Sixteenth-century Europe underwent some of the most dramatic religious reforms of any time in the history of the world. England underwent a dramatic transformation from a staunchly Catholic “defender of the faith” of the pre-Henrician period to a monarchical-run Protestant nation of Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth. It was during this period of revolutionary religious reform that the Society of Jesus was born. More commonly known as the Jesuits, the Society originally had no role in the rapid religious changes of England. The Jesuits were formed by Saint Ignatius Loyola in 1534, to “counteract the two revolutions taking place at once: the Protestant Reformation and the rising secularism that began [with the notion] of the ‘divine right of kings.”1 Ironically, one of the goals of the Society was the reform of the Church, a common theme of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation.2 Ignatius visited England only once during his lifetime, while he was working on his Master’s degree at Paris University, to beg for alms from traveling merchants.3 Summing up his visit, Ignatius declared that “he crossed over to England and there received more alms than in all the former years,” indicating the wordiness and idolatry of religion in England.4 With few direct dealings with England over the rest of his life, Ignatius and the Jesuits focused their attention on the religious reform movements in the rest of Europe.
When Queen Mary ascended to the throne in the 1550s, she undertook a policy of Catholic resurgence, desiring to return England to the religious tradition she knew growing up as a young girl.5 With many Henrician exiles re-entering England during her reign, and the free exercise of Catholicism allowed, most English saw or heard very little about the Jesuits during her reign.6 With English Catholics very content with religious policy at home, they knew surprisingly little about the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement that had been sweeping across Europe at this time.7 If any Englishmen were recruited by the Society of Jesus during Mary’s reign, only Thomas Lithe, a nineteen-year-old cockney, and Brother William Lambert accepted the calling.8 It was only with the ascendancy of Elizabeth to the throne, her reaffirmation of Protestantism, and her suppression of Catholicism, that Catholic loyalists became acquainted with the Society of Jesus.
Origins of the Jesuit Mission to England
The death of Mary Tudor in 1558 led again to another dramatic change in state religious policy in England. Though Elizabeth was not totally opposed to Catholicism, and actually conformed to Marian religious policy, she was adament that all Engligh conform to the Protestantism she devised between 1558 and 1563. Those Catholics who were allowed to flourish under Queen Mary, such as academics and religious leaders, were forced into exile under Queen Elizabeth. When the Marian Catholics were forced into exile, many of then encountered the Society of Jesus for the first time. Most of the exiled English Catholics who became Jesuits were former university professors and students, who advanced merely academic concerns over Elizabethan religious policy and direction.9 As a movement, the Jesuits appealed to these Catholic exiles because they seemed “modern,” not stuck in rigid tradition or ceremony.10
In England, shortly after her coronation, Elizabeth began to refine her religious policy. By proclaiming herself to be “the only supreme governor of this realm, as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes as temporal, ” Elizabeth was not taking the same religious paths her father and half-brother took.11 Though repealing much of Mary’s Catholic legislation and reinstating The Book of Common Prayer as the book of common worship, Elizabeth’s religious policy can be summed up as “the subordination of the spiritual to the temporal order, and nothing more.”12 At first, Elizabeth changed religious policy with caution, initially allowing Catholic clergy to flee the country of their own free will, and allowing those Catholics who disagreed with the official state religious policy to keep their property, but severing all official ties with the Rome and the Church with the Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy of 1559.13 England also saw the return of the Marian Protestant exiles, and became a haven for oppressed Protestants all over Europe. 14 Elizabeth initially had a strong protector in Phillip II, which led potential adversaries to leave Elizabeth alone, securing her position at home and internationally early in her reign.15
