The Early English Jesuit Mission: Lingering Doubts

A public lecture to mark the 400th Anniversary of the Foundation of the British Province of the Society of Jesus will be delivered by Professor Gerard Kilroy, and will include a panel discussion and refreshments.

A special aura surrounds the arrival of the first Jesuit missionaries to England. From the moment of landing in June 1580 till the capture of Edmund Campion in July 1581, their clandestine preaching and sacramental ministry involved disguise, constant danger, narrow escapes: enough to create a legend. Campion was always in the first rank of candidates for canonisation, even if negative publicity attached itself to Robert Persons. Evelyn Waugh’s life of Campion captured the chivalric glamour of Campion by largely ignoring any doubts he had and minimising the role of Persons.

Recent scholarship has tried to attach political aims to the mission itself. John Bossy even accused Campion of reckless disregard for his own safety, praised the prudence of Persons. Michael Carrafiello accused Catholic historians of ignoring the mission’s ‘political intent’, thereby giving some justification to the response of the Privy Council. Peter Lake and Michael Questier gave the Edmund Campion affair a central place in English history but argued that the mission was not political but ‘structured by certain political and polemical objectives’.

This talk aims to restore Campion’s own doubts about papal policy to the account, his ‘lingering’ (as the Bohemian Jesuit historians described it), and to give full weight to the disastrous effect of the Irish expedition of Dr Nicholas Sander which completely undermined the claims of the missionaries that they had no political objectives. It will argue that Campion, far from being naive, understood from the first the confused religious and political situation in England, was further outraged by the secrecy with which the mission to Ireland had been shrouded (as his interview with Dr Allen makes clear), but threw himself into his sacramental mission with all the freedom of a condemned man.

If anyone is to be blamed for the “failure” (in human terms) of the 1580 mission, it must be the man who planned it, Dr William Allen, without telling either the missionaries or Everard Mercurian, the superior General, that Sander had already landed in Dingle. Yet, in the end, both Nicholas Sander and Edmund Campion were carrying through their profound beliefs about the nature of the church and its relationship to the state; until recently, the view of Allen and Sander, was considered orthodox, even if the tide has now turned in favour of Campion’s position.

The lecture will be followed by an ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving in Christ Church Cathedral at 11.30am. All welcome.