This year 6 July marks the 400th anniversary of the date that the English Mission became a Vice-Province of the Society of Jesus. In this article we look at the early history of the mission up to that point.
The possibility of a Jesuit mission to England was first discussed in 1578. The then Father General, Everard Mercurian, was initially reluctant to embark on it, fearing that the Society was already overstretched. The English Jesuit Robert Persons and William Allen, founder of the English College at Douai, appealed to Mercurian, arguing that many lay Catholics in England desired Jesuit and that the mission would provide an important opportunity to fight heresies. The General and his consultors recognised the importance of the mission, but they wondered whether they could knowingly send men into danger. Eventually the mission was accepted and, once Pope Gregory XIII had given his approval, Robert Persons was named the mission’s superior. On the basis that England would remain a permanent mission, rather than being attached to another province, Persons assumed the powers of a provincial. He retained the overall direction of the mission until he fled to France in 1581 shortly after his mission companion, Edmund Campion, was captured, never to return.
Throughout the 1590s Jesuit involvement in England increased, with a steady flow of missioners arriving in England, and seminaries governed by English Jesuits being founded on the continent such as St Omers in 1593, the first seminary to be owned and administered by the English Jesuits.
By 1616, despite being able to support and maintain its institutions to the applause of English Catholics and without inconvenience to other provinces, it looked as though the mission, now being run as a prefecture, might be dismantled thanks to a decree submitted to the general congregation by Spain. They wanted to increase the authority of provincials, and questioned whether men belonging to one mission dispersed throughout many provinces should have their own superior, and indeed should they be exempt from the assistants, provincials and rectors who had jurisdiction over the areas in which they resided. To resolve this problem, General Mutio Vitelleschi raised the English mission to a vice-province in July 1619 so that England would no longer be bound by the decree on missions. On 6 July 1619, Richard Blount was appointed as Vice-Provincial.
Richard Blount (1565-1638) was born in Leicestershire and converted to Catholicism while studying at Oxford. He arrived at the English College at Douai (then removed to Rheims) in July 1583, and entered the English College at Rome in April 1584. He was ordained Priest in April 1589 and the following September left the College to Spain with Robert Persons before successfully landing in England with other priests. There he entered the Society in 1592 or 96 (sources disagree) and made his Noviceship on the mission, taking his final vows in 1608/9. In 1617 he was appointed Superior of the English Mission. Under his government, members of the Society increased so that by 1619 there were nearly 200 members compared to 19 in 1598. Over a hundred of these were working in England.
In his article ‘The Establishment of the English Province of the Society of Jesus’ (Recusant History, Vol. 17, No. 2), Thomas McCoog SJ explains that members were organised into provinces, vice-provinces, and missions, with the fundamental, constitutional unit of the Society being the province. The prerequisites for provincial, vice-provincial, or missionary status have not been enumerated, but he believes that the requirements included: adequate finances and income, a steady supply of priest, facilities for the education and formation, and ultimately stability and self-sufficiency. “A given area progressed from mission to vice-province to province as it was able to demonstrate its stability.” Two years after becoming a vice-province, Blount petitioned for full provincial status. Initially Vitelleschi denied the request, finally granting it in 1622, with Richard Blount as Provincial.
If you are interested in the history of the British Province or the work of the
Jesuits in Britain Archives in general, please contact us. Further material relating to the British Province can be found at the Jesuit Archives in Rome (ARSI).