Francis Young

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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.

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This entry was posted on November 15, 2015 by .
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