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Reference group
Jesuit missionaries to England (act. 1579–1606) were members of an order that under the inspiration of a resurgent, post-Tridentine papacy worked for the preservation and possible restoration of Roman Catholicism after the Elizabethan religious settlement of 1559. The Society of Jesus had received papal approval in 1540, but until the late 1570s its contacts with England were minimal: William Good passed through England on his way to Ireland; Thomas King (c.1537–1565) returned secretly for reasons of health. Occasionally a secular priest, for instance Thomas Metham (1532–1592), or a layman, like Thomas Pounde, was admitted into the society during his imprisonment. Thomas Woodhouse, the first priest to be executed, had sought admission some time before his death, through the Jesuit principal in France. Yet despite its absence from the realm the Society of Jesus attracted English members. Thus Simon Belost (1507–c.1570) worked with exiles in what became the Spanish Netherlands, and acted as a conduit for Englishmen into Jesuit novitiates. John Rastell served at Jesuit colleges throughout Europe, while Thomas Stephens did so in India. As the number of its English members increased, so the demand for the society's involvement in their homeland grew.

Superior General Everard Mercurian (c.1515–1580) replied cautiously to the periodic requests made by William Allen (1532–1594), the founder of the English College at Douai, for Jesuit assistance, and promised only prayers. Mercurian feared that in the absence of a Catholic hierarchy there might be friction between Jesuits and secular clergy. Having received constant complaints from Good during his stay in Ireland, he also doubted whether English conditions permitted a proper style of religious life. And finally he feared that the English government, whether intentionally or not, would misinterpret a Jesuit mission as a political enterprise.

Encouraged by the decision of Pope Gregory XIII (r. 1572–85) that the Jesuits should assume the administration of the English College at Rome, and with the assistance of Robert Persons, Allen tried again in 1579, at a time when many Catholics believed that the proposed marriage of Queen Elizabeth to the duc d'Anjou would bring some form of religious toleration. That possibility may have been a factor in Mercurian's change of mind. As a result, in April 1580 Persons and Edmund Campion, then teaching in Prague, joined other clergy and laymen in travelling to England. Before their departure the two Jesuits met the pope. To their question about Pius V's excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570 Gregory replied that, conditions being as they were, Catholics were not obliged to obey it under pain of sin or excommunication. Perhaps as a precaution against clerical friction, Thomas Goldwell (d. 1585), formerly bishop of St Asaph, at first accompanied the travellers though eventually he decided against crossing to England.

Mercurian's instructions stressed the spiritual nature of the mission and exhorted Jesuits to live their religious lives as well as they could. If the Anglo-French marital negotiations were successful, the situation would be normalized. But their optimism ended before the party crossed the channel. News of a Spanish-papal military expedition to Ireland raised English fears and tightened security. Support for the Anjou marriage among the queen's councillors collapsed. Meanwhile Persons and Campion conducted a high-profile mission throughout the countryside, preaching on sensitive subjects to large congregations. Recusancy, they argued, was the only acceptable Catholic response to the government's demands for religious conformity, and attendance at protestant services showed involvement in heresy rather than political loyalty. The premature dissemination of Campion's so-called ‘brag’, an apologia of his mission in England intended for release after his capture, intensified the search for the Jesuits, whose protests that their mission was spiritual were dismissed as specious. What Catholics saw as reconciliation to the Roman church the government regarded as disloyalty, and issued severe legislation accordingly. Henceforth at least monthly attendance at an Anglican service was required of all recusants, and anyone reconciled to the Church of Rome became guilty of high treason, as did the reconciler. Penalties against both saying and attending mass were increased. Campion was captured in July 1581 and executed on 1 December following. Persons escaped to the continent.

Persons pleaded for reinforcements and expected Jasper Heywood and Christopher Perkins. The latter insisted that he be allowed to attend protestant services and was dismissed from the order, but his replacement, William Holt, arrived in England with Heywood in June 1581. Mingling easily with the nobles whom he knew from his time at court, Heywood approached the crown in a manner more conciliatory and less confrontational than did Persons, but the latter, with Allen, eventually considered him inappropriate for the mission and recalled him in December 1583. Meanwhile Holt was in Scotland, negotiating with James VI over the position of Catholics there.

The Throckmorton plot of 1583 was the first of a number of conspiracies, real, imagined, fabricated or manipulated, to alert English subjects to Catholic designs on their queen, causing them increasingly to perceive themselves as inhabiting a beleaguered island. In 1584 parliament passed an act to protect the queen, and immediately followed it with an act against the Jesuits and seminary priests, proclaiming as traitors all such who remained within the kingdom forty days after its enactment. Parliament asserted that not only did Jesuits deny the spiritual authority of the queen but also that they recognized the authority of a foreign prince engaged in conspiracies against her. This persistence in persecution raised doubts about the mission's future. More than once Persons and Allen had to calm the misgivings of Claudio Acquaviva (superior general since 1581) and convince him that men should be sent. Yet selecting qualified men was not an easy task. Persons judged some unsuitable, while others, like Henry Garnett, were considered too important for other works and thus not available. John Gibbons preferred to serve with his pen.

