A Counterblast to Foxe: Parsons’ Catholic “Book of Martyrs”

Parsons (or Persons), Robert, S.J. (1546-1610)

A treatise of three conuersions of England from paganisme to Christian religion. The first vnder the Apostles, in the first age after Christ: the second vnder Pope Eleutherius and K. Lucius, in the second age. The third, vnder Pope Gregory the Great, and K. Ethelbert in the sixth age; vvith diuers other matters thereunto apperteyning. Diuided into three partes, as appeareth in the next page. The former two whereof are handled in this booke, and dedicated to the Catholikes of England. VVith a nevv addition to the said Catholikes, vpon the nevvs of the late Q. death. and succession of his Maiestie of Scotland, to the crovvne of England. By N.D. author of the VVard-vvord

Saint Omer: Imprinted [by François Bellet] vvith licence, 1603- 1604


Octavo: 15.2 x 10 cm. 3 vols. (v.1: [72], 658, [32] p.; v.2: [144], 530, [14]; 237, [1] p.; v.3: [116], 465 (recte 475), [21]; 370, [2] p.) Collations: Vol. I: †8, *-3*8, 4*4, A-Z8, Aa-Vv8, Xx2. Vol. II: †-††8, a-g8, A-Z8, Aa-Ll8, A-P8 (P8 blank.) Vol. III: *-7*8, 8*2, A-Z8, Aa-Hh8 (Hh7 and 8 blank); A-Z8, Aa1 (lacking final leaf, presumed blank. Text ends on A1 verso.)


Bound in contemporary late 17th c. calf, rebacked (moderate wear to edges and boards.) A very good, complete set. Top margin cut a bit close, a few headlines shaved in second volume. Titles lightly soiled, those of vol. 2 and 3 with small adhesion scars, t.p. to vol. 3 with small defect at head, costing a letter. Provenance: Charles Bruce, 3rd Earl of Ailesbury (1682-1747), Viscount Bruce of Ampthill, British landowner and Tory politician whose father was imprisoned for treason. Charles Bruce served in the House of Commons from 1705 to 1711.

Vol. 2-3 each have title "The third part of a treatise, intituled: of three conuersions of England" (punctuation varies) and imprint date 1604. Each begins with a calendar for half of the year, with Catholic saints on versos and Protestant martyrs (taken from "The book of martyrs" of John Foxe) on rectos, printed in red and black. Vol. 2 includes "A relation of the triall made before the King of France, vpon the yeare 1600 betvveene the Bishop of Eureux, and the L. Plessis Mornay" by Parsons, a reissue of STC 19413. Vol. 3 includes "A reuievv of ten publike disputations" by Parsons, a reissue of STC 19414. 

First edition of Parsons' important "Three Conversions", printed by François Bellet at St. Omer. Parsons had Bellet print several books for him prior to the establishing the English College press in St. Omer in 1608.

“In the context of his commitment to the English mission, the ‘Three Conversions’ represents Parsons’ supreme effort to encourage and unify a recusant community that had not only suffered long persecution but considerable internal tension since the death of William Cardinal Allen in 1594. They were divided over the succession, over the question of loyalism, and over the archpriest. When Parsons began the ‘Treatise’ in 1602, the long wait for the queen’s demise was almost over; by the time he completed it in 1604, James’ succession was assured, with dubious hope of relief for Catholics. Never had the English Catholic community been in greater need of comfort.”(Houliston, Catholic Resistance in Elizabethan England)

Parsons’ Comparison of the Catholic Martyrs with the Protestant.

The most famous aspect of the ‘Three Conversions’ is Parsons’ critique of Foxe’s Protestant “martyrs”. Using as his format Foxe’s calendar of martyrs, itself a mockery of the traditional Catholic calendars which give the feast days of Catholic saints, Parsons’ gives us his own parallel calendar, with both the “Catholicke Calendar” and the “Foxian”.

“Foxe's pseudo-martyrs are characterized by human, fleshly passions, as in the case of Savonarola, who, 'being of a hote & cholericke nature' indulged it rather than subdued it, ‘and preached so vehemently against them, that were his aduersaryes, as also scandalously, & with ouer much bitternes’. In such a context, constancy is really a passionate stubbornness. Roman martyrs tried to imitate Christ, who went as a lamb to the slaughter; consequently, they appear unmoved by their sufferings. Foxe's heroes are flesh and blood who fight and argue and protest. They are subject to the human weakness of playing to the gallery, with their cheeky rejoinders. Foxe praises his martyrs for their combative qualities, whereas Persons commends the saints and martyrs for their constructive works of piety. His pattern of Christian exercise is based on freedom from controversy; it entails a constant struggle against the world and the flesh…

“This is an ideal of sanctity - the resolved life – quite antithetical to what Persons deprecates in Foxe. He admires the Fathers for invoking the help of the saints in the struggle and for venerating those very saints primarily for their 'heroicall actions'. He chastises Foxe for failing to mention ‘one eminent act' in the lives of his martyrs, 'either of chasteninge their bodyes, mortifyinge their appetits, contemning the world and pleasures therof'…

“Persons is not concerned with miracles, which are seldom mentioned in the work. The formation of the Catholic Christian takes precedence, in ‘A Treatise of Three Conversions’, over extraordinary or sensational sanctity. Although they might incur the wrath of secular or heretical authorities, the saints in the Roman calendar do not seek martyrdom or even, necessarily, to confront evil structures. Persons himself was sensitive about having taken flight at the time of Campion's arrest and execution, and it is hard to believe that he did not have this in mind when he pointed out how the ancient martyrs, too, often preferred flight: ‘much more godly and wisely wrote Saint Athanasius to the contrary, in the next age after, in a booke of his owne flight and exile vnder Arrians, shewing by diuerse proofes both of scripture and of practize in the apostles themselues, that it is lawfull to flie in tyme of persecution'. So here too one recognizes the advocacy – surprising, perhaps, in so vigorous and combative a Jesuit as Persons - of quietness, the ideal of a church spacious enough for all. There may be a struggle to establish this, a struggle in which there will be heroes, but the final purpose is to establish a space where piety may be practised in peace.”(Ibid.)

ISTC S114212; STC (2nd ed.), 19416; Allison & Rogers, Engl. Counter-Reformation, II, 638