- The Jesuits and the Monarchy: Catholic Reform and Political Authority in France (1590-1615)
Originally an Oxford D.Phil. thesis supervised by Jonathan Powis, this book examines a critical chapter in the story of the Society of Jesus in early modern France. Excoriated by Gallicans as regicidal foreigners loyal not to France but to Spain and to the papacy, Jesuits were accused of complicity in Jean Chastel's attempt to assassinate Henry IV on 27 December 1594. Chastel's actions gave Jesuit opponents just what they needed to achieve their goal of expelling the hated Society. Expelled from most of France by the parlement of Paris and by several other parlements, the Jesuits returned when the king granted them clemency.
Nelson's main focus is the context and consequences of the Edict of Rouen of 1 September 1603, the royal edict by which Henry readmitted the Jesuits. This is as much a book about royal will as law as it is a book about a religious order. The author does an excellent job of showing how the king used his decision to readmit [End Page 883] the Jesuits as a way of demonstrating that his will and his will alone would decide this kind of question. The king extended his personal grace to those he chose. This was a message intended both for the Jesuits themselves as well as for their enemies. Clemency was a traditional attribute of French kings, and its exercise allowed monarchs to show mercy as they also showed that they stood above the letter of the law and could suspend or change it as they wished. In the 1590s Henry had already extended clemency to former members of the Catholic League, and to others who had opposed his accession to the throne.
The Jesuits got the message from Henry, accepted it, and prospered for a century-and-a-half under Henry and his successors. Nelson uses very effectively the Jesuit church of Saint-Louis, in the Marais district of Paris, as an example and symbol of Jesuit collaboration with the monarchy. Royal patronage of this church went hand-in-hand with Jesuit loyalty to the king and with enthusiastic Jesuit panegyrics of French monarchs, from Saint Louis (Louis IX) to his seventeenth-century descendants. Henry IV not only permitted the Jesuits to return, but he supported their work and helped them to grow in numbers far beyond what they had been in France before their expulsion.
In a chapter on "Expansion" Nelson clearly explains how royal favor made possible the rapid spread of Jesuit activity in France. Henry IV himself was the patron of La Flèche, a new foundation that soon became a "flagship Jesuit college far larger than any other Jesuit institution in France" (99). Henry also left instructions for his heart, and that of Queen Marie de Medici, to be interred in the college chapel. In Paris and elsewhere, Henry frequently attended Jesuit sermons, and he chose the Jesuit preacher Pierre Coton as his confessor. Such royal patronage helped to make the Society of Jesus acceptable, and, indeed, increasingly fashionable, to French elites.
Though Jean Chastel failed in his attempt to kill the king, François Ravaillac succeeded in assassinating Henry IV on 14 May 1610. Would the Jesuits be blamed yet again? As in 1594, there were Jesuit opponents ready to use such an event as a way of achieving their goal of expelling the Society of Jesus from France. This time, however, the Jesuits withstood attempts to use them as scapegoats for regicide. Jesuit writers published a stream of treatises affirming their horror at the regicide and their unqualified support of the French monarchy. As Louis XIII was only nine in 1610, the Queen Mother became regent. Her decision to appoint Père Coton as confessor for the young monarch was one of the ways in which she signaled continuity in a royal commitment not only...