The Petres are one of those staunch and constant families, which have played a great part in the preservation of the Catholic Faith in England. There is no volume of the "Catholic Record Society" (London) which does not contain references to their name, sometimes by scores; Gillow gives biographies of fifteen, Kirk of ten; the Jesuits count twelve in their order, and there are eighteen in the current "Catholic Who's Who" (London).
The fortunes of the Petres were, oddly enough, built up on the ruins of the monasteries. Sir William Petre, with the pliability of his age, held the confidential post of secretary of State, through the revolutionary changes of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth. His later years were probably more orthodox ; his widow, the patroness of the martyr, Blessed John Payne, was certainly a loyal Catholic. His son, John, was created a baron by James I, and with his grandson William (d. 1637) Catholicism, which had not hitherto been professed by the heads of the house, was publicly acknowledged. William, fourth Lord, who had distinguished himself in the civil wars, died a martyr's death in the tower of London, 5 Jan., 1684, accused of complicity in Oates's Plot. Robert Edward, the ninth Baron (1742-1801), played a leading part in the struggles for Catholic Emancipation. He was, however, though a practical, and on the whole a good, Catholic, tainted by some of the Liberalistic ideas then prevalent, and failed as chairman of the Catholic Committee in the loyalty due to the bishops. He was also reputed to have been Grand Master of the Freemasons. But Masonry had not then been censured with the clearness with which it has been condemned since. William Joseph (b. 1847; d. 1893), a domestic prelate, and thirteenth Baron, devoted many years to Catholic liberal education, founding and maintaining a school at Woburn Park (1877-84) and defended his theories of education in several pamphlets. The family has also prduced two bishops, Francis (b. 1692; d. 1775) and Benjamin (b. 1672; d. 1758), who were respectively coadjutors of Bishop Dicconson in the Northern District and of Dr. Challoner in the Southern.
Jesuit and privy councillor (1631-99); fills more space in history than any of his family, owing to the multiplicity of attacks made upon him as a chaplain and adviser of James II. Petre's unpopularity as a Jesuit was so great that it harmed the king's cause; but if we regard his conduct by itself, no serious fault has yet been proved against him. If we cannot yet confidently acquit him of all blame, that is chiefly because first-hand evidence is very deficient; but the nearer we get to first-hand evidence, the better does Petre's conduct appear. Before James's accession (6 Feb., 1685) he had shown good, but not extraordinary virtue and ability, and was then vice-provincial of his order. James soon made him clerk of the closet, but without any political power. On 9 Oct. the king wrote to ask the pope to make him a bishop in partibus, and the pope refused (24 Nov., 1685). The first application made little or no stir; it did not even reach the ear of the general of the Jesuits till the pope told him of it, 22 May, 1686. At that time Lord Castlemaine, having arrived in Rome as James's ambassador, had renewed the application, while James urged it forcibly on Mgr. d'Adda, the papal nuncio in London (28 June). But if the pope was rightly immovable, the king was characteristically obstinate.
Next year (1687) Castlemaine renewed the petition with a doggedness that "excited the bile" of the pontiff (March). James backed up the application by letters of 16 June and 24 Sept., and now requested that Petre be made a cardinal ; but the pope (16 Aug., 22 Nov.) steadily refused. Such urgency was certain to be attributed to Petre's ambition, and the general of the order wrote pressingly (22 Nov., 20 Dec., and 10 Jan, 1688) for explanations. James himself now sent letters in Petre's defence to pope and general (22 Dec.), while the provincial and Petre also wrote, setting forth all they had done to persuade James to desist. All these letters are unfortunately lost, except those from the king. We know, however, that they completely vindicated Petre's character in the eyes of the pope and of the general. A further cause of irritation, however, had been given by the admission of Petre to the rank of privy councillor (11 Nov., 1687), and the oath of allegiance taken on that occasion, though not objected to in the case of the other Catholic lords, was much commented upon, and laid before the pope. But a better understanding now prevailed at Rome, and the incident dropped.
In England, on the other hand, after his nomination as privy councillor, the popular charges against him became more insulting than ever, and reached their height in the insinuations made about the birth of the prince (James Francis Stuart). Though the worst of these charges stand self-refuted, it is to be regretted that want of documents prevents our defending the father against others, though the presumptions are generally in his favour. If, as it is said, he persuaded James to dismiss the Countess of Dorchester (Mrs. Sedley), he may be said to have deserved his place at Court. If James had taken his advice and stayed on at Westminster, the fortunes of his house would probably have ended differently. Like everyone in James's entourage, Petre at first believed in Sunderland, but he was also among the first to detect that minister's duplicity, and to break with him. Setting aside prejudiced witnesses (and it will be remembered that there was a party against him, even among Catholics ), and studying those in sympathy with the Jesuit, we seem to perceive in him a steadfast, kind-hearted English priest, devoting himself with energy to the opportunities for spiritual good that opened out before him. With little gift for politics, nor paying much heed to them, he was nevertheless severely blamed when things went wrong. He was also regardless, almost callous, as to what was said about him by friend or foe.
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