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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

The Jesuits and Wisbech Castle

Portrait of Fr William Weston SJ

In 1478 Bishop Morton of Ely (later Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England) began the building of a castle in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, to replace the ageing motte-and-bailey structure built by William I in 1072. His successor, Bishop Alcock, extended and completed the re-building and subsequent bishops also spent considerable sums on this new palace. By late Tudor times, however, the castle had become a notorious prison used to hold Catholics. This year, the 5th of June marks the 400th anniversary of the release of Fr Ralph Bickley and eleven other Jesuits from that prison. This blog post explores the intriguing events of the prison’s history, in particular the ‘Wisbech Stirs’.

From 1580, the decaying Wisbech Castle was used to detain Catholic clergy who had been arrested under penal laws. Its first inhabitants were Thomas Watson, Bishop of Lincoln, and other survivors of the Marian clergy, and as they died off, more Seminary priests were sent to fill their places. At first their treatment was severe with a policy of solitary confinement except at mealtimes when they were closely supervised by the keeper. Over the course of 1593, the harsh conditions were relaxed as a result of a decision by the Privy Council to remodel the prison. A new keeper was also appointed at about that time. Soon the prisoners were allowed to converse freely with each other, the keeper no longer supervised meals, and they were even permitted visitors who could bring them money and other forms of sustenance. At the time, this was an unusual amount of toleration, and Catholics would travel to visit the prison which was in effect openly and exclusively a Catholic house where they could receive the sacraments.

Unfortunately, with their new-found freedom, quarrels and disorder soon broke out between the prisoners This is perhaps not surprising considering the circumstances of their imprisonment: indefinite incarceration and, after the death of Bishop Watson in 1584, with no one to claim any real authority over the men. The consequences of the latter revealed themselves in 1588 with the arrivals, first, of Fr William Weston SJ, and then the secular priest, Dr Christopher Bagshaw. Weston had come to England in 1584 as Superior of the English Mission, in which post he remained until sometime after his arrest in 1586. During his imprisonment in London he had had great influence among both the free and his fellow prisoners, and it was to him that many turned for direction at Wisbech. Bagshaw had been sent to the English College in Rome after his ordination in1583, where he became the centre of student disturbances and was expelled in 1585. He was then sent to Riems but, due to the suspicious circumstances surrounding his obtaining of a doctorate at Padua, he was not allowed to stay and so was sent on the English Mission. He was captured upon landing in May 1585 and transferred to Wisbech. Various prisoners attached themselves to this troublemaker and, by the end of 1594, the maintenance of order had become impossible. In response, Weston decided to keep to his room and cease taking meals with the rest of the prisoners stating that he was unwilling to participate in any common life unless rules were drawn up to regulate it. When Bagshaw and his faction failed to take any action, 18 secular priests approached Weston with the intention of drawing up their own rules, hoping that the rest would eventually join them. This began the series of events known as the Wisbech Stirs.

Bagshaw and his followers retaliated by excluding the men from the common hall and use of other public rooms in the castle, forcing them to use one of their own rooms as a kitchen and Weston’s as a dining room. Once their rules were drawn up, the secular priests unanimously chose Weston to be their administrator, and when he refused wrote to Henry Garnet SJ, who had succeeded Weston as Superior of the Jesuits in England. Garnet agreed that Weston could oversee the new rules, however he allowed only a moral leadership and had no powers of command or decision as a superior.

Petition of the eighteen priests at Wisbech to Henry Garnet, 7 February 1594 (Anglia II 2)

A series of letters held at the Archives, in a volume known as Anglia II, concern almost solely the events at Wisbech between the years 1595 and 1600, and help unravel the assertions later made by Bagshaw that the formation of the confraternity had caused the separation, and that Weston had acquired an absolute authority in just another example of Jesuit ambition to domineer over the secular clergy.

Various attempts were made to mediate between the opposing factions: firstly, the priest Alban Dolman, and then another priest, Dr John Bavant, though neither were able to make much progress. Bavant even had to be escorted out of the prison to escape the violent behaviour of Bagshaw’s followers. After several months, at Garnet’s request, a further attempt was made by two secular priests, John Mush and Richard Dudley. Their efforts lasted between September and early November and brought about a measure of peace, with all prisoners signing a new schedule of rules.

Letter from John Mush and Richard Dudley to Henry Garnet SJ, 8 November 1595 (Anglia II 7)

We having now endid all these contentions, & united all the companye againe, that resteth that we all be thankefull to our common lord by whose mercy and grace … the mortal enemy is overcome and driven away, & a perfecte reconciliation is maid.

The prison was relatively peaceful after this until late 1596 or early 1597, when the anti-Jesuit Robert Fisher arrived from the English College in Rome. He established contact with Bagshaw and spent many months travelling across England, meeting with and providing a means of communication between Bagshaw’s followers in prison and outside, so that by the time he returned to Flanders the following summer the anti-Jesuit group in England had achieved a certain level of cohesion.

In Wisbech, factions reappeared, but this time Bagshaw and his followers were in the minority, and it was they that kept out of the common areas this time. The Stirs foreshadowed two generations of conflict, including the Archpriest Controversy, which likewise set part of the Catholic secular clergy against some of the Jesuit missioners in England. In fact, there was a long period, from 1587 well into the 17th century, when this division among Catholic priests in England was prominent.

Ralph Bickley, who appears as a signatory on the petition to Henry Garnet, was a secular priest who had been arrested and transferred to Wisbech sometime after 1588. While a prisoner, Garnet wrote to Robert Parsons SJ in Rome to ask if Bickley could be admitted to the Society, which he was, around 1594. In 1603 he was sent into exile with William Weston and others, yet returned to England and was re-arrested. In June 1618, he was released with eleven other Jesuits at the insistence of the Spanish Ambassador, Count Gondomar, and they were all taken to Europe as exiles. Bickley died soon after, at St Omer’s College. After his exile in 1603, Weston was appointed Rector of St Alban’s College, Valladolid, where he died in 1615.

Other prisoners interned at Wisbech were leading Roman Catholics at the time of the Spanish Armada, and Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham, who would become principal conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.

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