English Jesuit; b. Nether Stowey, Somersetshire, June 24, 1546; d. Rome, Apr. 15, 1610. He was educated at Stogursey and Taunton and earned his degree at Oxford, becoming a fellow and later bursar of Balliol. In 1575 he left England to study medicine in Padua; but in Louvain, after a retreat under W. Good, SJ, he was probably reconciled to the Church. Having entered the Society of Jesus in 1575, he left Rome with (Bl.) Edmund Campion on April 18, 1580, for England. There he exercised considerable influence on Catholics by his pastoral work, as well as by his writing. In August of 1581, after Campion's arrest, he left England to consult Dr. William allen, but he was forbidden to return by the Jesuit general, Claudius acquaviva, since he and Allen had been declared traitors by the government. He retired to Rouen to write. He made two journeys to win support for invasion plans to aid James VI, king of Scotland, and his captive mother, Mary, Queen of Scots: one to Philip II in Lisbon in May of 1582, the other to Gregory XIII in August of 1583. Both plans failed because Philip II, though urged by the pope, refused military aid. Such political activity must be viewed in the light of contemporary practice, when popes often employed Jesuits on political missions, for example, the missions of Antonio Possevino and Francisco Toledo. Nor was there any other person to send on a mission that demanded dispatch and secrecy.
Back from Rome, Persons worked closely with Allen, residing chiefly in Rouen and Saint-Omer, writing
books and preparing priests for the English mission. In September of 1585 he journeyed to Rome with Allen to do his tertianship and to expose the intrigues of English councilors, who employed an agent, Solomon Aldred, to bribe leading personalities in the papal court to the jeopardy of the Catholic cause. In this the two Catholic leaders were successful. In Rome Persons took his final vows on May 9, 1587 and was instrumental in promoting Allen to the cardinalate.
After the failure of the Spanish Armada, Acquaviva sent Persons to Spain society business. Persons won high commendation for his work in Spain. He founded English seminaries at Valladolid and Seville and residences for English priests at San Lucar and Lisbon, and he brought about the foundation of a school for English Catholic boys at Saint-Omer in 1593.
Recalled to Rome in 1597 to settle the longstanding troubles in the English College, he succeeded in restoring peace and became rector of the college, a post he retained until his death. His plan for organizing the English Jesuits, proposed to Acquaviva while in Spain, was put into effect in 1598. They were to form a quasi province under a superior in Rome, to which post Persons was appointed, with prefects in Flanders and Spain and a superior in England. In the same year George blackwell was appointed archpriest and superior of seminary priests in England. Persons had proposed a plan for two English bishops, one in Flanders, the other in England, explaining it to the cardinals concerned; but Rome decided that the time was not propitious for such appointments. In the resistance of a few priests to the new institution and their ensuing controversy with Blackwell, Persons supported the archpriest and strove vainly to reconcile both parties in the disputes (see archpriest controversy).
Of Persons' writings the most famous is A Christian Directory, published in 1582 under the title The First Book of the Christian Exercise. The book went through many editions and translations. The Book of Succession was not written by Persons alone, but was the joint production of several contributors. Among his controversial works, the most outstanding is his Answer to the Fifth Part of Coke's Reports (1606), with his reply to Coke's answer, A Quiet and Sober Reckoning (1609). His Briefe Apologie is remarkable for its rich documentation.
Bibliography: "Memoirs," ed. j. h. pollen, Publications of the Catholic Record Society 2 (1906): 12–218; 4 (1907): 1–161; "Letters and Memorials to 1588," ed. l. j. hicks, ibid. 39 (1942). t. fitzherbert, "Letters," ed. l. j. hicks, ibid. 41 (1948). p. renold, ed., "The Wisbech Stirs," ibid. 51 (1958). l. j. hicks "Fr. Persons, S.J. and the Seminaries in Spain," Month 157 (1931): 193–204, 410–417, 497–506; 158 (1931): 26–35, 143–152; "The Growth of a Myth: Fr. Robert Persons, S.J. and Leicesters Commonwealth," Studies 46 (1957): 91–105; "The Embassy of Sir Anthony Standen in 1603," Recusant History 5 (1959–60): 91–127, 184–222; 6 (1961–62): 163–194; 7 (1963–64): 50–81. For further articles of L. Hicks see c. read, ed., Bibliography of British History: Tudor Period, 1485–1603 (23 ed. New York 1959). c. sommer-vogel, Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, 11 v. (Brussels-Paris 1890–1932) 6:292–316.