Brave prisoners throughout history made a great number of attempts to escape from the Tower of London. While many prisoners here enjoyed great luxury, they couldn’t simply walk out the door. It was down to them to use whatever came to hand if they wanted to bribe, smuggle or signal their ways out of the Tower.
One of the most cunning plans the Tower has seen has to be that of John Gerard, a Jesuit priest whose 1597 escape was not only high in risk, but also high in Vitamin C. Arrested in 1594 for practicing his religious beliefs, Gerard made light work of escaping from England’s grand state prison.
Hoping the priest would confess to treason and seal his own death, Gerard’s captors tortured him for hours on end suspended by the wrists. It wasn’t all pain and suffering: during his stay, Gerard also befriended John Arden, a Catholic prisoner who was accused of being involved in an anti-government plot. Arden was imprisoned in the prison’s Cradle Tower, while Gerard was kept in the Salt Tower. A garden stood between the two. Gerard soon realised that Arden’s Tower lay near the outer wall of the structure, which overlooked the moat. With help from someone outside, a rope could be lowered from that tower and stretched to the far side of the moat, which would allow a prisoner to escape. Gerard just needed to get in contact somehow with allies outside of the prison.
A plan was formulated. Gerard began by giving the warden a number of oranges he had been sent, as a bribe. In return, the warded allowed him to send crosses made from orange peels to his friends in the Clink. These letters were sent along with a message which had been written in charcoal, under the condition that the warden could read it first. Gerard wrote his charcoal messages, but secretly wrote a second letter on the same page, this time in orange juice. This message was invisible once the orange juice dried, but became visible again when the page was heated. The letters were wrapped around the orange peel crosses and smuggled out of the tower. They were delivered to John Lillie, a Catholic sympathiser, and Richard Fulwood, Gerard’s loyal old servant.
When the two men deciphered the letter, they set out to come up with a daring escape plan. Arden and Gerard were granted permission to spend an evening together on 3rd October. The moment the warden left them alone, they set out and loosened the bolt leading to the roof of the Cradle Tower. From here, they could see a boat approaching with three men aboard. Arden and Gerard almost escaped onto the boat, but its occupants were engaged in conversation by a resident who mistook them for fishermen, and they were forced to give up.
The following day, it was time to try again. Arden and Gerard climbed onto the roof again, this time managing to tie a rope to the roof and the boat below. The pair clambered down the rope, finally escaping from the Tower of London. Gerard travelled to mainland Europe, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died on 27 July 1637 in Rome, having almost reached 73 years of age. He had been imprisoned, threatened with execution and tortured brutally, but he finally found freedom thanks to his precious oranges.