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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 185-213

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The English Jesuit Mission and the French Match, 1579-1581

Thomas M. McCoog, S.J.

As Provincial first in the Rhineland (1558) and later in Belgium (1564), then as German Assistant to Father General Francis Borgia (after July 28, 1565), and, finally as Father General (after April 23, 1573), Everard Mercurian supervised and directed English, Scottish, and Irish Jesuits on the continent and in their own countries. As Provincial, he aided Simon Belost's ministry with English exiles in Louvain and guided Thomas King's return to England in 1564. As Assistant and as General, he replied favorably to petitions for assistance from English exiles such as Laurence Vaux (or Sir Francis Englefield), 1 and Nicholas Sanders, 2 and helped obtain papal subsidies for the English College in Douai. 3 Perhaps because of such involvement William Allen, founder and rector of the English College at Douai, anticipated Mercurian's approval for a Jesuit mission to England when they met during Allen's Roman sojourn in the winter of 1575-76. Although the General's reply is not recorded, Allen [End Page 185] returned to Douai empty-handed. 4 Mercurian supported Jesuit ministries with exiles on the continent, but with the exception of King's journey to England primarily for reasons of health, he hesitated sending Jesuits on a permanent mission to Scotland, Ireland, or England because of perilous conditions. As Provincial, he disapproved of the mission of Dutch Jesuit Nicholas Floris (better known as de Gouda) to the court of Mary Stuart in 1562, and commiserated with David Wolfe's and William Good's cries of spiritual poverty and loneliness during their work in Ireland in 1563. As Assistant and as General, he fretted about the implications of Wolfe's increasing political involvement for the Society's Institute. 5 These precedents did not augur well for a mission to England.

But even on the continent Mercurian's support had limitations: he resisted attempts to introduce the Society into the newly established English College in Rome because, according to the English Jesuit Robert Parsons, he was "already oppressed by the burden of many Seminaries, [and] was in no mood to accept the charge of others, if he could help it." When Pope Gregory XIII, in the words of Parsons, "handed over the care of the entire government to the Fathers of the Society in such terms that they could nowise refuse it," 6 he accepted its administration. Allen thanked Mercurian profusely for shouldering responsibility and raised again the possibility of a Jesuit mission on October 26, 1578. Allen asked

or rather the nation and our native land ask[ed] and suppliantly request[ed] some part of the charity and concern which you bestow upon all nations, Christian and barbarous. Father, do not repel us as we ask for justice. And you who go about collecting sheep for the flock of Christ in the far-off Indies, do not be disdainful of seeking with us the lost British lamb. 7

The Society was already overextended, Mercurian countered on January 5, 1579, and thus he could not sanction a new endeavor. He held out hope, nonetheless, that Jesuits would eventually become involved: [End Page 186]

And we, although we see clearly that our strength is but small, nay in weakness itself, and is altogether unequal to what our position calls for, yet in desire and in will we proclaim ourselves to be so keen to help all men and especially your country of England, that we greatly yearn for some occasion to be given us of labouring for that sorely tried kingdom.

Until then Mercurian promised the only aid possible: prayer. 8

The matter seemed settled. Publicly Mercurian argued that he was unable to accept a mission because of other commitments and overextension; privately he doubted that Jesuits could practice religious life as demanded by the Society's Institute in such a hostile atmosphere. His experience with Wolfe and Good confirmed his natural reluctance. Yet, despite Mercurian's decision, not quite...


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