Thomas M. McCoog, Curator of the Avery, Cardinal Dulles Archives at Fordham University, Jesuit-Regent of Fordham’s London program, and archivist for the British Province of the Society of Jesus (London), has written numerous books and articles regarding early Jesuit history, with emphasis on the Jesuit involvement in the British Isles. His latest publication is no exception, serving as a history of the Jesuit’s Counter-Reformation in England during a time of Catholic persecution at the hands of the Protestants. McCoog admits that his principal focus is England, however, “the new British historiography has opened our eyes to the importance of the interplay of events within the three kingdoms, and the dangers of considering one kingdom [England] in isolation” (p. 4).
Books in the “Catholic Christendom” series attempt to correct or clarify glaring inadequacies regarding history from the Roman Catholic point of view. The particular aim is to cover “all varieties of religious behavior, broadly interpreted, not just (or even especially) traditional institutional and doctrinal church history” (p. vii). McCoog’s latest publication greatly accomplishes this task but, more importantly, he should be highly praised for his seamless transitions between historical figures, political movements, and nations, and for his meticulous and layered research, which does not inhibit the reader in what becomes a fantastic melodrama.
Catholicism in Great Britain experienced grave dangers in the late sixteenth century. This was especially true after the failed Spanish conspiracy to remove Queen Elizabeth from the throne. The impetus: “[s]ome Catholics…refused to acknowledge England’s permanent departure from the Roman fold. Catholicism could still be restored through Elizabeth’s violent replacement or through the careful cultivation of her successor” (p. 13). After the failed assassination attempt, Catholics were either forced to abandon their religion—renouncing the authority of the pope and worshipping in Protestant churches only, or face severe persecution. Most English Catholics refused to worship in the Protestant way, preferring recusancy (i.e. incurring legal and social penalties), because “[r]ecusancy, they argued, was the only acceptable Catholic response to the government’s demands for religious conformity, and attendance at Protestant services demonstrated acceptance of heresy rather than political loyalty” (p. 6). Throughout all of the turmoil, McCoog relates, it is the Jesuits who continue to minister to Catholics, amidst an environment of imprisonment, torture, and execution.
McCoog’s latest publication is organized into six chapters, with units devoted to mission life, Catholic exiles in Europe, plots, conspiracies, and martyrdoms, and conflict and discord on the English mission. In the chapter entitled “Lurking Papists,” we learn of the courage and martyrdom of Jesuit Robert Southwell, who was captured on June 24, 1592. Southwell, refusing to admit that he was a priest in fear of incriminating other Jesuits, remained silent. McCoog reports that “[o]n April 6, 1593, having endured eight months in an “anchorite’s cell” in the Tower of London with no visitors save the occasional appearance of the Tower’s Lieutenant, Sir Michael Blount, he finally provided the desired information in order to force the government’s hand” (p. 179). Southwell was ultimately hanged in June of 1595. It should be noted, however, that McCoog does not write in an accusatory fashion, preferring instead to provide a panorama of historical events as they unfolded. One perceives from the author’s writing style, that history is what it is, and it is up to the reader to incorporate the past into the future without carrying the burden of hatred for any one religion.
This work is highly praised, and recommended for its fair and balanced reporting, and for the meticulous research undertaken by its author. McCoog has also provided over twenty pages of primary, secondary, and unpublished sources for further study. Undoubtedly, this work will find its niche among those individuals studying either Jesuit history, or the events occurring in the British Isles after the Reformation. Despite the hefty purchase price, McCoog’s work should be greatly considered.