Politics and Conversion

Though we often associate conversion with the ordinary pressures, compromises, and motivations that commonly affect individual choices, major geopolitical events also could affect the way that conversions were pursued and undertaken in sixteenth century Europe, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Take the example of the surprise defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  The Spanish monarchy had provided support for the English Catholic institutions founded in continental Europe during the second half of the sixteenth century, including the English college in Rome, where a group of Jesuits under the guidance of Cardinal William Allen (1532-1594) trained priests for the difficult task of ministering to English Catholic community and negotiating the political hazards of Elizabethan England.  It was a place of indoctrination, where the religious preparation of Catholics easily merged with attempts to intimidate members of the Church of England who found themselves away from home and in an unusually vulnerable position.

Edward Webbe, a mercenary soldier and military engineer, experienced the latter when he arrived in Rome in 1588 after escaping from a Turkish galley.  The “archpapist” Cardinal Allen imprisoned him for 18 days, and he spent another three days in the English College, dressed in a “fooles coate” and a “cocks-combe with three belles,” before the pope agreed to release him.

But the triumph of Elizabeth I’s navy forced the cardinal to change his strategy.  Fynes Moryson, who travelled through Italy the following year, described a completely different atmosphere: “it hapned very fitly, that the Cardinall Allan an Englishman, hauing vsed to persecute the English comming thither, and therefore being ill spoken of by them, had changed his mind, since the English had ouerthrowne the Spanish Nauy, in the yeere 1588 and there was now small hope of reducing England to papistry…” Moryson sought out the cardinal as soon as he arrived in Rome, and Allen received him courteously and offered him protection, asking only that Moryson be willing to receive instruction in the Catholic religion that was unavailable in England.  Moryson accepted the bargain, though he ultimately avoided meeting with the priests that had been assigned to instruct him, and visited the city’s antiquities alone and undisturbed.

The Spanish debacle altered the balance of power not only on a European scale, but also in the microcosm of the English community in Rome, where the heavy handed methods of inquisitorial investigation and imprisonment had to be traded for more subtle strategies of persuasion.   The choice that Cardinal Allen made was one that many other prelates and statesmen would face in the decades that followed.


The rare and most vvonderfull things vvhich Edvv. VVebbe an Englishman borne, hath seene and passed in his troublesome trauailes in the cities of Ierusalem, Damasko, Bethlehem and Galely and in the landes of Iewrie, Egypt, Gracia, Russia, and Prester Iohn, vvherein is set forth his extreame slauery sustained many yeeres together in the gallies and warres of the great Turke, against the lands of Persia, Tartaria, Spaine, and Portugale. London, 1590

An itinerary vvritten by Fynes Moryson Gent. First in the Latine tongue, and then translated by him into English: containing his ten yeeres trauell through the tvvelue dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Jtaly, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland.  London, 1617

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