From the first encounter with King James vi of Scotland, the Society of Jesus believed in the possibility of his conversion. Such a religious transformation would reverberate beyond the northern kingdom and indeed beyond the British Isles. Finances and proposals were advanced to attain this goal. With noticeable encouragement from James in the 1590s as he positioned himself to ascend the English throne as Elizabeth’s successor, many Catholics rallied to his cause. Once he had ascended the throne, he could cast caution to the proverbial wind and disclose his religious allegiance. Presented here are two memorials, both most likely written by the Scottish Jesuit William Crichton, on the possibility of James’s conversion. The first can be dated circa 1580, at the very inception of the project; the second is post-Gunpowder Plot (1605) by which time nearly everyone had abandoned any hope in its successful completion. But Crichton, naively or optimistically, still insisted there was a chance.
Pedro de Ribadeneyra, first official biographer of Ignatius of Loyola, showered praise upon him and his companions for abandoning immoderate sentiment “for particular lands or places” in their quest for “the glory of God and the salvation of their neighbors.” Superior General Goswin Nickel praised a Society conceived in Spain, born in France, approved in Italy, and propagated in Germany and elsewhere. Out of diversity Ignatius had forged unity. Ribadeneyra prayed that nothing would ever threaten this union. His prayers were not heard: the Society’s internal unity was often endangered by national sentiment despite congregational attempts to curtail and eliminate it. This article does not purport to be an exhaustive study of localism versus internationalism—although such a study is needed—but an investigation of relations between Irish and English Jesuits principally in the seventeenth century. Individual Jesuits did in fact cooperate, but there were limits. A proposal in 1652 that the independent Irish mission become part of the English mission was that limit.
In 1598, Jesuit missions in Ireland, Scotland, and England were either suspended, undermanned, or under attack. With the Elizabethan government’s collusion, secular clerics hostile to Robert Persons and his tactics campaigned in Rome for the Society’s removal from the administration of continental English seminaries and from the mission itself. Continental Jesuits alarmed by the English mission’s idiosyncratic status within the Society, sought to restrict the mission’s privileges and curb its independence. Meanwhile the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, the subject that dared not speak its name, had become a more pressing concern. One candidate, King James VI of Scotland, courted Catholic support with promises of conversion. His peaceful accession in 1603 raised expectations, but as the royal promises went unfulfilled, anger replaced hope.
The British Isles and Ireland tested the self-proclaimed adaptability and flexibility of the new Society of Jesus. A mission to Ireland highlighted the complexities and ended in failure in the early 1580s, not to be revived until 1598. The fabled Jesuit mission to England in 1580 conceived in wistful optimism was baptized with blood with the execution of Edmund Campion in 1581 and the consequent political manoeuveres of Robert Persons. The Scottish mission began in December 1581. The three missions remained distinct in the pre-suppression period despite an occasional proposal for integration. The English mission was the largest, the bloodiest, the most controversial, and the only one to progress to full provincial status. The government tried to suppress it; the Benedictines tried to complement it; the vicars-apostolic tried to control it; and foreign Jesuits tried to recognize it. Nonetheless, the English province forged a corporate identity that even withstood the suppression.