A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity – contract signed


I have just signed a contract with Palgrave MacMillan for a book entitled A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity, which will be part of the Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic series. Although much historical attention has been paid to phenomena of demonic possession – especially in the early modern period – texts and practices of exorcism have been comparatively neglected, and no comprehensive history of exorcism from its early Christian beginnings to the twenty-first century exists. A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity addresses the development of the liturgy and practice of exorcism from the fourth century to the present day in Latin and Roman Catholic Christianity.

The book will explore the origins of liturgical exorcism in rites of baptism, the development of priestly exorcism in the late Middle Ages, connections between exorcism and magic and the uses to which exorcism was put in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. It will also examine the application of exorcism in European colonies in the early modern period, the development of scepticism about the rite in the eighteenth century and the revival of exorcism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before assessing the position of exorcism within the contemporary Catholic Church.



Article on Papists in the Isle of Ely published in Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society


My article ‘Papists and Non-jurors in the Isle of Ely, 1559-1745’ has just been published in Volume 104 of Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, pp. 161-70. This is the first study ever made of Catholicism after the Reformation in the Isle of Ely, an area which is now part of Cambridgeshire but which, before 1874, was traditionally a separate county jurisdiction. The geographical Isle of Ely is the area of raised ground around the city of Ely itself, including the villages of Witchford, Witcham, Haddenham and others, which stood above water during the winter flooding of the Fens; however, the term soon came to be applied to all of the territory under the immediate temporal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely, which stretched as far north as Wisbech (the Bishop’s spiritual jurisdiction, the Diocese of Ely, covered the entirety of what is now Cambridgeshire and still does).

Isle of Ely map1

The Isle of Ely has not been studied for evidence of post-Reformation Catholic activity before owing to the prevailing assumption amongst historians that there were hardly any Catholics in Cambridgeshire, apart from a scattering of gentry families (such as the Huddlestones of Sawston) in the south of the county. Furthermore, the Isle of Ely was under the firm control of the Bishop of Ely as diocesan and temporal lord, meaning that it was virtually impossible for anyone to get away with recusancy (neighbouring Suffolk and Norfolk, by contrast, were a hotchpotch of local jurisdictions where people regularly defied the recusancy laws). However, the Isle of Ely played a key role in the history of Elizabethan and Jacobean Catholicism because it was here, at Wisbech and Ely, that many priests and lay Catholics were imprisoned. Wisbech Castle, in particular, became a hotbed of Catholic intellectual life. These prisoners were, for the most part, not local to the area, but time and again the records of Wisbech Castle show that local people helped priests escape, and my article focusses on these local sympathisers in an effort to discover who they were and why they may have supported the priests.

Sympathisers in the Isle of Ely were rarely if ever recusants, and this is why historians have missed them – however, families such as the Finchams of Upwell and Outwell, the Prances of March and the Pratts of Whittlesey were church papists or occasional conformists, some of whom later became recusants when they moved out of the area. Perhaps the best known Catholic from the Isle of Ely was Miles Prance, the unfortunate goldsmith-in-ordinary to Queen Catherine of Braganza whose false testimony set in motion the events of the Popish Plot in 1678.

In addition to Catholics, my article also examines Protestant Non-jurors (individuals who refused to take oaths of allegiance to William and Mary and their successors after 1689), since these appear in the records alongside popish non-jurors. Non-jurors sometimes had Catholic sympathies even if they were not recusants, and in the eighteenth century the Non-juror Simon Hake of Chatteris was married to a member of a prominent Yorkshire Catholic family.

It is my hope that this article will revise perceptions of the religious history of the Isle of Ely, an area hitherto associated solely with Protestant dissent but which was not entirely without its Catholic sympathisers.



Edward Petre: England’s most notorious Jesuit

Edward Petre, ‘the man of great enterprise and little success’, from a contemporary French caricature

Yesterday I paid my third visit to Brentwood to speak to the South Eastern Catholic History Society. Last time I spoke on Thomas White, and my subject on this occasion was another famous (or rather infamous) priest from Essex, Fr Edward Petre SJ (1631-99). Petre was the son of Sir Francis Petre, 1st Baronet of Cranham (c. 1603-58), the founder of the Jesuit College of the Holy Apostles (which covered Essex and East Anglia). In 1679 he himself inherited the baronetcy. Petre is best known as a favourite of King James II, who appointed him Clerk of the Closet in 1686 and a member of the Privy Council in 1687. Petre was also Dean of the Catholic Chapel Royal in the Palace of Whitehall. During and after the Revolution of 1688 Petre was vilified in England and, indeed, in Europe (especially in the Netherlands).

