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Within two weeks of his return from Rome in 1586, Father Robert Garnet had been selected to be the superior of the Jesuit mission in England. For twenty years he persisted: traveling, hiding, celebrating the sacraments, and coordinating the movements of his brother priests. By 1606, however, Garnet stood on a scaffold outside St. Paul’s cathedral. Refusing to recant, he was hanged—executed for his purported role in the treasonous conspiracy called the Gunpowder Plot.

Although the government had for decades been trying to stir up paranoid fury against Papists in general and Jesuits in particular, the London mob’s reaction to Garnet’s hanging was not what the royal ministers had hoped. It was reported that the crowd lunged forward and pulled on his legs, hastening his death to minimize suffering. It worked. Garnet died in the hanging, and so was not alive during the usual climax of the execution of Romish priests: drawing and quartering, removing the still-beating heart of the condemned, holding it before his eyes and announcing, “Behold the heart of a traitor!”

All that was done, of course, but as Garnet’s fellow Jesuit John Gerard reported, the crowd stayed silent, withholding its usual lusty “God save the King.” There was an ambiguity at the heart of England’s Catholic problem: Fears that the Catholic Church was ready to overthrow the British monarchy were matched by a desire that England not be known as a country that persecuted its citizens for religious beliefs.

The story of the Gunpowder Plot has often been told, with due attention given to the Jesuit element of the story. In God’s Secret Agents, however, Alice Hogge follows a different path, focusing with great skill on the Jesuits and their mission to England. Genuine aspects of the Jesuits’ presence and sensibility, she argues, were expanded by English paranoia to produce the unjust accusation that the Jesuits had been the instigators of the Gunpowder Plot—along with nearly every other thwarted effort to overthrow the government throughout the sixteenth century.

Perhaps Hogge, who is not an academic historian, was drawn to the period by her Recusant ancestry and her background in theater. The characters who people her narrative are participants in a high drama. Hogge tells the story thoroughly and with just the right amount of detail: enough to draw us into the landscape, but not so much that we are overwhelmed with complexities. The narrative reads as smoothly as a novel—but this is not fiction. The individuals were real, their struggles and anguished, and their blood really did spill on English soil.

Hogge’s tale begins toward the end of the sixteenth century, when English Catholics suffered under the “Penal Laws,” the government measures, enacted and expanded over the course of the century, that were designed to make the practice of Catholicism difficult. The laws banned Catholics from certain professions, prohibited the celebration of the Mass, mandated attendance at local Anglican parishes, and banned priests from the country. Increasingly burdensome fines were levied on those who refused to attend the local government-sanctioned church, to the point at which Lord Grey, no Catholic, remarked in 1593, “I was under the impression that our purpose hitherto was merely to keep the Papists humbled and in subjection so that they should cause no trouble. We have sucked them dry and reduced them to extreme poverty. Now we strive to harass them yet further. It is plain to me we are persecuting religion.”

And why did the Papists need to be humbled? Because they were, it was believed, inherently treasonous. In 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and declared her a heretic and a pretender to the throne—thereby, on paper, releasing English Catholics from loyalty to her. Together with ongoing tensions with Spain, as well as Catholic persecution past (under Queen Mary) and present (the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre of French Huguenots), this rendered Catholics, with their divided allegiances, suspect and worse.

The atmosphere of repression and fear took its toll. William Allen—the priest who founded, among other things, the English College in Douai—toured England for two years in the mid-1560s and found the Catholic population dispirited and drained, headed for “the miserable abyss of destruction.” Some of Allen’s students at Douai and the English College in Rome crossed back over to minister to English Catholics in the late 1570s. It was not until 1580 that the Jesuits got involved, approved with some reluctance by their superior general. Their orders were strict and clear: They were to minister to the spiritual needs of those who were already Catholic, to encourage reversion, not necessarily conversion, and above all, never to involve themselves in political matters.

The mission was, of course, extremely dangerous, since being a Catholic priest was illegal in England, and those caught normally met a fate similar to Father Garnet’s. The figures involved in this mission were characters indeed, and Hogge paints their portraits vividly. Some names are familiar. Robert Southwell, the poet and mystic, was tortured thirteen times before he was finally executed. The brilliant Edmund Campion, who had bested his opponents in an Oxford debate right in front of the queen, was savagely executed while he reminded witnesses to pray for that same queen.

