Sir Thomas Gerrard (1584-1630)

History Today, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Sir Thomas Gerrard (1584-1630)


Among the oddities of history--and Parliament--are those who were elected as MPs, but for one reason or another never took their seats. Sir Thomas Gerrard was one of these, a victim of an increasingly hostile atmosphere towards Catholicism in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot.

Sir Thomas Gerrard of the Bryn, near Wigan, was the heir of an old, Catholic family that was typical of many of the Lancashire gentry in the early seventeenth century. His election for Liverpool caused a scandal in the Parliament of 1624, when he refused to swear the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, or take communion, as all new Members were required to do before formally entering the House. Roman Catholics had officially been excluded from Parliament since the introduction of the oath of supremacy in 1563. This had been reinforced by the addition of the oath of allegiance in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot; Members' communion was introduced as a formal requirement in 1614, 'to keep the Trojan horse out of the House'.

By 1624 there were particularly strong reasons for the loyalty of English Catholics to be subjected to intense scrutiny, and zero tolerance extended towards suspected insurgents. Anti-Catholic sentiments had been aroused by the Duke of Buckingham and Prince Charles's pursuit of the unpopular Spanish match, and there was increasing pressure, in large part religiously motivated, for England to enter the war in Europe in defence of the Protestant Rhineland Palatinate. It was a time when the threat of international terrorism felt no less real and immediate than it does today.

Gerrard's forebears were no strangers to religious controversy; his grandfather had been arrested for conspiring to help Mary, Queen of Scots to the English throne, and his uncle was the notorious Jesuit exile, Fr. John Gerrard, who said mass for the Gunpowder Plotters. We have no record of Gerrard's motives for standing for election, but the most likely reason is that he was deeply in debt, and knew that Parliamentary privilege automatically protected Members from arrest by their creditors for the duration of the session. He travelled to Westminster in February 1624, and seems to have got cold feet about taking the oaths only after he arrived. He had never sat in Parliament before, and had presumably underestimated the importance that would be attached to these entry requirements amid an atmosphere of heightened anti-popish hostility.

His absence was noticed on March 4th, and he was formally summoned to swear before the House. Gerrard at first pleaded ill health, but when the Serjeant at Arms was sent to find him, he changed his lodgings and went into hiding. …

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