Pat Reid’s ‘My Favourite Escape Stories’

Colditz

This was one of my favourite books when I was a child. I have vivid memories of Charles I’s attempted escape from Carisbrooke Castle, Oliver Philpot’s ‘Trojan Horse’ escape from Stalag Luft III and Pierre Mairesse Lebrun’s vaulting of the fence at Colditz. However, I had completely forgotten the first chapter, which is an extract from Fr John Gerard’s autobiographical account of his escape from the Tower of London. And what an escape it was too.

Fr John Gerard realised that if he could get to a fellow prisoner’s cell in the outer wall of the Tower, he might be able to say Mass there. The man’s wife was allowed to bring him fresh laundry in a basket which was no longer searched because he had been imprisoned for ten years. But how to attract the man’s attention? Fr Gerard was imprisoned in a cell in an inner wall and, although the two men could take exercise on the roofs of their cells, guards ensured that there could be no conversation between them.

Resorting to a 16th century version of charades, the priest mimed writing a letter with orange juice (i.e. invisible ink), which the layman was to read by placing the letter by the fire. He then bribed his guard to take the letter and a crucifix to his fellow prisoner.

Everything seemed to be going to plan. The other man waved his thanks and was clearly grateful for the crucifix. But didn’t write back, so Fr John Gerard acted out his plan more elaborately. This time the plan worked and the layman wrote back, explaining that he had burnt the first letter, thinking that that was what the priest had asked him to do!

After a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing, Fr John Gerard managed to say Mass in the other man’s cell and, while he was there, it occurred to him that escape might be possible: “it struck me how close this tower was to the moat encircling the outer fortifications, and I thought it might be possible for a man to lower himself with a rope from the roof of the tower on to the wall beyond the moat.”

The plan was hatched but the execution of that plan was another matter altogether. What will happen next? Well, you’ll have to tune in to tomorrow’s exciting episode because I’m out of time right now. But do come back – it’s a story worth reading.

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