The Drowned City, the first in KJ Maitland’s Daniel Pursglove series of historical crime novels, is set in Bristol in 1606 – a year after the Gunpowder Plot – where a Jesuit conspirator is said to be hiding. KJ Maitland tells Historia how religious conflict caused an increase in people-smuggling in Tudor and Jacobean England.
Smuggling people across the English Channel has been a lucrative business ever since the 14th century, when citizens had to obtain a licence to travel abroad. But during the reigns of Elizabeth and James people-smuggling became a huge headache for the authorities trying to prevent Catholic missionaries and foreign spies coming into England, and fugitives from escaping.
Priests ordained during Mary’s reign, were spared persecution by Elizabeth provided that they renounced the priesthood. But after 1559, a Catholic could only be ordained by travelling to Europe, and from the moment he returned to England, he was deemed a traitor and could expect to be arrested and even executed, after he had been ‘persuaded’ to reveal the identities of those who had smuggled him in.
Early in Elizabeth’s reign, many people turned a blind eye to the Catholic activities of their neighbours, but that changed after the Spanish Armada in 1588. Catholic priests were now seen as the ‘enemy within’ aiding the foreign invaders.
“They do come in by secret creeks and landing places, disguised, both in their names and persons,” Elizabeth announced in 1591. And if another foreign invasion was to be prevented, every Englishman should stand ready to protect his “family, lands, liberties and posterity” against “ravening strangers” and “monstrous traitors.” All citizens, including innkeepers, were to question strangers about where they’d spent the past year and if they weren’t satisfied with the answer, were to hand them over to officials.
Watchers were set on the southern ports and beaches. Informers abroad sent coded messages about who was coming, but even with descriptions and woodcut portraits being circulated, the priests evaded capture through the network of safe houses and sympathisers.
Between 1574 and 1580, two colleges set up in Douai and Rome to train missionary priests had managed to smuggle around 100 priests into England, using forged documents, and disguised as merchants, discharged soldiers, returning prisoners-of-war and ransomed galley-slaves.
When James VI came to the throne as James I of England, he strengthened the Elizabethan laws concerning travel, imposing fines for anyone sending a child abroad for a Catholic education. Anyone travelling abroad for the same purpose would forfeit all their possessions, and anyone smuggling them across the channel would be imprisoned and lose all they owned.
When he was 14, John Gerard had been granted a licence to travel to France to learn French, but instead studied theology. He returned home to settle his affairs, but knew he’d never get another licence to travel. He managed to board a ship with other Catholics. But a storm forced them into Dover, where they were arrested and imprisoned in the Marshalsea. Released on bail, he escaped to France, becoming ordained as a Jesuit in Rome. Then in the company of Edward Oldcorne and two other priests, he headed for England to begin his missionary work.
In October 1589, the priests’ boat anchored off the Norfolk coast, where there were fewer watchers than on the south coast. The four were put ashore under cover of darkness. Oldcorne joined some sailors and reached a safe house in London. Gerard was making for Norwich. He knew that a traveller entering a city on foot might be arrested for vagrancy and so he bought a pony. But two miles down the road, he ran into a group of watchers, who challenged him.
Using a ploy he’d been taught, he claimed to be a servant searching for his master’s missing hawk, and was released. For the next few years, Gerard worked as a priest moving from house to house until his arrest. He made a daring escape from the Tower of London, sliding along a rope stretched from the tower to boat waiting in the Thames.
But when Oldcorne was executed for his alleged conspiracy in the Gunpowder Plot, Gerard realised he had to get out of England. Arrangements were made to smuggle him out in the entourage of the Spanish Ambassador, the Marquis of St Germain, but senior officials changed their minds, claiming it was too dangerous. At the last minute, the ambassador himself rushed Gerard into one of his servant’s livery and he walked aboard.
Oswald Tesimond (Father Greenway), also accused of the gunpowder conspiracy, had a less dignified crossing. He was arrested in London when he stopped to read a description of himself on a ‘wanted’ poster. He escaped, fled to Suffolk and crossed to France with a cargo of dead pigs; not pleasant in rough seas, but better than being hanged, drawn and quartered.
It wasn’t only Catholics who attempted to smuggle themselves out of England. In 1604, 90 nonconformist clergymen who refused to acknowledge of the authority of the Prayer Book were excommunicated, including Richard Clifton. He continued to preach to his congregation in the house of William Brewster in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire.
By 1607, facing ever increasing threats, Brewster and 30 members of the Scrooby congregation tried to flee the country to join other nonconformists in the Netherlands. They arranged for a Dutch ship to meet them at Scotia Creek, Fishtoft, Lincolnshire, but the captain betrayed them. The ship was boarded and they were arrested. They were stripped of money and possessions, and imprisoned in Boston. After a month, most of the congregation were released on bail, but having already sold their homes they were forced to live on charity.
Sympathisers then funded a second attempt. Women and children travelled by boat from Scrooby down the Trent to the Humber. The men travelled overland. They were to reunite at Killingholme Creek, where a Dutch ship would be waiting. The women arrived early, taking shelter in a creek, and found themselves stranded on mudflats by the ebbing tide. A boat from the ship collected some of the men waiting on the banks, but before it could return for the rest “a great company, both horse and foot, with bills and guns and other weapons,” charged towards them.
The Dutch captain immediately set sail with the few men already onboard. The rest of the men managed to escape. The women and children were arrested, but the authorities finally released them. They did eventually reach the Netherlands. And in 1620, some of the Scrooby congregation set sail for the Americas on a ship that was become famous on both sides of the Atlantic – the Mayflower.
KJ Maitland has previously written eight medieval thrillers under the name of Karen Maitland, and also writes as one of the Medieval Murderers.
Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA: via Wikimedia
The Spanish Armada: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport via Flickr
The Marshalsea Prison, 1773: via Wikimedia
Gunpowder Plot conspirators hanged, drawn and quartered by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder: via Wikimedia
Memorial to an early failed attempt by the Scrooby Congregation to sail in 1607: Shieladixon via Wikimedia