Riding alongside are lesser-known figures: John Gerard, for instance, who disguised himself quite ably as a card-playing, hunting gentleman, sojourning in various great houses, gaming in the light and celebrating the sacraments in the darkness. Gerard was arrested and tortured, but (thanks to notes written in orange juice and sympathizers on the outside) escaped by jumping from the prison into a boat on the Thames. Meanwhile, Catholic women protected the faith, taught their children, and hid priests: Margaret Clitherow, for example, who was martyred for her efforts, and Anne Vaux, who assisted Garnet despite persistent rumors about their relationship. Laymen of every strata of society did their best to keep the faith but at the same time maintain in some form their loyalty to their country.

Perhaps the figure who evokes the strongest sympathy and admiration is Nicholas Owen, lay brother and master constructor of priest-hides. Dedicated to the cause, Owen traveled about the country, fabricating the ingenious holes and cubbies that searchers could miss though they spent days tearing apart a suspected safety house. Owen was arrested more than once, and during his final imprisonment, he held fast to his silence about the priests’ identities and died while being tortured. Owen’s enemies declared that he had committed suicide, but others roundly disputed those rumors. Owen was canonized in 1970. 

The Jesuits’ mission was fraught with complexities, as they worked to maintain the faith while also keeping Catholics safe, sometimes even in conflict with other Catholic priests—the appellants, or English secular clergy, who distrusted the Jesuits. The pope did not always help, as he failed to understand the changing role of religion in societies, since even the Spanish ultimately set toleration of Catholics aside as a condition of peace with England. Nor did he help when Garnet, sensing that something was afoot with a group of Catholics—including one named Guy Fawkes—frantically asked Rome to make a clear and firm statement against Catholics using violence to achieve their ends.

As Hogge traces the slow, agonizing path by which the Jesuits were unjustly implicated in the Gunpowder Plot—a path strewn with seemingly minor decisions like hearing a confession, writing a letter, or delaying a journey—the question of equivocation came to the fore. This was the point at which the government’s case against the Jesuits gained its popular force: the accusation that the Jesuits advised and approved the art of “equivocation,” answering questions in a way that would satisfy interrogators but at the same time preserve interior honesty. Being asked, “Are you a priest?” one could answer “No,” meaning, in one’s own mind, “No, I am not a priest of Zeus.” Equivocation was debated among moral theologians, and Garnet himself wrote a treatise in cautious support of it.

The question, answered equivocally or not, that caused the most problems was one that came to be known as the “Bloody Question”: If the pope were to invade England, whom would you support, the pope or the queen? Over time, the Bloody Question took slightly different forms, but the essence remained the same: Whose side are you on?

The truth was that most English Catholics wanted to be on both sides. They were loyal to their country and their monarch, and they also wanted to practice their religion in peace. In the sixteenth century, this was not thought to be possible, of course, as religious toleration was the ideal of neither Church nor state. But as the decades progressed, it became the last best hope of English Catholics. James I manipulated this hope in his effort to cement his succession—and then dashed it with even fiercer enforcement of the Penal Laws, a frustration and turnabout which ultimately inspired the Gunpowder Plot.

With her account of courage and divided loyalties, Hogge is moved to reflect on the situation of Muslims in England today. But readers of God’s Secret Agents will be reminded just as strongly of the difficult choices that Catholics in nations like China still face as they try to practice their religion and please the government, all while being buffeted by the changes in their country’s international relations and differing perceptions of the Vatican’s intentions.

The four-hundredth anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot was commemorated quietly in England last November. And this year, another anniversary will be marked, as the English Jesuits hold lectures and services to remember their martyrs. One of the events will be a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Winifrid, site of a pilgrimage made in the summer of 1605 by Henry Garnet, Anne Vaux, Nicholas Owen, and thirty other English Catholics. Garnet might have prayed there that the pope would respond to his letters, written amid rumors of violence. Certainly they all prayed for healing, and, we might guess, for strengthening of their faith in the face of deep hostility.

And now, four hundred years later, new pilgrims will pray—but still for healing and strengthening of their faith.

Amy Welborn is a writer in Indiana and the author of De-coding Mary Magdalene as well as many other books.