Painting of man with 3 boys standing on the shore. One of the boys is about to get into a boat. Three boys are already in another boat in the water. There is a larger ship in the background.

Thomas Garnet was sent to St Omers for a Catholic education

Thomas Garnet was one of the first dozen pupils to arrive at the newly founded English Jesuit College of St Omers in August 1593. He was born in Nottinghamshire around 1576 to Catholic parents who were anxious to provide their son with an education in their own faith. Aware that children were being removed from obstinate Catholic families by the authorities, they sent Thomas to be a pageboy in the household of the family of the Catholic Earl of Arundel in the hope that this would at least provide a faith-based environment for the young boy.

Sketch of a man with hands together in prayer, with a rope around his neck, looking up to an angel

Henry Garnet SJ

Thomas’s uncle, Henry Garnet, was the Jesuit Superior for England, and in 1593 he informed his brother that the Jesuits were opening a school in Saint Omer, near Calais, for English Catholic schoolboys. Thomas arrived in the first week of the new school term, aged 17. The college consisted initially of around a dozen boys but grew in size to nearly 50. When Thomas was 20 he decided to train as a priest and travelled to Valladolid to study theology. In 1599, after four years study, he left Spain for England and life as an underground missionary priest.

An engraving of a group of 8 men, talking, wearing 17th century clothing. There is text in Latin underneath

Engraving of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot

At first he worked as a secret chaplain for his schoolfriend from St Omers, Ambrose Rookwood, at Coldham in Suffolk. Rookwood was the last recruit to the Gunpowder Plot, joining the conspiracy late in the day, because his famous stable of fast horses was seen as necessary for the plotters to disseminate the news of the destruction of King and Parliament and rally support for the Catholic cause.

The failure of the plot led to the execution of Ambrose Rookwood and many of his acquaintances. Thomas Garnet was arrested and interrogated but was able to prove his innocence of the plot, and in 1606 he was banished from the kingdom, never to return on pain of death. He returned to France in low spirits and poor health feeling a failure.

He attended the Jesuit seminary at Louvain which had been funded by the remarkable Spanish noblewoman, Luisa de Carvajal, who lived in London. By September 1607 he had returned to England, intent on fulfilling his vocation as a missionary priest. He was arrested barely six weeks later. His trial at the Old Bailey was a sham, with his return after banishment counting heavily against him and he was condemned to death.

6 small relics placed on an oval of red cloth, with labels to identify them in Latin

Six relics of Thomas Garnet SJ including a fragment of the blood soaked shirt

Luisa de Carvajal cared for him while he was in prison and sent a trusted servant to his execution to collect relics. Many Catholics used diversionary tactics or bribery to obtain these prized mementoes of martyrs’ executions. Luisa’s servants were experienced in using both methods so as to obtain the relics she valued so much.

She wrote to a friend in Spain in March 1609 ‘ This strip of linen is from the shirt in which Fr Thomas Garnet suffered on 3rd July 1608…I held it in my hands and cut some strips from it including this one. He was my master and my friend.’

In this reliquary we can see a strip from the same piece of blood-soaked linen. Luisa used her exalted connections within the Spanish Embassy to smuggle numerous martyrs relics out of England, maybe including the other relics seen here - a fragment of Garnet’s brain, of his arm, a thread from his hat, some of his hair, his blood-soaked shirt and the rough linen in which his corpse was wrapped.

A man in black clothing with hands and eyes raised to an angel. He holds a palm leaf in his right hand. Gallows and the Tower of London are in the background. A figure on top of the tower places body parts on spikes

Thomas Garnet SJ

This portrait gives some idea of the reality of quartering. It was part of a series of martyr paintings made for the Jesuit seminary in Valladolid, where Garnet had studied, which explains the Spanish text at the bottom of the canvas.