Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Henry Garnett 

European School 17th Century

Portrait of Henry Garnett, European School
Oil on copper
17th Century
5 x 4 in., 13 x 10 cm.
Henry Garnett was the leading Jesuit in England during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. He is best known for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, for which he was executed in 1606. This portrait of him is based on his only known likeness, and is probably taken from the engraving by Johan Wierix. Painted on a small copper panel, it would have formed part of a series of Jesuit or martyr portraits, its size making it easy to carry and conceal.

Originally from Derbyshire, Garnett left England in 1575, and spent much of his youth in Rome, where he was ordained in 1582. After some years serving as the English confessor in St Peter’s Garnett returned to England secretly in 1586, with a mission to bolster the tiny Jesuit society, most of whom were then in prison. On his arrival at Folkestone, he immediately entered the secretive underground of Catholic England; priest holes, secret presses, and the constant fear of arrest. Garnett’s patrons were leading Catholic aristocrats, such as William, Lord Vaux, and Anne, Countess of Arundel.

It was while on his clandestine mission to hear confessions that Garnett encountered Oswald Tesimond, who, under the seal of confession, told him of the imminent Gunpowder Plot. Tesimond had learned of the Plot from Robert Catesby. In vain, Garnett tried to dissuade the plotters, and conveyed the strict orders of senior Catholics such as the chief Jesuit Acquaviva that any violent action against James I would be counter-productive.

Garnett heard of the Plot’s discovery on 6th November, and immediately went into hiding. A warrant was issued for his arrest, along with a detailed description of his likeness; “of a middling stature, full Faced, Fatter of body, of Complexion faire… comely for a Fatte man.” He was discovered at Hindlip Hall on 27th January, and immediately sent to the Tower of London, where he was tortured and charged with being the instigator of the Plot. Garnett’s defence has long remained controversial amongst Catholics, for in claiming the defence of equivocation he further undermined the position of Catholics in England. Even Shakespeare cited his defence as a malicious masking of treason in Macbeth, casting Garnett as the porter welcoming visitors to the gates of Inverness Castle; “Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to Heaven.”

Garnett was hung, drawn and quartered on 3rd May 1606 in St Paul’s churchyard in London. This portrait of him alludes to the miracle of the straw, after the supposed appearance of his face on an ear of corn covered with his blood from the scaffold.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.