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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

The Reformation and the Jesuits in England

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg – or so the story goes. Although this part of the story is likely to be myth, the year 1517 was to be a turning point in history. In that year Luther’s Theses, originally sent to the Archbishop of Mainz in protest of the sale of indulgences, were printed in several locations across Germany; in January 1518 they were translated from Latin to German, and within two weeks, copies had spread throughout Germany. Within two months, they had spread throughout Europe and it is thought that they arrived in England as early as 1519. This was the start of the Protestant Reformation. As the Christian world reflects on 500 years since its beginning, the Jesuits in Britain Archives explore the effect it was to have on English Jesuits.

The effects for the Society, and for Catholicism as a whole, were to be far reaching in England, and one could argue they only ended with the restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in 1850. But to go back to the 16th century, it is interesting to note that the Society of Jesus was founded, officially, in 1540, some 23 years after the start of the Reformation, as part of a movement known as the Counter-Reformation. The first identifiable group of English recruits for the Order we find in Elizabeth I’s reign and were mainly Marian exiles who joined in various different places in Europe and at different dates. These first English Jesuits were distributed among European universities: in Rome, Paris, Louvain, Antwerp, Tournai, Lyons etc., and for the first twenty years of Elizabeth’s reign, no English Jesuits returned to England. The second wave of volunteers applied to join the Society in the 1570s and were different to those first recruits in that most of them had been born after Henry VIII’s break with Rome and had entered universities after the Elizabethan Settlement, which re-established the Church of England's independence from Rome. Some of these recruits deeply resented the Elizabethan changes, and others had belonged to the Anglican Church. They fled to Dr William Allen’s seminary at Douai, keen to return to England as priests, and many of those who became Jesuits received their first training there, including Edmund Campion, who, with Robert Persons began the English Mission.

Campion (1540-1581), the son of a bookseller on Paternoster Row, received his early education at Christ's Hospital school and, at the age of 13, was chosen to make the complimentary speech when Queen Mary visited the city in August 1553. From 1557 he attended St John's College, Oxford, and in 1566 welcomed Queen Elizabeth to the university. He was selected to lead a public debate in front of the Queen, and by the time the Queen had left Oxford, Campion had earned the patronage of the powerful William Cecil and also Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Despite receiving Holy Orders in 1564 as a deacon in the Anglican Church, he fled to Douai in 1570 where he was reconciled to the Catholic Church. In 1571 he travelled alone and on foot to Rome to join the Society of Jesus.

Manuscript in brown ink. Slightly slanted and close together.
Letter from Robert Persons, Rome, to Edmund Campion, Prague, 28 November 1578 regarding the failure of Sir Thomas Stukeley’s expedition against the Moors

Robert Persons (1546-1610) was Fellow and Bursar of Balliol College, Oxford, however he clashed with the Master, Adam Squire. He knew Campion and was much affected by the story of his pilgrimage across Europe, but when he was forced to resign in 1575 he did not immediately think of the priesthood. After making the exercises under Fr William Good in Flanders, however, he knew he would enter into religion and travelled to Rome to enter the Society. In 1580 Campion accompanied Persons, who was now the Superior of the Mission to England, and so began the English Mission. Travelling separately, Campion finally entered England in the guise of a jewel merchant, arriving in London on 24 June 1580, and at once began to preach. His presence soon became known to the authorities and to his fellow Roman Catholics lying in London's prisons, and rumours were circulated by the Privy Council to the effect that Campion's mission was political and treasonous. He led a hunted life, administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, and Lancashire.

Open book to title page
Title page of Campion’s Decem Rationes, printed in Antwerp, 1631

During this time he wrote his Decem Rationes, or Ten Reasons, arguments against the validity of the Anglican Church. This pamphlet was printed in a clandestine press at Stonor Park, Henley, and 400 copies were found on the benches of St Mary's, Oxford, at the Commencement, on 27 June 1581. It caused great sensation, and the hunt for Campion was stepped up. On his way to Norfolk, he stopped at Lyford Grange, the house of Francis Yate, where he preached on 14 July and the following day, by popular request. Here, he was captured by a spy named George Eliot and taken to London. On 1 December 1581 Campion, Alexander Briant, another Jesuit, and a secular priest, Ralph Sherwin, were executed at Tyburn for Treason.

Persons landed at Dover on 16 June 1580 dressed as an army captain and spent much of his time in England pamphleteering, however he left for France soon after Campion’s capture, never to return. In 1592 he established the College of St Omer, a school for lay people and the predecessor of Stonyhurst College. In 1596, in Seville, he wrote Memorial for the Reformation of England, which gave in some detail a blueprint for the kind of society England was to become after its return to the faith and was later rewarded with the rectorship of the English College in Rome, where he died at the age of 63.

Book open showing title page The Jesuit's Memorial, for the intended Reformation of England, under their first Popish Prince published from the copy that was presented to the late King James II.
Person’s ‘Memorial for the Reformation of England’ was first published in 1690 by Edward Gee, as ‘Jesuits Memorial for the intended Reformation of England’

There’s no doubt that the Reformation must have been a time of considerable confusion and upheaval. St Edmund Campion was one of almost 300 men and women, priests and lay people, executed under treason legislation in the English Reformation, between 1534 and 1680, who have now been formally recognised as martyrs. If you would like to find out more or are interested in visiting the Jesuits in Britain Archives, please contact us.

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