A Story of Catholic Valour

When Jesuits Were Hunted in England

3. The rack T of L
The infamous ‘rack’ upon which Catholic prisoners were tortured in the Tower of London.

 by Suzanne Duque-Salvo

From the point of view of England’s Crown (Queen Elizabeth I), the Jesuits were a thorn in England’s side; they created obstacles to Protestant uniformity by ministering to the spiritual needs of English Catholics and fueled zeal to defy acquiescence to the Church of England.

To the Protestant, “‘Jesuit’…meant conspiracy…Their founder was Spanish and they were sworn to another allegiance than the Queen’s…The Jesuits were the vanguard of Spanish invasion; their business was to murder the Queen and Council…The news that disguised Jesuits were now at large in the English countryside caused indignation and alarm.”  This took place against a background where  humanism sanctioned a shift in focus from a theocentric to an anthropocentric view of the world, and intellectual skepticism normalized a historical-critical reading of the Bible.

At the same time, the Society of Jesuits was establishing its ministry as educators and soldiers for Catholic orthodoxy. This Jesuit engagement with the world marked the period when the myth of the ‘evil Jesuit’ began. This article looks at the effects of Jesuit involvement in the preservation of Catholicism in England during the first century of the Anglican Church.

It is important to note that the English Catholics from Oxford who went to Douai and Rheims were the same men who returned as Jesuit missionaries in the English Mission. With the exodus to the continent of Catholic Oxford Chairs and Fellows who refused to take the Oath of Submission, Douai in the Spanish Netherlands and Rheims in France caught England’s most valuable cultural resource: the erudite Catholic.

The ‘Oxfordizing’ of the universities in Douai and Rheims

One could certainly say that without the ‘Oxfordizing’ of the universities in Douai and Rheims, there might not have been higher education for England’s Catholic youth and the Jesuits might not have stepped in to administer seminaries to accommodate the rise in priestly vocations among English Catholic men — not to mention a spike in English scholarly priests choosing to be Jesuits.  Without Douay and Rheims, there might not have been a regrouping of English Catholics. These English exiles prayed together and worked to implement various daring strategies to abort the total protestantizing of England’s religious heritage and to counter the zealous and violent erasure of everything Catholic from England.

A.O. Meyer described these priests as “worthy representatives of the spunk of the English national character.”  They had to adapt to a strange way of life; in public, the priest wore a disguise; in hiding spaces he was priest. His life was spent “laid low in the attic room which contained a bed, a table and an altar, and was told to walk along the beams so that the floor would not creak and to be careful about opening windows and showing lights; he was not allowed to go about the house, might only slip out after dark, and must not come back until the servants were at supper or in bed. In an otherwise bustling household he might spend weeks or months alone, seeing only those who came to mass, the maid who brought his dinner, and with luck after meals one of the children, or their mother looking in to apologise for not having been able to pay him a visit sooner.”

Life in a Priest’s Hole: “he lay low in the attic room which contained a bed, a table and an altar, and was told to walk along the beams so that the floor would not creak and to be careful about opening windows and showing lights.”

Jesuits: ‘Men of New Light’

Naturally, men who worked under such conditions were perceived as major threats. An elite corps formed under military standards who vowed obedience to the Pope, these former Oxford Catholics had a vested interest in preventing the total eclipsing of England’s Catholic heritage. Jesuits were an entirely different breed of priests from the type English Catholics were used to: “men of new light equipped in every continental art, armed against every frailty, bringing a new kind of intellect, new knowledge, new holiness.”

Even before the first Jesuit missionaries were sent to England, secular priests from Douai were already being deployed. They were ordered not to engage in disputation but to simply focus on the pastoral care of English Catholics. Their movements were limited to covert activity, under the radar to avoid apprehension and execution.  Regulations for Jesuits were different in that they were expected to be “responsible for adjustments”  and to adapt to time, persons and places. This suggests that the Jesuits were expected to execute pastoral agility. As first hand witnesses to the plight of English Catholics, it would have been so against the grain to expect a Jesuit disciplined by Ignatian spirituality and experienced in Oxfordian confrontational discourse to remain passive and quiet.

Not Just ‘A March to the Gallows’

One Oxford refugee with influential friends in the Continent, Fr. Robert Parsons SJ, felt that the English mission need not just be a march to the gallows by a ‘growing martyr cult.’  Parsons believed it was his sacred duty to be a missionary in a situation that had “taken on the importance and urgency of a holy war.”   According to his memoirs and letters, Parsons planned to accomplish several missions akin to a spy thriller. Besides establishing connections with the Recusants, they solidified and systematized the underground network by securing a network of gentry-owned country houses — including rented ones in London — to serve as safe houses for priests.

