~From "Elizabethan Eccentics" ~


by Arthur Freeman, 1978



  On Sunday, 26 October, 1623, the "young, celebrated, and proscribed Jesuit Scholar Robert Drury, was scheduled to speak to a select congregation of symapthizers in the afternoon." It was scheduled at the precinct of Blackfriars. A considerable crowd had converged there...up to three or four hundred Catholics, significant in that such gatherings had been long outlawed by anti-recusant legislation. It was to be held in the third story of a large gatehouse which was leased by French Ambassdor Leveneur de Tillieres, who as a foreign diplomat was allowed to maintain a Catholic chapel. De Tillieres lived on the ground flor, and leased the second floor apartment to William Whittingham, a Catholic priest. The third floor was the largest, in that the ends hung out beyond the lower floors, at forty by sixteen feet (the lower floors being 20 by 20 feet). A main beam, 10 inches square, ran under the floor from end to end.

Into this chamber were crowded some two or three hundred worshippers that afternoon. It was standing room only, and the overflow spilled into the second floor apartment below. Even before Father Drury arrived, one woman was said to have expressed concern that the floor seemed to be sagging from the weight; but she was ignored and the sermon was begun.

"At thirty six, Robert Drury stood at the zenith of an illustrious recusant career. Born in Essex the youngest son of an eminent law professor and judge [Sir William Drury of Tendering] , a death-bed convert, and a kinswoman of the poet-martyr Robert Southwell, [his mother was Mary Southwell], he had received an extended Catholic education at Doual and St. Omer in France, and the English College at Rome. As early as 1608 he had entered the Society of Jesus, and by 1620, as the rector of St. Omer's, had gained a fair reputation as preacher and controversialist. With his older brother William, a Latin playwright and schoolteacher, [William Bedford Drury, imprisoned for his Catholic faith but later released], he had served in the mission to England, been imprisoned, deported, and proscribed." He was described as "a Jesuit of excellent morals and ingratiating converse, wanting nothing saving the embracing of the truth to make him valuable in himself and acceptable to others". On the prior day, before the sermon, he was said to have been "wondrous sad and pensive, contrary unto his wonted humor and disposition...as though that some spirit of prediction had foretold him of that fatal disaster which was at hand."

Midway through his sermon, disaster struck. "'Most certain it is, and ever manifest by lamentable evidence, that when the said Jesuit had proceeded about half an hour in this his sermon, there befell that preacher and auditory the most unexpected and sudden calamity that hath been heard of to come from the hand not of man but God, in the midst of a sacred exersize of what kind of religion soever; the floor, whereon that assembly stood or sat, not sinking by degrees, but at one instant failing and falling, by the breaking assunder of a main sommier or dormer of that floor - which beam, together with the joists and plancher thereto adjoined, with the people thereon, rushed down with such violence that the weight and fall thereof brake in sunder another far stronger and thicker sommier of the chamber underneath; and so both the ruined floors, with the people overlapped and crushed under or beneath them, fell, without any time of stay, upon a lower third floor, being the floor of the said Lord Ambassador's withdrawing chamber, which was supported underneath with arch-work of stone (yet visible in the gate-house there) and so became the boundary or term of that confused and doleful heap of ruins....'

"What had happened is that the main beam of the garrett-floor had snapped where mortissed, and a section of the floor 20 x 20 ft. over Whittingham's chamber had fallen through, bearing its freight of humanity, which, combining impetus with the weight of those gathered below, crashed through the solider flooring to the stone-arch gateway - a total distance of 22 feet - while the floor of Whittingham's chamber, in turn, fell over the garrett floor....the walls and roof of the gatehouse remained standing, but but the shattered interior timbers served in the collapse to bury, transfix, and maim the victims, leaving 'a spectacle of men overwhelmed with breaches of mighty timber, buried in rubish, and smothered in dust.' "Here you might have seen a man shaking of his legs and striving for life, there you might have seen another putting forth his bloody hands and crying for help; here you might have seen one like some poor spectre thrusting out his head out of the grave, there you might have seen his fellow half dead and half living, entombed in that grave which he was not long to keep. Here you might have seen the living thus pressed as they were mourning for the dead, and there the dead senseless as they were embracing of the living....'

" Such was the noise of this dreadful and unexpected downfall thqt the whole city of London presently rang of it....Dr. Gouge was preaching in St. Anne's a short distance away when the noise of the fall and the shriek of the people so amazed his hearers that they ran out of the church and left him alone.'

In all, nearly a hundred died in the disaster, including Father Drury, Wittingham, and a host of respectable merchants, professionals, and servants. Some were trapped on the portion of the third floor which hung out beyond the lower floors, and they had no easy escape. A crowd of hostile Londoners stood below and taunted them, refusing to assist in any way. There was later a report that "a girl taken half dead from the ruins nearly fell victim to some fanatic Protestants when she was being carried through the city, and almost lost the little amount of life left in her." The Ambassador from Venice recorded that 'this accident provided the unhappy occasion for a general and bloody riot.' The Bishop of London presently delivered himself of an edict summarily forbidding any of the dead, Catholic or Protestant, grave-space in any of the City's consecrated ground, and so two pits were dug on the site of the accident...about sixty three of the roughly ninety five were buried there communally and their mourners set up two large wooden crosses over either pit. These were subsequently ordered removed, as a precaution against Potestant riots."

Coverage of the disaster later focused on the fact that it had been the largest gathering of Catholics in England in some fifty years, and was surely the work of God punishing them for clinging to their faith. Author Arthur Freeman devoted an entire chapter of his book, "Elizabethan Eccentrics - Brief Lives of English Misfits, Exploiters, Rogues, and Failures, 1580 - 1660" published in 1978, to the story of "John Gee and the Exploitation of Disaster". In an effort to clear himself with his Protestant church leaders for having attended the disastrous sermon by the Jesuit Robert Drury, he published a series of pamphlets which grew more and more distorted and aggressive in his attack on the people present at the sermon and the members of the church who continued to worship as they desired.



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