When the Catholics fled England in the late 1550s and early 1560s, many of them fled to Rome, Flanders, and other locations in the Southern and Western Europe.16 Many exiled Catholics only desired to make a living now that they had been dispossessed of their homeland, and hired themselves out, serving as priests and teachers all over Catholic Europe. With no real organization at this point, many English Catholics began to coalesce around a revolutionary new college formed by Dr. William Allen at Douai in 1568.17 At Dr. Allen’s college, many future Jesuits received their early priestly training and enthusiasm for Catholicism, unheard of before this time. In his students, Dr. Allen fostered “a spirit of devotion rarely equaled before or since his day.”18
The two figures most responsible for leading and establishing the Jesuit invasion of England of 1580 were Robert Persons and Edmund Campion. Both men were former academics at Oxford University, who reluctantly decided to take the Elizabethan oaths of loyalty in 1560, and eventually converted to Catholicism.19 A brilliant student of the natural sciences, Persons left Oxford under clouds of wrongdoing and a guilty conscience, and underwent tremendous inner turmoil when deciding what course to take after leaving Oxford.20 Though lacking spiritual training, Persons decided to join the Society of Jesus in 1575.21 Also suffering through tremendous inner turmoil over which religious direction to follow, Campion left a brilliant career at Oxford at age thirty, based on his “scruples of conscience,” and later became a member of the Society of Jesus.22 It was said of Campion that “no other of the missionaries working in England had the power of calling forth enthusiastic admiration and commanding unselfish devotion to the same extent as [he].”23
By the 1570s, the Society of Jesus had attracted several members, and was becoming a formidable education and conversion force for the Catholic Church. It was at this time that many Jesuit and Catholic leaders were clamoring for the Jesuits to undertake a substantial mission to England, with the effect of dislodging Queen Elizabeth. Dr. William Allen and many of his colleagues viewed Queen Elizabeth and her governing party as “usurpers,” and were urging military action against England, with the approval of the Pope, and the backing of the Spanish military.24 Elizabeth I had been excommunicated by Pope Pious I in 1570, and many Catholic and Jesuit leaders viewed this action as a step in the right direction toward bringing England into compliance with Catholicism. In contrast with accounts of a fundamental religious shift toward Protestantism on the part of the English people in the 1550s, Dr. Allen and others felt that the English people were “sentimentally Catholic,” but unable to help themselves.25 It was in this spirit that Dr. Allen opened his religious college, as an institution to train the Jesuit priests to perform battle against the Elizabethan realm.26
With the entry of missionary priests in England in 1574, Jesuit leaders and even Roman officials began to clamor for an official mission to reconcile with England. Intense pressure from scholars and Jesuits led to Pope Gregory XIII to allow the Jesuits to take over and run the English seminary and college at Rome, in 1579.27 Dr. William Allen began to personally train the Jesuits at the seminary, even taking it upon himself to lobby for the participation of these Jesuits in a mission to England.28 The Jesuit General, Everard Mercurian, however, argued forcefully against Allen’s intense lobbying. Mercurian argued that the English government would view the incoming Jesuits as “political agents,” leading to their being unable to perform their priestly work.29 On a practical basis, Mercurian questioned the wisdom behind sending a large number of Jesuit and Catholic individuals, with such diverse backgrounds, without the guiding influence of an established bishop.30 Allen’s arguments proved very effective, and in 1580, Persons and Campion, along with lay priest Ralph Emerson, were sent on a religious mission to England.31 The Jesuit invasion of England was about to begin.
Persons and Campion Invade England, 1580 – 1582
Despite enthusiastic support, the Jesuit “invasion” of England got off to a less than austere start. Jesuit leaders hoped that the reputation of Campion, which was very austere at this time, would attract many followers, and shift public opinion.32 Campion arrived in Rome to receive his orders at a very late date, physically drained, and subject to poor organization and little consultation with Jesuit leaders.33 Though Mercurian’s wishes were ignored with regard to the wisdom of such a mission to England, he did have his way on the scope and the conduct of the Jesuit mission: “men were to be on their guard . . . wholly spiritual . . . [and they were to] confirm the Catholics in their faith, absolve the lapsed, not to battle with the heretics . . . [and to] avoid all controversy and politics.”34 Roman officials even dictated the manner of dress and the daily activities each of the invading Jesuits was to undertake in England. Upon their entry in England, both Persons and Campion took enormous measures to conceal their identities and perform their work from behind the scenes, even donning elaborate disguises.
