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Recusancy and Conformity in Early Modern England

Manuscript and Printed Sources in Translation


Edited by Ginevra Crosignani, Thomas M. McCoog & Michael Questier

With the assistance of Peter Holmes


Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2010. £115.95

Hardcover. xxxiv + 432 p. ISBN 9780888441706


Reviewed by Pauline Croft

Royal Holloway University of London



This volume prints an extensive collection of documents which together form the principal texts relating to the twin problems of conformity and recusancy for Roman Catholics under the rule of Elizabeth and in the early years of James I. Many of them have not been published before, and the majority of them have not been available in English. Although the first is the standard text of the 1559 parliamentary Act of Uniformity, the second document is the much less well-known petition of English Catholics to the Council of Trent, presented by the Portuguese ambassador in 1562, begging for clarification on the vexed question of whether or not they might attend the services of the newly-established Church of England. The relative moderation of the Elizabethan religious settlement had succeeded in sowing considerable confusion in the minds of many English Catholics.

Then between 1563 and 1578, the issue became more pressing, not least because of the conservative Northern Rising of 1569-71, when English-language prayer-books and Bibles were destroyed by the rebels. Thereafter, the divide between Protestant Englishmen and their Catholic neighbours became clearer. Laurence Vaux, in exile at Louvain, insisted that all those who offered their children for baptism in their parish church, or attended Holy Communion there, did not stand in the state of salvation. Nicholas Sander agreed, declaring that this “may not be wincked at”, and by 1578, Gregory Martin and others were insisting on strict recusancy. However, the hard-liners’ continued lack of success is clear from a treatise of 1580, entitled Going to Churche, since English Catholics protested that they came “only as persons compelled by penal laws”.

It was easy for the Catholic clergy, who mostly resided outside England, to ignore the perils of confronting the Elizabethan State, or as in 1588, to fail to understand the desire of many Catholics to show patriotic national solidarity when faced with possible Spanish invasion. The key point was the excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570 by Pius V, which had posed a fresh set of problems. What about household servants who would be expected to accompany their master, the head of the household, to the parish church? Or courtiers who must accompany the queen to the chapel royal? It was all very well for Jesuits who lived safely in Rome to insist that such State requirements were “not be obeyed in any way”.

Between 1578 and 1593, a vigorous debate ensued over the pragmatic policy of conditional conformity as distinct from outright recusancy. The anonymous author of the Italian treatise entitled Relatione del Presente Stato d’Inghilterra made the point bluntly: “to a great extent the safety of Catholics depends on secrecy and silence”. The Jesuits debated among themselves what exactly was the meaning of recusancy, and the problem of occasional conformity also arose in Scotland. In 1601 the Jesuit Robert Abercromby begged “that permission may be granted so that some may occasionally attend the sermons of the heretics”, since that had been allowed to Catholics in Lithuania, Prussia and Poland, where he had previously worked. Another Jesuit pointed out that the rich risked exile and the loss of all their property if they did not occasionally conform; in consequence the pressure from their wives, to attend the parish church to secure the inheritance of their children, was immense. “Places and seasons” should be observed with “convenient moderation”.

Robert Persons S.J. led those who continued to take the hard line, but the ground was shifting under their feet. This edition is most welcome in providing readers with a great variety of primary research materials hitherto difficult to access, and illuminating these crucial Counter-Reformation dilemmas.




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