From the archives

Published on 20 Aug 2019
Old books

by Mary Allen and Alan Harrison (ed. Tim McEvoy)

The 6th July is an important date in the history of the work of the Jesuits in Britain. This year it marked the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the English Mission as a Vice-Province of the Society of Jesus in 1619.

The dangerous work of the Jesuits in England had begun some years before. The possibility of a mission to the newly-Protestant England of Elizabeth I was first discussed during the tenure of Everard Mercurian as the fourth Superior General of the Society (1573-80). Mercurian was initially reluctant to embark on a mission that might overstretch already strained Jesuit resources in a time of rapid expansion. However he was gradually persuaded by the English Jesuit Robert Parsons and by William Allen, founder of the English College at Douai, of the importance of such an enterprise.

In 1580 Pope Gregory XIII gave his official sanction and the mission was established with Parsons as its superior. He was granted the powers of a Jesuit Provincial on the basis that England would remain a permanent mission and not be attached to another Province. Parsons remained in charge until he was forced to flee for safety to France in 1581 following the capture and arrest of his companion on mission, Edmund Campion. He would never return.

Despite the dangers, Jesuit involvement actually increased in England throughout the decade that followed and a steady flow of missionaries continued to arrive. The 1590s also saw the establishment of seminaries on the continent for the training of missionary priests such as St Omers (1593), which the Jesuits owned and administered themselves.

By 1616, despite being able to support its own institutions independently thanks to the generosity of English Catholics, the administrative position of the English mission was still uncertain and, for a time, it looked as though the mission itself might even be disbanded. The Jesuits in Spain had submitted a decree to the General Congregation attempting to strengthen the authority of provincials, particularly with respect to the ambiguous position of Jesuits on mission dispersed over several territories and their obedience.  In order to resolve this issue, Superior General Mutio Vitelleschi raised the English mission to the status of Vice-Province in 1619, appointing Richard Blount as the first Vice-Provincial on 6th July.

This was an important moment and promotion for the English mission, demonstrating it had sufficient stability and self-sufficiency. Blount, a product of the English Colleges at Douai and in Rome, had worked alongside Robert Parsons in Spain before making his own landing in England with other priests in the early 1590s. By 1619 he had been superior of the English Jesuits for two years and it is estimated that there were nearly 200 English Jesuits in the Society, more than one hundred of whom were working secretly in England. There had been only 19 in 1598. Blount was to become the first English Provincial in 1622, when, after further petitioning, the English mission finally graduated to full provincial status.

The growing stability of the Jesuits’ position in England, and the increasing confidence of Catholics in these Isles, is reflected in the discreet purchase of a small parcel of land further afield in North Wales only a few decades later.

The land on which St Beuno’s now stands was bought secretly through two goldsmiths living in London in the mid-1600s. Jesuits had been covertly working not far away at Holywell since the time of Campion and Parsons in the 1580s and it is likely that the land in Tremeirchion was intended as an investment for further missions in north Wales and a financial resource in the shorter term for the work at Holywell, an important destination for Catholic pilgrims.

The court records for Flintshire from that time show that the Tremeirchion and Bodfari area still had many ‘recusant’ Catholics who were eligible for fines for not attending the parish church. Hence many of the locals would have been sympathetic to Jesuits. The continued use of the Latin title of the local church, Corpus Christi, and the survival of the ancient Tremeirchion pilgrimage cross in the churchyard may also indicate a Catholic sentiment in the locality.

This period of confidence, however, was short lived. During the latter part of the 17th century conditions for Catholics deteriorated again amidst popular fears of French invasion and it was not until late in the 18th century that parliament passed relief acts aiding Catholics. Finally, in 1848, it was possible to purchase further land and erect what is substantially the present St Beuno's as a Jesuit theological college and a centre for mission in the Clwyd Valley and beyond. More than a century and a half later that work continues.