- Catholic Resistance in Elizabethan England: Robert Persons's Jesuit Polemic, 1580-1610
I think I should start by saying that one would need at least a 5,000-word review in order to get close to doing justice, in this format, to the topic that is at the center of this book. Robert Persons was one of the greatest writers and political theorists of his period. His was an extraordinary talent. At the same time he has been, historiographically, a problem. He simply does not conform to the assumptions of most of those who have sought to narrate the course of politics in post-Reformation England, and certainly not those self-styled revisionists who have, for reasons that frequently remain unclear, clung to a weird kind of anglocentrism in order to argue that we can describe the Reformation in England without referring very much to what was happening on the Continent.
Persons did what English Catholics of the period, or so we are frequently told, were not supposed to do. As well as being an intellectual of towering contemporary status, he acquired considerable international significance and political influence. He enjoyed accreditation at several European courts and was wired into all kinds of diplomatic and intelligence networks. He was a key player in several political crises of mid- and late Elizabethan England. Victor Houliston insists that "he can no longer justifiably be called a neglected figure" (1), and yet, ironically, he can. There has been a stubborn determination to insist that, whatever it was, Catholicism in England was not part of the mainstream, whatever that was. Also, those who have, up until now, demonstrated the greatest facility in decoding the aims and agenda of this leading English Jesuit, notably John Bossy, have been those whose own work does not really fit into any of the current master-narratives of the period.
There is another problem too. The via media was unknown to Persons, and just as he had his champions and detractors in his own time, so he has them now. It has proved very difficult for those writing about him —and indeed about Catholicism in early modern England and Britain more generally —to escape entirely the mindset of one or other mode.
It is, however, not enough simply to claim that this or that historical figure is interesting, and then go on to lament the fact that others do not seem to find him so. One has to show that if we aspire toward a coherent account of this period, we cannot ignore the person in question. And, indeed, it is possible to make such a case for Persons in the sense that, time and again, he managed to articulate publicly the implications of extant Catholic critiques of the course taken by the Elizabethan regime, and define what the alternatives were to the dominant agenda and discourses of late Tudor government. Far from being tangential to the political process in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, Persons was integral to it, and Houliston accurately points to where his polemical interventions [End Page 1014] had most impact. It is worth asking, then, exactly what Persons thought he was trying to do and whether he actually succeeded.
Houliston's interests, as a literary scholar, are primarily in Persons as a rhetorician, and in trying to define how his prose suited his political and spiritual purposes. But, of course, the links between his writing and his political objectives are all too evident. It seems that Houliston's principal claim is that Persons's spiritual writing, notably his composition of the Christian Directory, was much more influential in his subsequent purposes and projects than his biographers have allowed. Rather than being an occasional piece, penned at a time before Persons became properly stuck into projects such as the Armada and opposing the path of James VI to the English crown, its account...