The English government viewed the English mission of Campion and Persons with great hostility and fear. Their entry into England was highly publicized among members of Parliament and government officials, based on both their stature as former English academics, and their general curiosity with the religious doctrine and activities of this unfamiliar movement in England.35 However, several influential Catholics in England helped Persons and Campion to establish a lasting Jesuit mission in England. One man, later named by Persons as the “founder of the Jesuit mission in England” was George Gilbert, a wealthy young Puritan convert, who helped to both finance, and provide for the security and well-being of the Jesuits in England.36 Shortly after their arrival in England, both Persons and Campion explained their mission and their positions to a group of influential Catholics, at the home of Lord Norris in Smithfield, gaining many new converts to their mission.37 In their first year of the mission, both Persons and Campion traveled extensively around the country, hoping to find converts to their mission, and find support amongst the Catholic lay people. Persons used the printed word very effectively, establishing an underground printing press, and printing six works, including the famous Decem Rationes, supporting the Jesuit mission and Catholicism in England.38
During this first year of the Jesuit mission to England, tremendous amounts of rumors were circulated in both government and religious circles about an organized Catholic invasion of England, directed at the discretion of the Pope. Added to the general hysteria in Parliament over two men having landed in England, conditions were ripe for a series of anti-Catholic and anti-Jesuit measures. In July 1580 and January 1581, Queen Elizabeth issued several proclamations declaring her “duty to keep her people free of the bondage of Rome.”39 Jesuits were finally acknowledged in a session of Parliament in 1581, when a member referred to them as “a sort of hypocrites . . . [and] a rabble of vagrant friars newly sprung up [who] corrupt the realm with false doctrines, but also, under that pretense, stir up sedition.”40 Acts were passed by Parliament sharply increasing the penalties against Catholics, providing for obedience to the rule of Elizabeth, and labeling those who practiced Catholicism as guilty of treason.
The tremendous public interest aroused by Campion and Persons travels in England, and the desire by the English government and Elizabeth to suppress Catholicism and impose conformity, led to the capture of Edmund Campion in late 1581. Persons and Campion had been leading their movement for about a year and a half at this time, though quarrelling on the direction of the movement: Campion had wanted to include “men skilled in preaching,” while Persons wanted to include “learned men, able to deal with cases of conscience.”41 Campion’s capture, conviction, and execution made him the first Jesuit martyr in England, an event hailed as “a watershed mark in the history of Elizabethan Catholicism.”42 Though he was not charged with any of the new anti-Catholic laws passed in late 1580 and early 1581, his capture was essentially a “set-up,” and he was charged under the Treasons Act of 1531 for “conspiracy to murder the Queen.”43 Some in Rome had begun to organize an elaborate asassination plot and coup against Queen Elizabeth. Those implicated in the plot, including Campion, could not have logistically been involved in its execution.44 With the false charges against him, and Elizabeth’s desire to persecute Jesuit leaders, Campion was sent to the Tower of London. His death was hailed around the Catholic world as an outrage, and would prove to be a very influential point in English Catholic history.
