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.

4 replies on “Edward Petre: England’s most notorious Jesuit”

I am researching the Rev. Philip Falle. He spent two years from 1687 – 1689 tutoring young Thomas Jermyn (1677 – 1692) at Rushbrooke. In August 1689 the Ecclesiastical Court in Jersey censured him for Romanism by his ‘friendship and travels with a Roman Priest’. This is assumed to be Edward Petre. I had thought that Petre left England in November 1688, and thus that Falle might have accompanied him to St Omer and elsewhere in France from 1688 – 1689, but if Petre was in Ireland from 1690 to 1691, as you have discovered, this is perhaps unlikely. I wonder if you have views on Petre’s detailed movements in the period ? Philip Stevens

This is fascinating – are there any grounds for assuming that Falle’s friendship was with Petre? There were several priests active in the Bury St Edmunds area in the period 1687-1689; Petre, of course, was in London. I wrote an article on Catholics in Bury at the time ( and there is more information in my book on the Gage family. I am still trying to track down more information on Petre’s time in Ireland; if I find anything more I’ll let you know

Balleine (A Biographical Dictionary of Jersey, 1948) is a meticulous historian. He says that the ‘Roman priest’ with whom Falle had travelled was ‘the famous Jesuit, Father Petre, the King’s Confessor. He was first cousin to Lady Jermyn and spent much of his time at Rushbrook. He offered to get Falle a Crown living, but the tutor (i.e. Falle, tutor to young Thomas Jermyn) had sufficient worldly wisdom to refuse preferment through Jesuit channels’. But he does not quote any sources for the above statements; only the statement that Petre was cousin to Lady Jermyn is verifiably true.

I have not been able to find any other reference, through printed works or the Internet, to Petre being at Rushbrook, or travelling with Falle. I will study the reference you have given me with great interest, and perhaps we can be in contact again. With many thanks

Philip Stevens (23 December).

I have now seen the conclusion of the Jersey Ecclesiastical Court of 12 August 1689. Falle is accused of frequenting and making ‘voyages’ with a ‘prestre Papiste’ and enjoined to adhere to the doctrines of the Anglican Church. It is true that Petre is not mentioned by name, but I can’t think (from the document on Bury Catholics you kindly sent) who else it could be. The irony is that Thomas Jermyn took Falle with him to Rushbrooke precisely to ensure that his son Thomas Jermyn (d. 1692) was not influenced by the Catholics in his house like his wife (cousin of Petre), Lady Brouncker, Lord Dover etc. It is also the case that Petre got Falle some preferment (perhaps when he was still on the Privy Council) but Falle declined it. Falle was at Rushbrooke from August 1687 – c. July 1689; do we have any idea of any travels
by Petre in the period ?

Philip Stevens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.