The archpriest controversy (1598–1602) grew out of the opposition of a few English seminary priests to the institution of the archpriest and to the authority of George blackwell, first to be appointed to this office in March 1598. During Cardinal William allen's lifetime the weakness of having no superior over the clergy in England was obscured by his own great prestige and by that of Henry garnet, the Jesuit superior, who dealt with urgent practical problems.
After Allen's death in October 1594, Clement VIII, thinking the time yet unripe for a bishop, appointed Blackwell through Cajetan, the Cardinal Protector, as archpriest with 12 assistants to rule the seminary priests on the mission. Over Blackwell with appellate powers was the papal nuncio to Flanders. For years there had been a combined move on the part of the rebellious students in the English College, the faction in Flanders, and a few priests in England, mostly prisoners in Wisbech Castle, to have the Jesuits recalled from England and removed from the government of the seminaries. One clause of the Protector's Instructions to Blackwell provided for consultation with the Jesuits. This later caused contention. The new appointment was warmly welcomed in England by more than 300 priests. Some 15, however, at first refused to recognize their new superior. Two of them, William Bishop and Robert Charnock, left for Rome in late summer 1598 to appeal, while those remaining enlisted the support of the persecuting government, a ploy later so characteristic of the group. Blackwell's appointment, however, was but the occasion for the journey, for the trouble-makers in England and abroad had been planning an embassy to Rome some months before it had been made; they now pursued these plans, adding thereto dislike of the new office and personal complaints against Blackwell.
Their embassy caused great displeasure in Rome. They were examined individually, and a papal brief on April 6, 1599, confirmed both the institution of archpriest and the appointment of Blackwell. Hostilities against Blackwell were resumed, and for two years letters, manifestoes, and polemical pamphlets, printed with the connivance of the bishop of London, developed the grievances of the dissidents. They alleged canonical objections to Blackwell and his office, and even questioned the pope's power to make such an appointment. The appellants charged that Blackwell was a tool of the Jesuits, who, according to the appellants, were interested chiefly in their own aggrandizement on the English mission. Exasperation at their insolent tone and their protection by the persecutors drove Blackwell to denounce them in sharp language and to issue edicts and suspensions against them somewhat indiscriminately, thus providing ostensible justification for their second appeal, Nov. 17, 1600. A second brief reconfirmed the appointment and forbade prosecution of the appeal, but the appellants, having left England late in 1601, with passports and covert government backing, saw the brief in Flanders and ignored it. In France they were favorably received by the court, for reasons of its anti-Spanish policy, and in Rome they were protected by the French ambassador. The documents reveal the latter's skillful intervention, as well as the impudence and inveracity of the appellants.
Hearings were terminated by a brief, Oct. 5, 1602, addressed to Blackwell, ipso facto confirming his authority, but severely reproving aspects of his conduct. It restricted his powers and ordered him to appoint appellants among his assistants. Though the Jesuits were praised, all official consultation with them was, with their agreement, forbidden. All controversial writings, and collusion with heretics in praejudicium Catholicorum, were forbidden under censures. Because it broke unity among mission workers, the brief was a disastrous turning point for English Catholicism.
Bibliography: t. g. law, ed., The Archpriest Controversy, 2 v. (Camden Society 56, 58; London 1896–98). j. h. pollen, The Institution of the Archpriest Blackwell (New York 1916). r. persons, A Briefe Apologie … (London 1602). p. renold, ed., The Wisbech Stirs, 1595–1598 (Proceedings of the Catholic Record Society 51; 1958).