With the execution of Campion, Robert Persons was left to assume control of the Jesuit mission in England. Conditions being very harsh, Persons decided to flee England into exile, to coordinate with other Roman leaders on the continued offensive in England, and a new offensive in Scotland.45 Persons would live a rather strange existence over the next twenty years, living in Spain, helping to further the many Jesuit educational institutions being established, and coordinating the work of the Society of Jesus, eventually causing much turmoil in his position.46 He would eventually become one of the most trusted advisors of Dr. William Allen, and even participate in the planning of the Spanish Armada campaign of 1588.47
Later Jesuit Mission 1583 – 1603
The early mission of Persons and Campion was really a foundational period for the exciting and tumultuous events English Jesuits would involve themselves in during the 1580s and 1590s. English Jesuits and their leadership were involved, to some extent, in the several plots to overthrow the Elizabethan government of the late 1580s and early 1590s. The persecution of the Jesuits sharply increased with the onslaught of the Armada in 1588. Though the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots was the heir to the English throne based on Elizabeth’s lack of child bearing, the Jesuits and Persons worked closely with Phillip II of Spain, and his desire to gain the English throne.48 Persons and Allen were to advise Jesuits to urge their English Catholics to rise up against Elizabethan rule, in tandem with Spain’s Armada campaign.49 The campaign was to be a coordinated effort, so as not to turn English Catholics against the Jesuits, and their involvement with a foreign power.50 The rampant support of the Spanish in the teachings of the Jesuits led to their being vilified by Elizabethan government, and later internal divisions amongst the local Catholics.51 Following the defeat of the Philip and the Spanish Armada, English Catholics, including a secular priest named Wright, openly defended and rationalized both their opposition to Elizabethan religious policy, and their defending their country against Spanish invaders.52 Jesuits also desired much more power and influence in both the Church and in English affairs, as demonstrated by their strong role in the Counter-Reformation of the 1590s.53
Though only small number of Jesuits were actually on the ground in England during the rule of Elizabeth I, the leadership of Jesuit superior Henry Garnet, and the network he created with the hundreds of secular priests in England, allowed those small numbers of Jesuits in England to become a very effective force.54 The reputation of the Jesuits as wise and especially pious individuals may have been another important factor in their successful attempts to organize the English secular priests.55 The larger number of Jesuits in England, and the larger organizations allowed for several Jesuit conferences by the 1590s, at which there would be “a spiritual retreat and the renewal of vows.”56 With their success at organizing conferences and meetings, the Elizabethan government began a series of sharp raids on these meetings, attempting to seize a number of Jesuit leaders all in one place and time. However, dramatic escapes were orchestrated, with Catholic lay people providing haven for the sought Jesuits.57
Undermining the successes of the organized English Jesuit movement were tremendous internal conflicts. Much of the conflict occurred between the local lay and secular priests and the outside Jesuit missionaries. The secular priests were often jealous of the educational background and the respect given the Jesuits, accusing them of “concentrating on the wealthy” and recruiting young men to join the Jesuit mission, not the secular clergy.58 The position of the Jesuit mission in favor of Spain also increased the animosity of the secular clergy toward the Jesuits.59 Students at the English College in Rome, who had become bitterly anti-Jesuit and anti-Spanish, rebelled in the late 1590s when Persons was appointed rector.60 At Wisbech Castle, a confinement for prominent English Catholics, strong conflicts erupted over the strict regiment the exiled were to live, and whether the influence of the Jesuit mission would be implemented.61 The death of many of the important early Jesuit leaders during the mid-1590s also led to tremendous turmoil between the Jesuits and the secular clergy. Allen’s death in 1596, and the inner turmoil amongst the different Catholic clergy led to a serious consideration of removing the Jesuits from control of the Catholic colleges.62
The Jesuit mission to England during the Elizabethan age constituted a very important part of the religious development of the period. Though the Jesuits were small in numbers, strong and often dynamic leadership, a commitment to restoring Church supremacy, and an overall period of religious chaos in England led to nationwide influence for the Jesuits. The lasting impact of the Jesuit mission, though, is rather small. Though William Allen and other Roman leaders had hoped to rally the support of the English people to their cause, the lack of priests on the ground preaching Catholic doctrine to the masses, and the extraordinary measures taken by the Elizabethan government to suppress the Catholic tide led to the limitation of the movement. There simply were not enough active Catholics in England to keep the movement going, and the risks of becoming an open Catholic in Elizabethan England were far too great. The Jesuits also went too far in some of their objectives of the late 1580s and early 1590s. Their embrace of the Spanish, and their tacit support of the Armada and armed intervention against Elizabeth led to further oppression of English Catholics, and ensured the ire of the English toward the Jesuits and the Catholics. The superior attitude taken by Persons and others toward the secular priests led to internal divisions and jealousy that further diminished the prospects for a resurgent Catholicism in England. Had the English Catholics, both secular and Jesuit, united in their Counter-Reformation in England, it is questionable whether even a united front would have produced a different result. Given the religious turmoil begun with the Henrician Reformation, perhaps Catholicism was doomed to be relegated to minority status in England from the start of the Reformation.