In these houses, Jesuit Brother Nicholas Owen built priest holes in case these houses were searched.  And for a sense of community among the missionaries, the Jesuits established semi-annual meetings for all mission operatives, secular priests included, to pray and hold “discussions to prevent concessions to secular life from eroding religious fervor and identity.”  To disseminate rebuttals to Protestant propaganda, a clandestine printing press was set up. Moreover, the Jesuits laid down an ecclesiastical structure to enable fielding priests, including secular ones, to specific locations. There was a network of communications to enable contact with church authorities in Rome. And of course, they instituted a way of transferring funds out of the country.

Queen Elizabeth made Catholicism illegal in England, punishable as ‘high treason’ by torture and death.

The Witness of Edmund Campion

But then there was Edmund Campion. He was serving as a missionary in Poland when he was recalled to be part of the English Mission.  For one thing, it meant certain execution, for simply being priests. The anticipation of martyrdom transformed men so that “they came with gaiety among a people where hope was dead. The past only held regret and the future, apprehension; they brought with them, besides their priestly dignity and the ancient and indestructible creed, an entirely new spirit of which Campion is the type; the chivalry of Lepanto and the poetry of La Mancha, light, tender, generous and ardent.”

Sensing it was only a matter of time that he would be apprehended and executed, Campion decided to take advantage of the print media to say what should not be left unsaid. Campion wrote two final documents; the first was his letter to the Privy Council informing them who he was and that his mission in England was strictly for religious rather than political reasons.  His final piece, Decem Rationes or Ten Reasons why the Roman Catholic Church is the True Church, was written in the recognizably Campion rhetorical style that would have been familiar to upper reaches of English society. Campion had once been referred to by the Queen’s top adviser as the ‘diamond of England.’ What could have been more irksome than the diamond of England defecting to the Catholic side, and becoming a Jesuit priest?

Henry Walpole watched the execution of Edmund Campion and was inadvertently sprinkled with his blood, prompting him to abandon his law practice, leave England and convert at Rheims. He, too, became a Jesuit priest and martyr.

Edmund Campion was hung, drawn and quartered, but the truth of the English Mission did not die with him. Several other English Jesuit martyrs who became saints, including  Alexander Briant, a pupil of Campion’s in Oxford; Henry Walpole, who while watching the execution of Campion was sprinkled with his blood, prompting him to abandon his law practice, leave England and convert at Rheims; and Henry Morse, another convert at Douai, to name only a few.

The Valour That Does Not Die, Nor Tarnish, With the Ages

Such valour does not die, or tarnish with the ages. I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was when a Google research on the keywords ‘English Mission’ retrieved an entry from the America’s Central Intelligence Agency. “Clandestine methods of the Jesuits in Elizabethan England as illustrated in an operative’s own classic account” is based on the Latin text of Fr. Gerard SJ where he described “the 18 years’ undercover duty in England.” The CIA entry opined that while “Gerard’s book is not in any modern sense a tradecraft manual, it is possible to derive from it a confident sense of how he and his Superior made expert use of the standard paraphernalia of covert action– cover, aliases, safe houses, secret printing presses, invisible ink.”

America’s Central Intelligence Agency is interested in “Clandestine methods of the Jesuits in Elizabethan England as illustrated in an operative’s own classic account.”

The community of Catholics in Douay and Rheims were hopeful that the protestantizing of England was only temporary. All England needed was a Catholic monarch and Catholicism would be restored.  But what they hoped never came to be.

The Anglican Church stabilized, a female monarch showed the world what she could do with power, and the will of the secular aristocracy held strong.  By the time of Elizabeth’s death, successor James I was no longer Catholic enough to effect any major changes. But the small group of faithful English Catholics was able to preserve traditional Catholic rituals and a mode of spirituality to enable English Catholics to thrive at the margin of English culture, even down to today.

The Anglican Church stabilized, a female monarch showed the world what she could do with power, and the will of the secular aristocracy held strong.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Suzanne Duque-Salvo is a Filipina-American Roman Catholic with a MA (Harvard Divinity School), a BA in Religion and a BA in Psychology (Wellesley College).  She is Director/Founder of a non-profit organization now establishing a homestead for recovery and healing. In 2012, her book (and eBook) A Battered Woman Went to Harvard was published.  Duque-Salvo has five adult children and four grandchildren. She is a member of the American Academy of Religion.

1  Waugh, Evelyn. Edmund Campion. (San Francisco: Oxford Press, 2005), 128-129.
2  Carrafiello, Michael L. “English Catholicism and the Jesuit Mission of 1580-81.” The Historical Journal, 37:4 (1994), 762.
3  Bossy, John. The English Catholic Community 1570-1850, (New York: Oxford Press, 1976), 255.
4  Waugh, p.130.
5  Coupeau SJ, J. Carlos. “Five Personae of Ignatius of Loyola.”  Worcester, Thomas, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits,   (New York: Cambridge Press, 2008), 45.
6  Carrafiello, p. 762.
7  Ibid, p. 768.
8  McCoog, SJ, Thomas. “The Society of Jesus in Three Kingdoms.” Worcester, Thomas Ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits, (New York: Cambridge, 2008), 90.
9  Ibid, p.91-92.
10  Waugh, 114.

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