• Collected
  • Article

On the Jesuit Trail

Finding literary inspiration in the espionage of 16th-century Christendom

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I came across the first Cambridge Spies while researching what would become the first book in my Marbeck series, about an early 17th century spy or ‘intelligencer’. Almost 400 years before Burgess, Philby and Maclean divulged British secrets to Communist Moscow, a number of bright young men were recruited from the universities to pose as disaffected Catholics and travel to the Continent in order to infiltrate the priest-training colleges of Rheims, Douai and Rome. Anyone who delves into this intriguing subject soon encounters the Jesuits – the shock troops of the Catholic world – who began their mission to bring England back to the Old Religion from 1580 onwards. Many Jesuits, who were among the chief targets of these spies, were executed, but this did nothing to dampen their successors’ commitment.

The origins of the Jesuit order lie in the Counter Reformation of mid-16th century Europe. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) had reasserted traditional Catholic doctrine, with few conciliatory nods to the new ‘Geneva values’. But Martin Luther had lit a flame that could not be quenched: Protestantism was gaining ground. As momentum gathered for action against the Protestant England of Elizabeth I, the Society of Jesus was eager to play a part, along with the seminary priests who were returning secretly from exile. The first Jesuit mission came in late 1580, when Robert Persons and Edmund Campion landed separately, incognito, at Dover. Within a year Campion would be captured and executed – the first of many such martyrs – while Persons managed to escape.

In England, the threat from across the Channel had long been understood and observed, especially since the bombshell of 1570: the Papal Bull ‘Regnans in Excelsis’, which not only excommunicated Elizabeth but denounced her as a heretic and absolved her people from allegiance. The coast was now clear, not only for militant Catholics abroad but for home-grown English ones too, to contemplate the overthrow of the sovereign with papal blessing. It was this double-edged danger, from within and without, that gave rise to the espionage system developed by Elizabeth’s leading ministers: Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir William Cecil (Baron Burghley from 1571) and later his brilliant, crookbacked son Sir Robert Cecil. All of them, coincidentally or not, were Cambridge graduates.

Of course, the English had often used spies: Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had employed Sir Peter Mewtys in such capacity, and by 1570 the Earl of Leicester was running an ad hoc spy system here and abroad. But it was Walsingham who developed it: the man whose fierce Puritanism had been tempered in the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day 1572, when as English ambassador to France, he had sheltered Protestants from the mob (thousands were slaughtered in the streets of Paris and elsewhere across France). As he rose to power back home, often working closely with Burghley, he forged the first truly effective, and state-funded, intelligence network that, at its peak, boasted around 60 agents and informers as far apart as Edinburgh, Tangier and Constantinople.

Walsingham and the Cecils were clever, pragmatic men, and ruthless in their methods for preserving the Queen’s interests. But their intelligencers were a mixed bunch. Some, like those from the universities, were educated men with a taste for danger and excitement — the playwright Christopher Marlowe, for example, who may have been recruited from Corpus Christi in 1587. Others were misfits and adventurers, or turncoats, and those who would inform on anyone for a price (one spy I came across had the splendid name John Fixer). Such men – they were invariably men – might be placed in prisons to befriend Catholic inmates and draw information from them. A few, like Marlowe and another playwright, Anthony Munday, were connected to the theatre; acting skills have always been useful in espionage. Intelligencers infiltrated Catholic gatherings and attended secret masses to discover the whereabouts of Jesuits who travelled the country preaching, hearing confessions and making converts.

This is the world of my own Crown Intelligencer, Marbeck: an ex-Cambridge man, a second son from good family, but unlikely to inherit, restless and driven by a desire not merely to serve the state but to fight corruption. In the course of researching an earlier Tudor series I had read about spies, and even used one as a minor character. But to focus on the activities of a government agent, I had to look in far greater detail, leading to extensive historical investigation, familiar enough to many authors, and also, where possible, to first-hand research, visiting locations and handling period artefacts.

