Brendan McManus SJ reviews a recent book about the Jesuits in 16th and 17th century Britain, a book which goes a long way towards rebutting the pejorative fictions about Jesuit priests which have abounded for centuries.
The word “Jesuitical”, typically used in a pejorative sense, aptly applies to the vision of the Jesuits portrayed in Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents. Depending on which side you are viewing it from, the Jesuits come across as heroes or villains. Using contemporary documents, with extensive footnotes that render it somewhat dry and heavy, she manages to make religious history engaging. The book pieces together a violent game of cat-and-mouse between Jesuit priests and government spies, set in Elizabeth I’s England where the establishment of the Anglican Church fuelled a reactionary Catholicism at the end of the 16th century. Hogge presents the largely forgotten Catholic view of 16th century events that shaped England, and redeems the Jesuit image to a large extent from its pejorative labelling.
The book begins dramatically with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and with it Catholic hopes for England’s return to the faith. Subsequently two young English Jesuit priests are put ashore secretly on a beach in Norfolk. Their aim is to achieve through evangelisation and dialogue what the Armada had failed to do by force: to return England to the Catholic Church. Religious practice had political and civic consequences as Elizabeth sought to control church attendance and religious allegiance through the institution of strict laws and accordant punishments, including fines and death. The book takes us up to the succession of James I to the throne, with increasing persecution of Catholics during Elizabeth’s reign, leading up to the infamous Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament. Despite their commitment to dialogue and the use of peaceful means in evangelisation, the Jesuits were unfairly accused of having the plot to blow up the English parliament. The book ends with the Jesuit mission in ruins, not through their own actions, but through those of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators.
Hogge’s use of letters, court transcripts and other historical records is synthesised into a very dynamic storyline that is both accurate and engaging. It follows the Jesuits from their schooling on the Continent, through their perilous return journeys (many were English) and their lonely lives in hiding, to a gruesome death on the scaffold. The Jesuit mission in England was nothing but controversial and momentous: to their government they were traitors; to their fellow Catholics they were glorious martyrs. This drama of the radical division of views on the Jesuit mission, that makes the English of the time potential converts or assassins, makes for engrossing reading. Accordingly, the image of Jesuits portrayed is inspiring in their commitment to the cause, their willingness to risk their lives on it, and their ingenuity in avoiding capture.
Hogge gives very detailed accounts of these young English priests being smuggled into the country for the briefest of ministries, and the enormous pressure of the hunt for them by government agents and traitors. It has many aspects of a spy thriller: of double agents, informers, secret hiding places (“priest holes”), and the inevitability of capture, torture and hanging. Particularly, the accounts of those Jesuits facing death at the hands of their fellow Englishmen are detailed and very moving. The sufferings and subsequent deaths of such saints as Edmund Campion, Cuthbert Mayne, and the poet Robert Southwell rate alongside the death’s of any of the Church’s martyrs. Those who sheltered the priests, and also suffered the same harsh treatment, emerge as inspiring and totally committed to the cause. Among the latter is the noble St Margaret Clitherow, who sheltered many priests until she finally paid the price.
The portrayal of the Jesuits in England within the particular historical and cultural context is well outlined. The use of political tools such as oratory, philosophy, reasoning and printed literature, assumes a significant role in what was ultimately a war for souls. Hogge paints a credible picture of the Jesuits as scapegoats for Elizabeth’s Government to blame their troubles on. The Jesuit priests are painted as traitorous Englishmen who had been “indoctrinated” abroad into the Pope’s service, seen as a “Spanish” political and religious conspiracy, where they would fulfil the Armada’s goal of delivering England to Spain. Hogge’s book goes a long way to uncovering the truth of the period that is very different to what typically has been handed down in English history. The pejorative use of the term “Jesuitical” well captures the historical context of propaganda and manipulation, an injustice that needed to be undone