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The Jesuits and the Society of Jesus

From the first moment the details of the plot became known, the government sought to have the Jesuits incriminated as being behind it. During the final years of Elizabeth's reign severe legislation had been passed making Jesuits and those who harboured them, criminals, punishable by death. Many Jesuit priests were subsequently captured and executed.

The Society of Jesus was founded by a Spaniard, Ignatius Loyola, under the name "The Company of Jesus". Ratified in a Papal Bull of Paull III, the name was latinised to "Societas Jesu" on 27 September 1540. Loyola's self reform and his enlistment of followers, was not initially set up as a vehicle to oppose Protestant doctrine, moreover it had in its aims academic study and education. Loyola offered his orders services to the Pope, and in time they became a powerful tool in the Papal Counter Reformation of the sixteenth century.

As Europe underwent religious reform, England was undergoing its own Protestant reform under Elizabeth. Under Mary, the restoration of the Catholic faith had been welcomed by the clergy, but Elizabeth's new laws were slowly forcing the Catholics into exile. As more and more of them travelled to Rome and Flanders they became increasingly accustomed to the more academic and modern teachings of the Jesuits, something that the English welcomed, considering a great many of them were themselves from academic institutions.

In 1574, plans were discussed to begin an official mission to reconcile the English, and eventually Robert Persons and Edmund Campion made their way to England. Campion spent his time travelling around the Midlands, being hidden by the families of Catesby, Tresham and Vaux. It was perhaps one of the reasons that when the Gunpowder Plot unfolded after the capture of Fawkes, the government was so entrenched in the belief that the Jesuits were ultimately behind the plot. Not only was their very existence in England seen as seditious, but they had a long and 'criminal' association with Robert Catesby and his kin.

Campion was eventually captured and executed, and the familes who had harboured him were subject to severe fines and imprisonment. This however did not stop many more English Jesuits returning home, nor did it prevent the more staunch Catholic families from hiding them. English houses are today still littered with priest hides, secret hiding places, or tunnels.

Many of these families were also committed to sending members of their family to France and Rome to receive Catholic education, still others found the work of Campion and Persons inspirational, and submitted themselves to the Jesuit order, with the aim of returning to their mother country and assisting in the theological education and salvation of the people. During Elizabeth's reign, several hundred Jesuit priests were put to death, yet this did not seem to deter them from their mission of converting the English. Among those Jesuits executed were friends and relatives of the plotters, including Francis Ingilby of Ripley, uncle to the Wintour brothers.

The biographies within this section represent the lives of many of those who were captured, tortured, and payed the ultimate price for their faith. Some were kin to the plotters, but all spent many years on the run, dodging the authorities as they moved from one Catholic household to the next, holding clandestine services and maintaining the morale of their Catholic flock.

[1] Edmund Campion [8] Nicholas Owen
[2] Father John Gerard
[3] Father Henry Garnet
[4] Edward Oldcorne and
Ralph Ashley
[5] Robert Persons
[6] Robert Southwell
[7] Oswald Tesimond


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