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"The Rack Seldom Stood Idle…"

“The Rack Seldom Stood Idle…”

By Nancy Bilyeau

Published Online (2012)

In 1588, more than halfway into the reign of Elizabeth I, a man named John Gerard, English by birth, returned to his homeland, setting foot on the coast at Norfolk. He was arrested six years later, in a London house he had rented. The government officials did not believe Gerard’s story that he was a gentleman fond of gambling and hunting. And they were right to do so. Gerard was actually a Jesuit priest, educated in Douai and Rome, and leading a covert and highly dangerous life in Protestant England.

Father Gerard was conveyed to the Tower, accused of trying “to lure people from the obedience of the Queen to the obedience of the Pope.” His interrogators demanded to know who had assisted him in England. He refused to name names.

In a book Father Gerard wrote years later, he reports being one day “taken for a second examination to the house of a magistrate called Young. Along with him was another… an old man, grown grey.” Young began the questioning—what Catholics did Father Gerard know? “I answered that I neither could not nor would make disclosures that would get any one into trouble, for reasons already stated,” says the Jesuit.

Young turned to his silent colleague and said, “I told you how you would find him.” The older men looked at Father Gerard “frowningly” and finally spoke. “Do you know me?” he asked “I am Topcliffe, of whom I doubt not you have often heard.”

Sir Richard Topcliffe then led the interrogation, and Father Gerard was tortured by use of manacles for more than six hours. A friar said, ‘Twice he has been hung up by the hands with great cruelty…the examiners say he is exceedingly obstinate.”

Topcliffe, a lawyer and Member of Parliament, began serving the queen in the 1570s and seems to have reported to Sir Francis Walsingham. He hated Catholics with great intensity and boasted of having a chamber in his home containing devices “superior” to the ones in the Tower. The government allowed him to make official use of this home chamber. When a prisoner must be “put to the pain,” it was time to send for Topcliffe. His favorite methods: the rack and the manacles.

Of all the mysteries of Elizabeth I, few are as baffling as the humane queen’s favor toward the inhuman Sir Richard Topcliffe, chief torturer of the realm. An undoubted sadist, he was the dark blot on her golden age.

When researching an earlier blog post on “Little Ease” in the Tower of London, I came across the 1933 book The History of Torture in England, by L.A. Parry. The 16th century was when torture reached its height in England. “Under Henry VIII it was frequently employed; it was only used in a small number of cases in the reigns of Edward VI and Mary. It was while Elizabeth sat on the throne that it was made use of more than in any other period of history.” Parry quotes the historian Hallam: “The rack seldom stood idle in the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign.”

More recent historical works confirm this grim record. Prisoners were tortured and some were later executed. Anne Somerset in Elizabeth I said, “one-hundred and eighty-three Catholics were executed during Elizabeth’s reign; one-hundred and twenty-three of them were priests.” Elizabeth Jenkins, author of Elizabeth the Great, shudders over the “unspeakable Richard Topcliffe” and says, “The whole process of hunting down priests and examining them under torture was quite outside the domain of the law courts.”

How could the erudite Elizabeth who said she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls” officiate over these horrors? Two people seem to have triggered this change in the queen. One was Pope Pius V who excommunicated the queen in 1570, branding her as a “servant of crime.” This act encouraged her subjects to rise up.

The other was the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, a focus of possible rebellion the entire time she was held in the kingdom after she was driven out of her own land. Elizabeth’s secretary, Walsingham, became her spymaster. The indefatigable Puritan was convinced that the Jesuits and other priests who secretly practiced in England were part of an international conspiracy to destabilize the realm and eventually depose the queen. Many of the interrogated priests, such as Father Gerard, insisted they were loyal to the queen, that they led secret lives because Mass was illegal. But some unquestionably were drawn into dangerous conspiracy against Elizabeth, such as the Babington Plot, which sought to replace Elizabeth with Mary.

In fact, the embattled queen, no doubt frightened as well as enraged, ordered that the guilty Babington conspirators be executed in ways so horrible it would never be forgotten. And so the first ones were. But the crowd of spectators, presumably hardened to such sights, were sickened by the hellish castratings and disembowelings. When the queen heard of this, she ordered the next round of traitors be hanged until they were dead.

Elizabeth realized she had gone too far. It’s regrettable that she did not realize that more often.

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thriller set in Tudor England, The Crown.

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