Last summer found me in the Midlands, inspecting the cunningly contrived hiding-holes at Tudor manors like Harvington and Baddesley Clinton, the homes of devout Catholics who concealed priests from the authorities. Courtesy of the private owners of another house, I was able to climb into one of these cramped spaces and crouch there myself. Perhaps it was only then that it struck me what hardship and deprivation the fugitive priests suffered: men like Persons and Campion, Robert Southwell, Henry Garnet and John Gerard. Sometimes they hid for days, even weeks, without food or basic comforts, keeping their spirits up by praying while searchers ransacked the house around them. Many were caught and paid the heaviest price for their faith: by law, Jesuits and seminary priests were ordered to submit to the Queen or quit the realm on pain of High Treason, for which there was a standard penalty.

We have all heard of hanging, drawing and quartering, but how many know what it actually involved — and what terrible logic permitted it? The Duke of Buckingham’s execution, for example, was fairly typical. He was sentenced to be drawn on a hurdle to the gallows, hanged ‘betwixt heaven and earth as being unfit for either’, but cut down while still alive. His ‘privy parts’ were then cut off, since he was unfit to leave any issue; his bowels were drawn out and burned before his eyes, and finally his heart (‘which had conceived the treachery’) cut out. Buckingham was then beheaded, the body quartered by a butcher, and the separate parts sent for display at various locations. The head was parboiled and impaled on a pike above the south gatehouse at London Bridge. Jan Visscher’s famous 1616 engraving of London clearly shows heads on poles, a dozen or more skulls picked clean by the red kites that flew about the city. (It’s worth noting that for High Treason, a variation of this sentence was still on the statute books until 1870).

The message of all this was, of course, crystal clear to the watching crowds: you went against the Queen and her government (and subsequently James I and his, as the Gunpowder Plotters would discover) at your peril. It was a brutal age: state torture was practised to extract confessions, by issue of a royal warrant; there was no need for Extraordinary Rendition. And in the light of this knowledge one can’t help but be humbled, if not astonished, by the courage and fortitude of the Jesuit priest who knew what fate might await him if captured, but whose faith was so profound that no power on earth could shake it. These men were not merely content to follow an ascetic life, but felt compelled to take action; they were fond of quoting from the Epistle of St James: ‘faith without works is dead’. They sought to serve that faith, and embraced a martyr’s death. Contemporary parallels, just now, seem too obvious to mention.

Since those times, the practice of espionage has changed beyond recognition: from the Elizabethan and Jacobean worlds of false names, ciphers and invisible ink made from lemon juice, through the Cold War era of microphones and cameras, to today’s digital environment of global surveillance, that of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. And yet it strikes me that, at heart, spying remains a murky world of deception and paranoia, betrayal and manipulation — and courage too.

During the learning process, my own search has altered. What began as historical exploration has turned into a more personal investigation into religious faith and the lengths to which the devout will go to defend it. The search, hopefully, will help shed light on what drove some people to extreme positions of piety and brutality; are they perhaps, two sides of the same coin? The servants of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, after all, considered themselves Christians, doing their appointed work. Elizabeth’s ministers had initially dismissed the Jesuits as ‘a rabble of vagrant friars’, but by the 1580s Robert Southwell was speaking of the small number then on English soil in these terms: ‘It seemed to me that we were looking at the cradle of our Society new-born in England, and that we were sowing in tears the seeds whereof others coming after us will gather in sheaves.’

I don’t share the Jesuits’ creed, and never could. But their uncanny ability to put ‘self’ aside and work for an ideal end, however remote it seemed at times, has led me, as far as I’m able, to examine faith and the very nature of belief.

John Pilkington’s historical mysteries are published by Severn House. The fourth book in the Marbeck series appears this year.

You might also like:

Author Wioletta Greg and the cover of her 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel, Swallowing Mercur
RLF News Article

Wioletta Greg reflects on her life and RLF grant experience

A Polish author previously longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Wioletta now lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

RLF News Article

The Life and Times of Reverend David Williams

As we get ready to celebrate our 234th anniversary on 18 May, a recent RLF grant beneficiary takes a deep…

Coffee shop image by PBS NewsHour from Arlington, Va., USA, Wiki Commons
Collected Article

Anywhere But a Room of One’s Own

I am a writer looking to be re-homed. All I need is a laptop, a table and a chair, and…

Royal Literary Fund Substack

View our Substack. All our articles are free to read and are written by either the RLF team or our contributing writers.

Subscribe on Substack