Fr Petre
Fr Petre seduces Queen Mary of Modena, from a Dutch engraving (1688)

Perhaps the best known image of Petre, portraying him as the stereotypical Jesuit (dark-skinned and foreign-looking, in spite of the fact that Petre was entirely English), dates from just after the birth of James, Prince of Wales in June 1688. The lecherous Jesuit’s hand is suggestively close to Queen Mary of Modena’s breast, while the Queen rocks the Prince of Wales in his cradle; the engraving alludes to the ‘warming pan’ conspiracy theory, according to which Petre helped smuggle a baker’s son into the prince’s cradle.

Bawdy house

Another Dutch etching from the period of the Revolution, by De Hooghe, is entitled ‘Pater Peters Lusthuys’ (‘Father Petre’s bawdy-house’) and depicts Petre sitting at table with personified vices. The detail below shows Petre conversing with Vanity, with his foot on a closed Bible (symbolising ignorance of Scripture).


I became interested in Petre because he was the son of Elizabeth Gage, the elder sister of Sir Edward Gage of Hengrave. During the course of my research I uncovered the fact, missed by historians of the reign of James II, that Petre did not immediately part company with James’s court and, in fact, accompanied James on his expedition to Ireland in 1690-91. This suggests that Petre’s advice was valued more by James than previously thought, even after the Revolution.

My paper is available to download here.


Seminar at Birkbeck: ‘Exorcism and the Development of Ritual Magic’


Yesterday I led one of Birkbeck University of London’s EMPHASIS Seminars in the Senate House on the subject of ‘Exorcism and the Development of Ritual Magic’. The paper covered the early development of liturgical exorcism as part of rites of baptism, its expansion into the exorcism of energumens (demoniacs), and the ways in which ritual magicians, from the fourteenth century onwards, made use of liturgical texts of exorcism as part of their operations to summon, interrogate and banish spirits in necromancy.

The text of my paper is available here.

I am very grateful to Birkbeck’s Dr Stephen Clucas and Dr Anthony Ossa-Richardson of the University of Southampton for inviting me to lead a seminar and for their welcome and hospitality.


‘Draw on Sweet Night’: review of the film

Draw on Sweet Night

This evening I attended a screening at the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds of Tony Britten’s new film ‘Draw on Sweet Night’, a biopic of the great Suffolk composer John Wilbye, who worked for the Kytsons of Hengrave Hall between 1592 and 1628 and thereafter for their daughter, Mary Darcy, Countess Rivers. The screening was followed by a question and answer session with the director. Back in the 1990s, an A Level project on John Wilbye was the first serious piece of historical research I ever attempted, as a result of which I consulted the meagre historical record of the man in the form of a few letters and papers in Cambridge University Library and the Bury St Edmunds Record Office. At the time I was volunteering at Hengrave Hall and giving guided tours, and becoming increasingly fascinated by Hengrave’s musical heritage. Had I been told, back in 1998, that a feature film of Wilbye’s life would one day be made, I would have dismissed such a thought as a mere daydream – but the film is real.

I am not in a position to comment on the film’s artistic merit, nor would I wish to, so the purpose of this review is to assess the film’s historical plausibility. I was relieved to note that, at the end of the credits, Britten included the disclaimer that most of the film was ‘glorious conjecture’. However, some of his conjectures are better grounded than others, and after seventeen years of studying the Hengrave manuscripts I have a reasonable idea of what was going on at Hengrave at the time the film is set. It is worth noting at the outset that the idea that Wilbye conducted a love affair with Mary Darcy, Countess Rivers is an old one, dating back to the biographical speculations of Edmund Fellowes as long ago as 1914. The idea that Wilbye also conducted affairs with Lady Elizabeth Kytson and Arbella Stuart is unique to Britten’s film and, needless to say, entirely fictitious.

Draw on Sweet Night01

‘Draw on Sweet Night’ was filmed at Kentwell Hall rather than Hengrave, which seems to have been a sound decision for two reasons; in the first place, Kentwell still has its moat and ancillary buildings, both of which have disappeared at Hengrave; and secondly, much effort has been put into restoring Kentwell to its original Tudor state and Britten was able to call upon the services of the volunteer Kentwell re-enactors as extras. Thus I was happily able to disregard the fact that Hengrave is a stone-built Henrician house while Kentwell is a brick-built Elizabethan one.

Some of the more plausible conjectures in the film are the close collaboration between Wilbye and George Kirbye, the Jermyn family’s madrigalist at Rushbrooke Hall, the possibility that patrons could have written the words to the madrigals, and (to some extent), Wilbye’s dispute with Elizabeth Kytson over setting a Latin mass. Scholars have long recognised strong similarities between the music of Wilbye and Kirbye, although they were not quite as geographically close as the film seems to imply. The idea that Mary Darcy could have written the words to some of Wilbye’s madrigals is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility – Sir Phillip Sidney has also been suggested as a possibility. It is highly likely, in my view, that Wilbye was a church papist – he originated from Brome, the same village as Elizabeth Kytson (née Cornwallis), and he set some Latin religious words to music during his time in Lady Elizabeth’s service. At the time, Hengrave employed singers and the chapel contained a cushion suspiciously embroidered with an image of the Virgin Mary – small-scale polyphonic masses, such as William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices were sung in recusant settings, and an argument between Wilbye and Lady Kytson over this issue is eminently plausible.

