be taken off next morning with all the servants she could trust. Afraid I might die of starvation she called up the traitor. She had heard he was to be left behind and had noticed that, when the searchers broke in, he had made a great show of resisting them. Certainly she would never have given away my hiding place to him had I not been in such straits, but she thought it better to save me from certain death, even though she was taking a risk. So she instructed him after she had been taken away, when there was no one about, to go into a certain room and to call out my name; he was to say that everyone else had been taken off, he alone was left and would set me free. She told him that I would answer from the hiding place behind the panelling and plaster.
“The traitor promised to carry out these instructions faithfully; yes, he was faithful but only to men who did not know the meaning of faith. Of course he reported everything to the party who had been left behind, and they at once sent a call for the magistrates who had already left. First thing in the morning they were back and the search was resumed. Much more thoroughly than before they measured up and sounded every place for a hollow spot, particularly in that room, but during the whole of the third day they found nothing at all. They decided, therefore, to spend the next day tearing off the plaster.
“Meanwhile they set guards that night in every room round to watch any attempt I might make to escape. From where I was hidden I heard the password which the head of the party gave to his men, and if I could have come out of my hiding place without being seen I would have used it and tried to get away. But there were two men watching in the chapel where the entrance to my hiding place was, and there were several others in the plastered room, which they had been told about.
“But an amazing Providence protected me. Here I was in my hiding place. I had got into it by raising part of the floor under the grate. It was made of wood and brick and constructed in such a way that a fire could not be lit in it without damaging the house. But wood was kept there as though it were meant for a fire.
“That night the men on guard decided to light a fire in the grate and they sat down by it for a gossip. In a few moments the bricks, which were not laid on other bricks but on wood, came loose and almost fell out of position as the woodwork subsided. The men noticed this and poked the hearth with a stick and found the bottom made of wood. I heard them remark what a curious thing it was, and thought that there and then they would smash open the hiding place and peer in. However, they decided to put off their investigations until the next day.
“Escape was out of the question now. I began to pray earnestly that, if it was for God’s greater glory, I might not be captured in that house and bring retribution on my host, nor in any. other house whatsoever where others would suffer for it. God kept me safe in that house. A few days later when I was captured no one suffered for it, as you shall see in a moment.
“The next day the search was resumed with great thoroughness. But they left alone the top room which had served as a chapel and in which the two guards had made a fire above my head, and had commented upon the strange structure of the grate. God had wiped all memory of it from their minds. During all that day not a single Pursuivant entered the room, and it was, not without reason, the most suspected room in the house. If they had entered they would have found me without any search at all; rather, they would have seen me, for the fire had burned a hole in my hiding place, and I had to move a little on one side to avoid the hot embers falling on my head. The Pursuivants seemed to have forgotten all about this room; at any rate they seemed not to care about it. Instead they concentrated on the rooms below, in one of which they had been told I was hiding, and did in fact discover the other hiding place. It was quite near to where I was and I heard their yelps of joy when they came on it; and then their consternation when they found it empty. All they discovered was an untouched store of provisions laid up against a long search like this. Possibly they concluded it was the place that the mistress of the house meant; it would certainly have been easy to answer from there any call made by a person in the room she had mentioned.
“But they kept to their plan of stripping off all the plaster from the other large room and with the help of a carpenter they began their work close to the ceiling not far from where I was. (The lower parts of the walls were covered with tapestries). Going right round the room they stripped off the plaster, until they were in front of the exact spot where I was hiding. There, despairing of finding me, they gave up. My hiding place was in a thick wall of the chimney behind a finely inlaid and carved mantel-shelf which they could not remove without risk of breaking. Yet if they had had the slightest suspicion that I was behind it they would have smashed it to pieces. They knew that there were two flues and thought it would be impossible for a man to hide there.
“Earlier, on the second day of the search, they had been in the room above me and had examined the fireplace through which I had got into my hole. With the help of a ladder they had climbed into the flue and sounded it with a hammer and I had heard one of them saying to another: “There might conceivably be room for a person to get down into the wall of the chimney below if this grate was raised.” “Hardly,” said the other, “there is no entrance down that way into the other chimney. But there might easily be an entrance at the back of the chimney.” As soon as he had said this he gave the place a kick. I was afraid he would notice the hollow sound of the hole in which I was hiding. But God, who set limits to the sea, said to these determined men, “You have come as far as this but you go no farther,” and He spared his sorely stricken children and would not give them up into the hands of their persecutors. Nor would He allow anything worse to come upon them for their great charity to me.
“As their search was a failure they thought that I had managed to escape somehow or other and they went off at the end of the fourth day. The mistress of the house was set free, and her servants also; the traitor, however, still undiscovered, stayed behind after the searchers had left.
“The doors of the house were then barred and the mistress came to call me out. Like Lazarus, who was buried four days, I came forth from what would indeed have been my tomb if the search had continued a little longer. I was very wasted and weak with hunger and lack of sleep. All that time I had been squatting in a very confined space. While the search was on the mistress of the house had eaten nothing whatsoever, partly because she wanted to share my discomfort and find out by testing herself how long I could live without food, but chiefly to draw down God’s mercy upon me and upon herself and her whole family by fasting and prayer. When I came out I found her face so changed that she looked a different person; and had it not been for her voice and her dress I doubt whether I would have recognised her.
“The traitor met me after I had come out. We still had no suspicion of his treachery. He did nothing then; he did not even call the Pursuivants back for he knew well that I meant to be off before they could be recalled.”
Father Gerard set out at once for a friend’s house not far away and there he lay low for a fortnight. He then continued to London and very soon was caught. He was imprisoned for three years and suffered severe torture, but nothing would make him betray his friends or fellow Jesuits.
In his Autobiography he has left a remarkable account of his years in prison and subsequent exciting escape from the Tower.
William Wiseman had been able to purchase his release from the Tower, and he and his wife lived in their Southwark house for two years so that they could be near his mother, who was confined in the Tower at that time.
For a time Father Gerard stayed with them in Southwark. A few months later they all returned to Broadoaks and the Wisemans urged him to take up his quarters there once more, but he refused to submit them to further danger.
In spite of the hue and cry after him he managed to live in this country until just after the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes, in his confession, stated that the conspirators took a solemn oath and vow to execute their plot, and that they received the Sacrament from “Gerard the Jesuite “ to perform that vow, but that “Gerard was not acquainted of their purpose.” Whether he knew or not, after the discovery of the Plot the country was too unsafe for him, and his supervisors ordered him to return to Rome. Three years later he was ordered to write his Autobiography as a guide and source of encouragement to other young priests.
Scarcely a year after the search previously related, there was another raid on Broadoaks. Mass was preparing, and the members of the congregation were arrested, but the record merely says that the priest escaped.
This priest was Father Richard Banks, a Jesuit, described by Gerard as a “good and devout man – a finer man than me in every way. At first my old friends seemed not to think so highly of him, but when they came to know him better they found everything I had said about him was true. Soon they came to regard him as their father.”
On yet another occasion the house was searched, and this time William Wiseman was re-arrested for being in possession of a rosary and a few prohibited books. He was eventually released.
Of his two young daughters, who were present at the time of the search, one married and the other entered a convent and became Prioress of St. Monica’s in Louvain in succession to her aunt.
For some time Father Gerard held the post of Master of Novices in the English College at Louvain and there, no doubt, he sometimes visited the Prioress of St. Monica’s, and talked with her of bygone days in the house in Wimbish that neither would ever see again.