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Henry Garnet

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English martyr, b. 1553-4; d. 1606, son of Brian Garnet, master of Nottingham School, then noted for its Catholic tendencies. He was, however, presumably a conformist until his twentieth year, when he courageously broke with all ties, retired abroad, and became a Jesuit in Rome, 11 Sept., 1575. Here he enjoyed the company of Persons, Weston, Southwell, and many others, with whom in future he was to be so closely allied, and made a brilliant university course under the celebrated professors of those days — Bellarmine, Francisco Suárez, Clavius, etc. He subsequently taught for some time Hebrew and mathematics; a treatise on physics in his hand is still preserved at Stonyhurst, and he had the honor, whilst Clavius was sick, of fulfilling his chair. He was then summoned to England, where Father Weston was the only Jesuit out of prison, and he left Rome, 8 May, 1586, in company with Robert Southwell. Next year Weston himself was arrested, whereupon Garnet became superior and remained in office till his death.

As an indication of his prudent management it may be mentioned, that under his care the Jesuits in the English mission increased from one to forty, and that not a single letter of complaint, it is said, was sent to headquarters against him. Though he generally lived in London, the hotbed of persecution, neither he nor any of his subordinates, who often came to see him, were captured in his lodgings, though perilous adventures were numerous. He was a prolific correspondent, and his extant letters show him to have been in sympathetic touch with Catholics all over the country. He was also a generous distributor of alms, and sent to Rome relics and curiosities, among others the letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, now in the Vatican library. He wrote a "Treatise of Christian Renunciation", and he translated, or caused to be translated, Canisius's "Catechism", to which he added interesting appendixes on "Pilgrimages", "Indulgences", etc. These books, now extremely rare, were perhaps secretly printed under his care in London. "A Treatise of Equivocation", believed to have been composed by Garnet, was edited by D. Jardine in 1851.

In 1595 and 1598, Garnet became involved in unpleasant clerical troubles. Some thirty-three English Catholics, almost all of them priests, had been shut up in Wisbech Castle. Of this number, eighteen, besides two Jesuits, Father Weston and Brother Pounde, desired in the winter of 1594-5 to separate themselves from the rest and adopt a regular collegiate life. But it was impossible to do this without appearing at least to reflect unfavorably on those who did not care for the change. Furthermore, the number of the latter was considerable, and the prison was so small that any division of chambers and tables was out of the question. The minority certainly had a right to protest, but they did so in such a rough, unruly way, that they seemed to justify the separation, which was in fact carried out with Father Garnet's approval in February, 1595. An earnest attempt to settle the differences that ensued was made in October, and although it was not immediately successful, the division was given up in November, and a reconciliation effected so warm and hearty that, had it not been for a subsequent quarrel on a different matter, the "Wisbech Stirs" might have been chiefly remembered as a felix culpa. The letters to and from Garnet over the happy settlement do him the greatest credit (Dodd-Tierney, Church History of England, III, App. pp. civ-cxvii).

The subsequent trouble, with which Garnet was also concerned, was that of the "Appellant Priests" of 1598-1602. To understand it, one must remember that Elizabeth's government had rendered the presence of a bishop in England impossible. Cardinal Allen had governed the missionary priests, first from Douai, then from Rome, but after his death in 1594, a new form of government had to be essayed. As is usual in missionary countries, the first beginning was made with a sacerdotal hierarchy. Prefects for the mission were appointed from clergy in Belgium, in Spain, and in Europe, while those in England were put under an archpriest, and this arrangement lasted until the presence of a Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria, allowed of a bishop to be sent to England without seriously endangering the flock (see Bishop, William). But George Blackwell, the man selected for the post of archpriest, proved a failure, and had eventually to be deposed. On paper his qualifications seemed excellent; in practice his successes were few, his mistakes many. Difficulties arose with his clergy, over whose missionary faculties he exercised a somewhat brusque control. Hence anger, sharp letters on both sides, and two appeals to Rome. In the end, his authority was maintained and even strengthened, but his manner of government was reprehended. Part of the censure for this should perhaps fall on Garnet, with whom Blackwell sometimes took counsel. As to this a serious misunderstanding needs correction. It has been alleged that the archpriest received "secret orders to follow the advice of the superior of the Jesuits in the affairs of the clergy on all points of special importance. [The italicized words, which are erroneous or misleading, will be found in Dodd-Tierney, III, 51; Lingard (1883), VI, 640; or Tauton, "Black Monks", London (1901), I, 250.] One of the appellant clergy wrote in still stronger terms, which merit quotation as an example of the extremes to which controversy was sometimes carried. "All Catholics must hereafter depend upon Blackwell, and he upon Garnet, and Garnet upon Persons, and Persons upon the Devil, who is the author of all rebellions, treasons, murders, disobedience and all such designments as this wicked jesuit hath hitherto contrived" ("Sparing Discoverie" 70; Watson in Law's "Jesuits and Seculars" (London, 1869), p. lxv). All that Cardinal Cajetan's "Instruction" really said was "The archpriest will take care to learn the opinion and advice of the Jesuit superiors in matters of greater importance."