A further plausible event is Elizabeth Kytson’s absolution by a Catholic priest on her deathbed and subsequent Catholic funeral. The church at Hengrave was a family mausoleum from 1589, and it is conceivable that a priest could have conducted a Catholic funeral there without bringing the immediate notice of the authorities. However, the film committed the now all too common error, in the scene of George Kirbye’s wedding, of vesting the minister in a stole and placing a cross on the altar – two things that would never have been seen in a Church of England church until the 1850s.

An aspect of the film that is far less plausible is the negative portrayal of Sir Thomas Kytson the Younger as a religious conformist and disloyal husband to Lady Elizabeth, when the evidence suggests that he was a committed recusant given to occasional ostentatious displays of conformity when the authorities were looking in his direction. There is no evidence to suggest that he and Lady Elizabeth differed in their religious opinions. Indeed, Sir Thomas belonged to that hard core of East Anglian Catholic gentry who traced their adherence to the faith back to Mary’s reign, when a teenage Sir Thomas witnessed Queen Mary’s arrival at Hengrave on her way to Framlingham to claim the Crown.

Britten’s sympathetic portrayal of Mary Darcy is at odds with the evidence; in the film, Lady Mary says that she does not want to allow her children to return to their heartless father Earl Rivers at St Osyth, whereas in reality Mary sent her daughter Penelope (the future Lady Penelope Gage) to live with her father at St Osyth. As a mother, Mary had favourites and seems to have preferred her daughter Elizabeth over Penelope. My impression of Mary from her surviving letters is that she was a forbidding, calculating and domineering woman – more so than her mother Elizabeth Kytson.

During my research into John Wilbye all those years ago, one of my most important discoveries was that Wilbye was not, as David Brown still thought in his article for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a lifelong bachelor. In 1628 he married Elizabeth Butts, the widow of Nathaniel Cullum of Thornden, which would make sense as that was when he was formally released from the service of Lady Kytson by her death. Since Fellowes’ thesis of a romantic entanglement with Lady Rivers was based on the idea that Wilbye went to live with her in Colchester in 1628, the fact that Wilbye got married in the same year tends to undermine it, and the general picture of Wilbye depicted by Tony Britten in the film. But then, as Britten pointed out after the screening, it is hard to imagine that someone who composed Wilbye’s passionate madrigals was ‘a dry old stick’.


‘Tudor Magic and Religion’ at Treadwell’s

Treadwells picture

Yesterday evening I spoke at Treadwell’s bookshop in London on the theme of ‘Tudor Magic and Religion’, with a particular focus on the phenomenon of ritual magic (conjuration of good and evil spirits) and the different attitudes adopted to this practice by shades of religious opinion in sixteenth-century England. I argued that it is not enough simply to describe Catholicism as open to magical practices and Protestantism as opposed to them; rather, poles of opinion on the subject of magic existed within both Catholicism and Protestantism. Using examples drawn from the newly translated Cambridge Book of Magic, I went on to argue that magical practice needs to be studied as part of the history of Tudor religion; many magicians considered ritual magic a religious act and part of a spiritual practice, rather than as the illicit act seen by the religious authorities.

A very interesting and wide-ranging discussion followed the talk, which touched on magic in Shakespeare, magic as a military technology, and the debate as to how far magic should be seen as a form of ‘supernatural technology’ and how far it should be seen as a spiritual practice, an aspect of rather than an excrescence of religion. I am grateful to Christina Oakley Harrington for inviting me to speak at Treadwell’s and for arranging an event that, I hope, will help to raise the profile of ritual magic in England in the earlier part of the sixteenth century, which has hitherto been neglected owing to a strong focus on John Dee and seventeenth-century magic.

My paper is available to download here.


Lecture to Bury St Edmunds Past and Present Society

Bury Guildhall

This evening I delivered a lecture to the Bury St Edmunds Past and Present Society entitled ‘Catholics in Bury St Edmunds in the eighteenth century’. The event took place at the Hunter Club in St Andrew’s Street. I summarised my findings concerning the Catholic community in the town in the period 1660-1800 in my book The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640-1767, which is as much about the wider Catholic community in West Suffolk as it is about the county’s foremost recusant family, the Gages. The Suffolk Records Society was represented by the General Editor, David Sherlock, and I was glad to see that the talk was so well attended. I was particularly pleased to meet Martyn Taylor, author of Secret Bury St Edmunds and other books.