Recusancy and Regicide: the Flawed Strategy of the Jesuit Mission in Elizabethan England


Recusancy and Regicide: the Flawed Strategy of the Jesuit Mission in Elizabethan England

By Carolyn Vinnicombe

Penn History Review, Vol. 19, Iss. 2 (2012)

Introduction: In pursuing their goals of reviving the religious zeal of the English Catholic community by converting them to religious opposition in the later sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries, the drivers of the Jesuit mission in England, under the guidance of the Jesuit Robert Persons, failed. They did so not because Catholic doctrine lacked appeal in protestant Elizabethan England, but because their conversion strategy was wholly unsuited to the political realities of the times. Instead, the aggregate effects of the Church’s clerical infighting over the issues of conformity and disputation as a conversion device, failure to understand the practical needs of the average Catholic, and Person’s ill-fated political plotting polarized the English against the Jesuits and created a religious and political environment so toxic that it cannibalized the mission’s own conversion efforts. Though the Jesuits saw later success with the publication of their non-polemic spiritual texts, they never succeeded in gaining back the ground they lost as a result of their catastrophic early strategy.



The issue of conformity to the Elizabethan Settlement of 1569 presented a dilemma without an absolute solution for the English Catholic community. When Pope Pius V’s Regans in Excelsis of 1570, excommunicated the queen, and prompted her regime to mandate attendance at protestant services, it left English Catholics floundering to find traction on the plane of religious devotion. Could they still call themselves Catholics if they yielded to the state and attended protestant services, but maintained Catholicism in their hearts, or were only those who defied the state and refused to attend services worthy of the “Catholic” label and, indeed, salvation? This was a question for which neither the laity nor the Church had a clear answer.

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