Campion and Persons had constructed a network of safe houses, often with residential chaplains, among the members and friends of the Vaux family of Harrowden. William Weston, arriving in September 1584, established a fund purse to support the Catholic clergy. Garnett, eventually conceded to the mission despite protests from the Roman College, arrived in England in July 1586 with Robert Southwell. The network expanded further with the arrival of more Jesuits. Weston was arrested in London in early August, and remained in prison until 1603, but Garnett succeeded him as superior. In London, Southwell revived the important mission of the written word. Unlike Persons, who had used his clandestine press to denounce occasional conformity and Campion's opponents in 1580–81, Southwell wrote spiritual treatises seeking to console and strengthen frightened believers. The frequent accusations in proclamations and laws notwithstanding, no Jesuit in England engaged in any conspiracy against the queen. In a wider context, however, intimations and rumours of Catholic intervention provided some basis for the crown's fears, and Persons played a significant role in the diplomacy surrounding the formation of leagues and coalitions aiming to overthrow Elizabeth. Yet the one implemented proposal, the Spanish Armada of 1588, failed, and shortly afterwards Persons left Rome for Spain, to make sure that Philip II did not forget England amid his dynastic involvements with France.

Throughout the 1590s more Jesuits arrived on the mission, men like Richard Holtby, John Bennett, and Edward Oldcorne. Secular priests, for instance Richard Blount and Richard Banks (c.1569–1643), who were allowed to make their noviceship in England, augmented their numbers. Some Jesuits, such as Southwell and Henry Walpole, were captured and executed, others, men like Weston and John Gerard, languished in prison until they were released, or, as in Gerard's case, escaped. Thomas Lister managed to remain at large, despite his claustrophobia and fear of priest holes. Despite a surprise raid at Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire, in 1591 that nearly netted all the Jesuits in England, they contrived to hold semi-annual meetings to discuss mission strategy, especially the perennial problem of conformity, and to live according to the society's style.

Allen (a cardinal since 1587) deftly supervised relations between Jesuits and secular clergy. But after his death in 1594 long-suppressed tensions erupted. Some clergy resented the role played by the Jesuits in the administration of the mission. The society controlled the English College at Rome and also the newer colleges at Seville, Valladolid, and St Omer. It had revealed its true intentions, the seculars claimed, when a few Jesuit prisoners at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, attempted to impose their own disciplines on the secular clergy imprisoned with them, under the immediate direction of Weston. Nor was this the only grievance. Some seculars protested against Jesuit involvement in international diplomacy initially directed towards the overthrow of Elizabeth and later towards the selection of a Catholic candidate to succeed her, seeing it as counter-productive. They wished to demonstrate their loyalty to the crown in everything except religion, and negotiated with the government for a degree of religious tolerance, at the expense of the continuance of the Jesuit mission.

Requests for a bishop to control the Jesuits were rejected at Rome, and instead George Blackwell (1547–1613) was appointed archpriest in 1598. A secret clause required him to consult the Jesuit superior before any major decision. The consequent ‘appellant controversy’, so-called because some secular clergy appealed to Rome regarding the appointment of an archpriest, lasted until 1602, when the offending clause was repudiated and the archpriest was no longer dependent on the Jesuit superior for advice. In 1598 Acquaviva had regulated relations between local rectors and provincials on the continent and the English Jesuits. Henceforth the latter were governed by a prefect (Persons, who had returned to Rome in 1597 as rector of the English College), assisted by vice-prefects in Belgium (Holt) and Spain (Joseph Creswell), and a superior for the Jesuits in England (Garnett). Revisions and modifications followed, but the fundamental structure remained.

Despite fears of a contested succession, in 1603 James VI ascended the English throne with remarkable ease, facilitated no doubt by the absence of a viable Catholic rival. To retain and strengthen his support among Catholics, he had dangled before them the prospect of his own conversion, and also that of tolerance. But James did not, indeed, could not, deliver on all his alleged promises, and discontent replaced hope as the looked-for relaxation of the penal laws did not materialize. The infamous Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, perhaps instigated and at least exploited by Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, was only the climax of a series of riots and disturbances. The Jesuits were quickly accused of being the masterminds of the plot, and their popular identification with treason and treachery fuelled a demand that they be expelled from the mission. Garnett, Oldcorne, and Ralph Ashley (d. 1606) were executed for complicity, while Nicholas Owen died under torture in the Tower. A royal proclamation of 10 June 1606 ordered the Jesuits out of the kingdom.

A consequence of the Gunpowder Plot was a new oath of allegiance that all Catholics must take if they were to live without persecution. Such an oath, an attempt to reconcile religious and political loyalty, had been mooted a few times in England after 1588, but discussions collapsed over a failure to agree on what was God's and what Caesar's. The 1606 oath, formulated with the assistance of the former Jesuit Christopher Perkins, who was now a government employee, required all Catholics to deny the pope's authority to depose monarchs. Even though this authority was not doctrinally defined and thus not essential to the Catholic profession of faith, many doubted whether a Catholic could categorically deny the teaching embodied in it. The debate within the Catholic community over the lawfulness of occasional conformity and church papism developed into one over the oath of allegiance. Yet despite these differences, by the date of Henry Garnett's execution on 3 May 1606 there were forty Jesuits in England and Wales. Vocations to the society flourished, with candidates being distributed among novitiates on the continent, or, for secular priests, in England itself. Despite legislation and proclamations, and also opposition from foreign Jesuits, the mission was stable and secure.

Thomas M. McCoog


H. Foley, ed., Records of the English province of the Society of Jesus, 7 vols. in 8 (1875–83) · T. M. McCoog, English and Welsh Jesuits, 1555–1650, 2 vols., Catholic RS, 74–5 (1994–5) · T. M. McCoog, The Society of Jesus in Ireland, Scotland, and England, 1541–1588 (1996) · T. M. McCoog, ed., The reckoned expense: Edmund Campion and the early English Jesuits (1996) · J. Bossy, The English Catholic community, 1570–1850 (1975)