1. Francis Edwards, S.J., The Jesuits In England: From 1580 to the Present Day. (Great Britain, Burns and Oates, 1985) 13.
2. Ibid, 13.
3. Bernard Basset, SJ, The English Jesuits: From Campion to Martindale. (New York, Herder & Herder, 1968) 13.
4. Ibid, 13.
5. Ibid, 13.
6. Ibid, 14.
7. Ibid, 14.
8. Ibid, 14.
9. Arnold Pritchard, Catholic Loyalism in Elizabethan England. (Chapel Hill, U of North Carolina Press, 1979) 73. 10. Basset, S.J., 15.
11. Arnold O. Meyer, England & the Catholic Church Under Queen Elizabeth. (NY, Barnes & Noble, 1967) 22, 24.
12. Ibid, 24.
13. Ibid, 31; Edwards. 17.
14. Ibid, 31.
15. Ibid, 45.
16. Basset, S.J., 19.
17. Ibid, 18.
18. Ibid, 18-19.
19. Ibid, 20-22.
20. Ibid, 20-22
21. Ibid, 20-22.
22. Meyer, 192.
23. Ibid, 193.
24. Basset, S.J., 27.
25. Ibid, 28.
26. Ibid, 28.
27. Edwards, S.J., 73.
28. Ibid, 73-4.
29. Basset, S.J., 34.
30. Ibid, 34.
31. Edwards, S.J., 74.
32. Basset, S.J., 36-7.
33. Ibid, 37.
34. Ibid, 40.
35. Adrian Morey, The Catholic Subjects of Elizabeth I (Totowa, NJ, Rowman and Littlefield, 1978) 63.
36. Ibid, 63.
37. Ibid, 63-4; Basset, S.J., 46-7.
38. Ibid, 63.
39. Ibid, 64-5.
40. Ibid, 64.
41. Basset, S.J., 49.
42. Morey, 192.
43. Ibid, 193-4.
44. Ibid, 193-4.
45. Basset, S.J., 55-7.
46. Morey, 122.
46. Basset, S.J., 55-79; Pritchard, 74-5.
47. Pritchard, 178-9.
48. Morey, 122.
49. Ibid, 122-3.
50. Ibid, 122-3.
51. Pritchard, 178-81.
52. Morey, 124.
53. Ibid, 75.
54. Ibid, 75.
55. Morey, 194.
56. Ibid, 195-7.
57. Morey, 200.
58. Meyer, 395.
59. Ibid, 395-7.
60. Ibid, 401-3; Morey, 202.
61. Pritchard, 113.
62. Ibid, 113.
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Anonymous. “Reformation.” Cambridge Encyclopedia, 1994.
Anonymous. “Society of Jesus.” Cambridge Encyclopedia, 1994.
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Clarke, Rev. W. Norris. “Society of Jesus.” Encarta, 1994.
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Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Law, Thomas Graves. A Historical Sketch of the Conflicts Between Jesuits and Seculars in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. London: David Nutt Publishing, 1889.
Law, Thomas Graves. The Archpriest Controversy, Vols. 1 and 2 London: The Camden Society, 1896 – 98.
Meyer, Arnold Oskar. England and the Catholic Church Under Queen Elizabeth. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1967.
Morey, Adrian. The Catholic Subjects of Elizabeth I. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.
O’Malley, John W. “Counter Reformation.” Encarta, 1994.
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Pritchard, Arnold. Catholic Loyalism in Elizabethan England. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. 13
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