Treasures from the London Library: Moving images

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros reveals the tragic story of torture and martyrdom which inspired Robert Persons' book De persecutione Anglicana libellus quo explicantur afflictiones in the collections of the London Library.  

Redemption can take many forms. De persecutione Anglicana libellus quo explicantur afflictiones, calamitates, cruciatus, & acerbissima martyria, quæ Angli Catholici nūc ob fidē patiuntur (On the English persecution, a book in which are explained the misfortunes, torture and bitterest martyrdom that the English Catholics suffered for their faith) is a little book held at the London Library. It is a eulogy for a fallen comrade, an attack on his torturers and killers, and an attempt to silence those who accused its author of cowardice for escaping the martyr’s fate. The book was printed in Rome, in 1582. Although it was published anonymously, its author was subsequently identified as the English Jesuit Robert Persons, aka Parsons.

The recusant dean of Balliol College Oxford, Robert Persons, was expelled from the university in 1574. After travelling to Italy, he entered the Society of Jesus the following year, and, in 1578, became a priest. In April 1580, Parsons and Edmund Campion, also a former Oxford scholar turned Jesuit, returned to England as Catholic missionaries; Parsons disguised as an army captain and Campion as a jewel merchant. Their main purpose was to strengthen the faith of English Catholics by disseminating books and religious objects. They were supposed to avoid political discussion and to proceed with extreme caution, particularly because the authorities had intercepted a letter and already knew of their presence in England.

Edmund Campion on the rack

While Parsons was able to keep a relatively a low profile, Campion was much more conspicuous. Using clandestine presses, Campion produced two books: Challenge to the Privy Council (also known as Campion’s Brag), in which he defended the purely religious purpose of his mission, and Decem Rationes or Ten Reasons against the Anglican Church. Parsons also published his Confessio fidei whilst he was in England, but he was more careful in his movements. Consequently, Campion was arrested on the charge of treason and the printing press seized. As soon as Parsons heard the news, he returned to safety on the continent.

In December 1581, Campion was tortured on the rack, hanged, drawn and quartered. Parsons obviously knew that had he stayed in England he would have been executed alongside Campion. It seems surprising, however, that he chose self-preservation over martyrdom when as the rector of the English College in Rome he actively advocated martyrdom as the most powerful form of Catholic propaganda. It is tempting to think that Parsons lived to regret his moment of weakness and that his writing De persecutione, immediately after Edmund’s death, was prompted not only by his abhorrence at the atrocities inflicted on Campion, but also by an uneasy conscience.

The book’s exposure of Elizabethan barbarism is very graphic: it includes six powerful and moving engravings depicting every stage of the martyr's suffering. These torments were probably no worse than those inflicted on Protestants during Queen Mary’s reign. However, the images had previously been used in a broadsheet by the publisher, engraver and informer Richard Verstegan. They were used again in William Allen’s A briefe historie of the glorious martyrdom of XII reverend priests and became classics of Jesuit iconography that would be often imitated.


Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.

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