God’s Secret Agents
Alice Hogge (HarperCollins, 2005)
445 p. First reading.
Last year I wrote about Fr. John Gerard’s account of his years as a Jesuit priest under Elizabeth I. To be a Catholic priest in England at that time was a capital crime, and Gerard and his confreres lived cloak-and-dagger lives to bring the sacraments to English Catholics. Theirs is a thrilling tale, and Gerard’s account of his part in the drama was excellent. In this book, Alice Hogge covers much of the same ground — Gerard is one of the central figures in her account — but she broadens the scope to fill out the historical background.
The Jesuit mission began in 1580, when Edmund Campion and Robert Persons landed on English soil. They caused a great stir, but were both soon arrested and executed. Not until the mid-1580s did the Jesuits establish an enduring presence in the country. The mission was organized and maintained by Henry Garnet, who landed in 1586 and served as Jesuit Superior of England until 1606, when he was arrested and executed in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot.
Despite their determination to remain apolitical, the Jesuits were hunted by the government from the beginning. All Catholics were suspect at the time, for in 1570 Pope Pius V had issued Regnans in Excelsis, a Papal Bull formally excommunicating Elizabeth. The Bull forced upon English Catholics a division of loyalties between their monarch and their faith. This conflict was especially acute for Jesuits, who take a special vow of obedience to the Pope as part of their religious profession. Furthermore, the Jesuit order had been founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spaniard, and political tensions between England and Spain were high. The launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588 did not help. Being well aware of the perception that they were foreign agents hostile to the crown, the Jesuits forbade any of their priests to even discuss political matters in England; theirs was to be an exclusively religious mission. The government, however, did not trust them, or just did not want them in England, and whenever a priest was captured and executed it was on charges of treason to the crown.
At the same time the government placed diverse pressures on Catholic laymen to conform to the new state religion: fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment, and even death were prescribed for various kinds of resistance. Interestingly, it was women who were best able to resist these pressures. They faced none of the career-related pressures with which men had to contend (government employees, lawyers, clergy, schoolmasters, and university students had all been required to take the Oath of Supremacy since 1563, something a faithful Catholic could not do). Furthermore, since under English law married women could not own property, they could not be fined. This allowed them to harbour and assist priests with a certain amount of freedom, at least until 1593 when the law was changed to permit fining of husbands whose wives were recusant.
The secret weapon on the Catholic side, without which the mission could not have survived as long as it did, was a man named Nicholas Owen. Owen was from Oxford, where he trained as a master carpenter and mason. He became a Jesuit lay brother sometime in the 1580s, and began putting his talents at the service of the mission. Throughout the English countryside, in the great houses of the Catholic gentry, he began constructing hides: cunningly concealed hiding places into which priests could slip if they should be present when the house was raided (as they frequently were) by priest-hunters. Many of these hides still survive today, under false floorboards or behind secret panels. They were so well-hidden that often the search party could continue their search for weeks without discovering them. Owen is credited with saving the lives of many priests, as well as the lives of those who harboured them. He too was arrested after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered, and though he was not involved in the plot, he was tortured in the Tower for information and died of his injuries.
As I said, Hogge broadens the perspective to set the Jesuit mission in context. She treats the early reign of Elizabeth, the political tensions with Spain and the Netherlands, the changing legal situation faced by English Catholics, the transition to the reign of James I, and, though it is not the focus of her story, she does discuss the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. It is a compelling story, and she tells it well. I enjoyed the book thoroughly.
An aside: Hogge writes of Elizabeth’s first visit, in 1566, to Oxford University, at which she was entertained by debates and orations from the students. One speaker was the young Edmund Campion, who won praise for his defence of the thesis “that the tides are caused by the moon’s motion”. I haven’t seen the text of his oration itself, so can’t be sure exactly what he was arguing, but it is worth noting that this is 70 years before Galileo attempted (incorrectly) to explain the tides as caused by the earth’s rotational motion, and 120 years before Newton (correctly) attributed the cause to the moon’s gravitational pull. Clearly, the question was a live one, and Campion may have been on the right track. It makes me wish I knew more about the history of this idea.
[Campion exhorting his fellow seminarians]
Listen to our heavenly Father asking back his talents with usury; listen to the Church, the mother that bore us and nursed us, imploring our help; listen to the pitiful cries of our neighbours in danger of spiritual starvation; listen to the howling of the wolves that are spoiling the flock. The glory of your Father, the preservation of your mother, your own salvation, the safety of your brethren, are in jeopardy, and can you stand idle? … Do not, I pray you, regard such a tragedy as a joke; sleep not while the enemy watches; play not while he devours his prey; relax not in idleness and vanity while he is dabbling in your brother’s blood… See then, my dearest and most instructed youths, that you lose none of this precious time, but carry a plentiful and rich crop away from this seminary, enough to supply the public wants, and to gain for ourselves the reward of dutiful sons.