Our History

The early mission to England

Queen Elizabeth IBetween Ignatius's begging mission to England in 1531, and the foundation of a mission in 1580, Jesuit contact with England was sporadic.  The second half of the 16th century was one of religious upheaval in England, since Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1534. Elizabeth 1 (1558-1603) was determined to build a Protestant state, and, fearing influence or invasion by stronger Catholic European monarchies, effectively banned Catholic worship, and outlawed Catholic priests. To become a Catholic priest young Englishmen would now have to train and probably work abroad.  Yet many Englishmen joined the Jesuits and worked throughout the Jesuit world: Edmund Campion was sent to Prague; Thomas Stephens to India; John Yates to Brazil.  The English College for the training of priests from England was founded in Rome in 1579 and Pope Gregory XIII entrusted the college's administration to the Jesuits.

Robert Persons SJSeizing the opportunity, William Allen, leader of English Catholic exiles and later a Cardinal, persuaded Father General Everard Mercurian to approve a Jesuit mission to England. The first missioners, Campion, Robert Persons, and Ralph Emerson, departed Rome in April 1580. By the end of 1581, Campion had been executed and Persons was back on the continent, never to return to England.

Heroes and fugitives

The history of the Elizabethan Jesuits is the stuff of legends and hagiography: clandestine meetings, priest-holes, raids, escapes from the Tower of London, imprisonment, torture and martyrdom. The Tower of London
So intense was persecution that periodically Father General Claudio Acquaviva questioned the mission's continuation. Persons, along with Jesuits in England such as Robert Southwell and John Gerard, strengthened the resolve of lay Catholics through the Spiritual Exercises. 
On the continent Robert Persons and others sought to alleviate the suffering of Catholics in England by encouraging invasion of England and deposition of Elizabeth.  See Jesuit conspiracy theories for more details.

From 'Prefecture' to 'Province'

King Charles I and Queen Henrietta MariaFoundation of English seminaries in Valladolid (1589) and Seville (1592), and of an English College in St Omer (1593) created an awkward administrative structure for the English mission's superior. In 1598, Acquaviva introduced a novel form of governance: England became the Society's first prefecture. The mission's Prefect, Robert Persons, lived in Rome with Vice-Prefects in Brussels and Spain, and a Superior for the Jesuits within England.
Friction remained. The opening of a novitiate in Liège and a house of studies in Louvain (1614) exacerbated the difficulties. The new Father General Muzio Vitelleschi resolved the problem by elevating the mission to the status of Vice-Province in July 1619. 
Full provincial status was granted in 1623. The new province was strong, numerically and financially, with more than two hundred Jesuits. There was hope that religious toleration would be granted to Catholics as a result of the marriage between Prince Charles (later Charles 1) and the Catholic Princess Henrietta Maria of France.

Growth and controversy

The seventeenth century was a golden period for the province:  its institutions were strong; its theologians more than competent; its numbers expanding; its first mission to Maryland established (1633).   The Stuart dynasty became more tolerant of Catholicism after the death of James I and by 1640 there were 350 members of the province, nearly two hundred of whom worked in England and Wales. 
But the English Civil War (1642-51), the Popish Plot (1678), and the deposition of the Catholic James II (1688) devastated the province. By 1700 it was weaker, poor, disheartened, and tied to the fading dreams of the exiled Stuart cause.
The Battle of Culloden 1746In the eighteenth century the Society was on the defensive worldwide. Old foes such as Gallicans and Jansenists received aid from Enlightenment thinkers and centralising secular monarchs in their battle with Jesuits. Successful defeat of Stuart (Jacobite) rebellions in 1715 and 1745 prompted new demands for an oath of allegiance from Catholics, an oath refused by Jesuits because of its denial of papal deposing power. Many Catholics conformed or pronounced the oath.

Suppression and uprooting

Pope Clement XIVIn 1762 because of the  suppression of the Society of Jesus in France, the English college in St Omer was transferred to Bruges. Despite the storm clouds the English Province was strong: in 1768 there were approximately 300 Jesuits, 26 of whom worked in Maryland and 136 in England. 
The position of the Jesuits in England after Pope Clement XIV's brief of 1773, Dominus ac Redemptor - suppressing the Society of Jesus - was anomalous. The Society did not exist officially in England so it could not be suppressed by the secular government. Ironically relations between secular clergy and Jesuits were extremely friendly at the time. Ex-Jesuits were able to remain united under a type of superior associated with the college then in Bruges (eventually moving to Liège and finally in 1794 to Stonyhurst) and to retain ownership of the province's not inconsiderable assets.


The Catholic Emancipation Act 1829In March 1801 Pope Pius VII approved the status of the Society of Jesus that continued to exist in Russia because of the protection of the Russian Tsars. 
In 1803, thirty-five ex-Jesuits renewed their vows at Stonyhurst under Marmaduke Stone as first Provincial of the restored English Province. 
Despite some opposition from the English Vicars Apostolic and the insertion of a clause in the Act of Catholic Emancipation (1829) that forbade Jesuits and other religious orders from accepting novices in hope of their eventual extinction, the province thrived in the nineteenth century.

A proliferation of institutions

The Catholic College PrestonColleges were opened in Liverpool (1842), Spinkhill (1842), Glasgow (1857), Beaumont (1861), Preston (1865), Grahamstown (1876), Malta (1877), Georgetown (Guyana) (1880), Wimbledon (1893), Stamford Hill (London) (1894), Bulawayo (later moved to Harare) (1896), and Leeds (1905). Campion Hall was founded at Oxford in 1896. Abroad English Jesuits worked in Jamaica (1837-1894), Calcutta (1841-1851), Malta (1849-1907), Honduras (1864-1893), Guyana (from 1858), Zambesi (today Zimbabwe and Zambia) (from 1893) and South Africa. 
Many Jesuit missions became parishes after the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 and further parishes were entrusted to the Jesuits by the bishops. Jesuits achieved fame in different areas: Bernard Vaughan filled the churches; Gerard Manley Hopkins revolutionised poetry; Henry Foley gathered material for a history of the province; George Tyrrell was excommunicated for his theological views; Charles Plater established the first retreat houses.

The twentieth century

Loyola Hall 1926For the first sixty years of the twentieth century, education remained the principal apostolate of the Society. Jesuit colleges thrived. In 1919 a college for late vocations was opened at Osterley; in 1921 the Catholic Workers College in Oxford. In 1953 there were 905 Jesuits in the province.  This marked the high point.
The serious studies by Frederick Copleston, Martin D'Arcy, James Brodrick, and Herbert Thurston contributed significantly to Catholic intellectual culture. The popular spiritual works of Bernard Basset were in demand throughout the English-speaking world; Philip Caraman's work on the English martyrs brought the Elizabethan world alive to many; Clifford Howell explained the history and nature of the Mass in a manner that all could understand. 
In 1978 the Zimbabwe mission became an independent province, and in 1985 the English Province was renamed the British Province.  Our numbers were 462 at this time.  

Jesuits in Britain today

Michael Barnes SJOver the last thirty years, the apostolic focus of the province has changed, the biggest change being a reduction in the number of Jesuits teaching in secondary schools: five of these remain under Jesuit auspices but no longer have Jesuit teachers.
Jesuits continue to teach  post-graduate studies at Campion Hall in Oxford.
Whilst Jesuits remain active in contemporary theological work, in spirituality, scripture and business ethics, new initiatives are also being taken.
Our ministry to young people focuses on our operation of Catholic chaplaincies for Oxford and Manchester Universities.
Jesuit, history, restoration, britain, english mission