On 15 April 2010, the 400th anniversary of the death of Robert Persons, arguably the most controversial Englishman to enter the Society of Jesus, passed without much fanfare. On Thinking Faith, Joe Egerton did indeed pay homage to Persons as he applied principles from the Jesuit’s writings to contemporary political situations, and also drew attention to a persistent preference for Edmund Campion over Persons, his religious superior on the English mission.
For the Elizabethan government, for some Catholic contemporaries and for a few subsequent historians, Persons exemplified the Jesuit of myth and legend. A secular priest, William Watson, himself executed in 1603 for alleged involvement in a plot against King James I, lamented the establishment of an uncommon ecclesiastical structure, the archpresbyterate. The archpriest exercised jurisdiction over the diocesan clergy within England, but according to the regulations, on matters of importance he could not act without prior consultation of the Jesuit superior. Watson complained: ‘For whereas now all Catholikes must depend upon the Archpriest, & the Archpriest upon father Garnet, & Garnet upon Persons, & Persons upon the devel, (the author of all rebellious conspiracies, treasons, murthers, disobedience, heresies, & all such other diabolicall & bloudy designements, as this wicked Iesuit hath hitherto devised) then and in what case this dependency had bin utterly void.’ (A Decacordon of Ten Quodlibeticall Questions concerning Religion and State [N.p. (London), 1602] pp. 150-51).
McCoog describes Persons' mission to England with St. Edmund Campion and points out some interesting contrasts:
Persons was the driving force behind the English mission from its inauguration in 1580 to his death in 1610. For 30 years, he courted earthly powers, wrote masterpieces of controversial literature, adapted Ignatian spirituality for English Catholic (and Protestant) readers, solicited funds for colleges and seminarians, and infiltrated Elizabeth’s court. One may well ask if Campion would have been up to the task if he had survived and Persons been martyred.
Practically from his admission into the Society of Jesus in Rome, Robert Persons retained contact with other Englishmen and campaigned for Jesuit involvement on the English mission. Campion, meanwhile, showed little if any concern for his native land. Indeed, his friend Gregory Martin accused him of forgetting England altogether once he had entered the Society. Collaborating with William, later Cardinal, Allen, Persons finally succeeded in persuading a reluctant Father General Everard Mercurian to seize the opportunity provided by the qualified religious tolerance that would follow the marriage/alliance of Queen Elizabeth and Francis de Valois, Duke of Anjou. Persons volunteered for the mission; Campion was selected. Campion admitted more than once that only obedience motivated him.
And the rest of the article continues to illuminate Father Persons' efforts to support the Jesuit mission to England. Fascinating.