Considering the difficulty of finding advisers of any sort in that time of paralyzing persecution, the obvious meaning of the words is surely perfectly honorable, and becoming both to the cardinal and to the archpriest. After they had been objected to, however, they were withdrawn by a papal brief, which added that "the Jesuits themselves thought this was necessary" under the changed circumstances.

The conclusion of Garnet's life is closely connected to the Gunpowder Plot, under which heading will be found an account of his having heard from Catesby in general terms that trouble was intended, and from Father Greenway, with Catesby's consent, the full details of the Plot, with the understanding that, if the plot were otherwise discovered, he would be at liberty to disclose the whole truth. After the plot had been discovered, and Garnet had been arrested, he thought it best in his peculiar circumstances to confess the whole truth about his knowledge, and for this he was tried and executed at the west end of Old St. Paul's, 3 May, 1606.

Garnet is thus described in the proclamation issued for his arrest —

Henry Garnet, alias Walley, alias Darcy, alias Farmer, of a middling stature, full faced, fat of body, of complexion fair, his forehead high on each side, with a little thin hair coming down upon the middest of the fore part of this head; his hair and beard griseled. Of age between fifty and three score. His beard on his cheeks close cut, and his chin very thin and somewhat short. His gait upright, and comely for a feeble man.

The execution was watched so closely that very few relics of the martyrdom were secured by Catholics, but a head of straw stained with his blood fell into the hands of a young Catholic, John Wilkerson. Some months later he showed it to a Catholic gentleman who noticed that the blood had congealed upon one of the husks in the form of a minute face, resembling, as they thought, Garnet's own portrait. The matter was much talked of, and the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury personally conducted an examination of several witnesses, who had seen the strange phenomenon. Their evidence abundantly proves the reality of the lineaments which might be discerned in the husk. But to what extent the imagination of the onlookers (which were undoubtedly excited) contributed to the recognition of Garnet's features in particular, can hardly be decided now, for the straw, though carefully preserved by the English Jesuits at Liège, was lost during the troubles of the French revolution (L. Morris, "Life of Father John Gerard", London, 1881, 393-407).

As the Gunpowder Plot marked a new era of cruelty in the Protestant persecution of Catholics, so Protestant efforts to excuse their fault by blaming Garnet were at one time untiring, and even to the present day his case is discussed in an unfriendly spirit by non-Catholic writers (e.g. Jardine and Gardiner). On the other hand, the great Catholic theologians, who opposed King James in the matter of the Oath of Allegiance have spoken in Garnet's defense (especially Bellarmine "Apologia", XIII, xiii, 186, and Francisco Suárez, "Defensio Fidei Catholicæ". VI, ix, s. 6) — a matter of good omen, considering the theological intricacies that beset his case. It is a matter of regret that we have as yet nothing like an authoritative pronouncement from Rome on the subject of Garnet's martyrdom. His name was indeed proposed with that of the other English Martyrs and Confessors in 1874, and his cause was then based upon the testimonies of Bellarmine and the older Catholic writers, which was the correct plea for the proof of Fama Martyrii, then to be demonstrated (see Beautification and Canonization). But these ancient authorities are not acquainted with Garnet's actual confessions which were not known or published in their time. The consequence was that, as the discussion proceeded, their evidence was found to be inconclusive, and an open verdict was returned; thus his martyrdom was held to be neither proved nor disproved. This of course led to his cause being "put off" (dilatus) for further inquiry, which involves in Rome a delay of many years.


Gerard, Contributions to a Life of Fr. H. Garnet (London, 1898 — reprinted from The Month of that same year; see also June and July, 1901); Foley, Records (London, 1878), IV, 1-192. The formal contemporary defense was by a Cretan Jesuit, Eudoeman-Joannis, Apologia pro R. P. H. Garneto (1610), and much will be found in the Jesuit historians, Bartoli, More, etc.; Morris, Life of Father John Gerard (London, 1881). See also Gillow, Bibl. Dict. Eng. Cath., II, 392; Staton, Menology (London, 1892). See also literature under Gunpowder Plot.

About this page

APA citation. Pollen, J.H. (1909). Henry Garnet. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Pollen, John Hungerford. "Henry Garnet." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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