Parsons, Robert better known as Father Parsons, a noted English divine, originally a Protestant, but finally an ardent adherent of the Romish faith, and a most influential member of the Society of Jesus, was born of very humble parentage at Netherstowey, near Bridgewater, in Somersetshire, in 1546. He was as a boy remarkable for his native endowments and his devotion to study. The vicar of the town, interested in the promising youth, gave him instruction in Latin and Greek, and when he had been properly prepared for college contributed liberally towards Robert's support at Oxford, where he was admitted to Baliol College in 1563. In the university Parsons was remarkable as a clever disputant in scholastic exercise, then much in vogue; so that, having taken his first degree in arts in 1568, he was the same year made probationer-fellow of his college; and, taking pupils, was presently the most noted tutor in it. He entered into orders soon after, and was made socius sacerdos, or chaplain-fellow. In 172 he proceeded M.A., was busar that year, and the next dean of the college; — but being charged by the society with incontinency and embezzling the college money, to avoid the shame of a formal expulsion he was permitted, out of respect for his learning, to send in his resignation, Feb. 1573-4. After quitting Oxford he went first to London. and thence, June, 1574, through Antwerp to Louvain, where, meeting with the Jesuit father, William Good, his countryman, he spent a week in the spiritual exercises at the college of the Jesuits. He next proceeded to Padua, there to study medicine, in order to practice it for a support; but he had not been long at Padua before the unsettled state of his mind and of his affairs excited in him a curiosity to visit Rome. This visit fixed him heartily as a Jesuit; for here meeting with some Englishmen of the order, he became so impatient to be among them that he went back to Padua, settled his affairs there, and returning to Rome, May, 1575, was chosen a member of the Society of Jesus, and admitted into the English college. He was indeed framed by nature, as well as bent by inclination, to this society — being fierce, turbulent, and bold, and he soon made a distinguished figure in it. Having completed the course of his studies, he became one of the principal penitentiaries; and was in such credit with the pope in 1579 that he obtained a grant from his highness to raise a hospital at Rome, founded in queen Mary's time, and to establish it as a college or seminary for the English. Later he was sent, together with Campian, to England to influence the Anglican clergy towards a return to the Romish Church, and in this mission proved himself a most dexterous and wily messenger. As the law at the time forbade the admission of popish emissaries, Parsons carefully concealed his purpose; and made himself known only to those he knew he could safely trust. He at one time prided himself in having so far succeeded in his purpose, that the overture of the Anglican Church to the Romish fold was very imminent. But at this very time, so auspicious to him as he believed, his co-laborer was discovered by the watchful agents of lord Burleigh and imprisoned. Parsons thereupon hastily passed over into France, and stopped at Rouen. While in England he had found means to privately print and put in circulation books advocating the re-establishment of the papal Church in England, and on kindred subjects; and now, not being otherwise employed, he printed others, which he likewise caused to be dispersed there. In 1583 he returned to Rome, being succeeded in his office of superior to the English mission by one Heyward. However, the management of that mission was left to him by Aquavivai, the general of the order, and he was appointed prefect of it in 1592. In the interim having procured for the English seminary before mentioned at Rome a power of choosing an English rector in 1586, he was himself elected into that office the following year. Upon the prodigious preparations in Spain to invade England, father Parsons was despatched to Madrid, to turn the opportunity of the present temper of its monarch to the best advantage of the Jesuits, whose enormities had nearly brought them into the Inquisition. Parsons found means to elude the severity of that tribunal; obtained of the king that his majesty should appoint one of the judges, and himself another, for this Inquisition, and then set about the main business of the voyage. He caused seminaries to be erected for the purpose of supplying England from time to time with priests, who should keep alive the spirit of Romanism that he had enkindled, as well as opposition to the Protestant crown, and to prepare the papists there to join with any invasion which those abroad might procure. Thus, for instance, he dealt with the duke of Guise to erect a seminary for. such a purpose in Normandy; and now he prevailed with Philip II to erect such in Spain; so that in a short time they could not only boast of their seminaries at Rome and Rheims, but of those at Valladolid, Seville, and St. Lucar in Spain, at Lisbon in Portugal, and at Douai and St. Omer in Flanders. In all these the English Roman Catholic youth who were sent to them were educated in violent prejudices against their native country, and their minds formed to all the purposes that father Parsons had in his head; one of these was obliging them to subscribe to the title of the infanta of Spain to the crown of England. In support of this scheme he published his. Conference about the next Succession to that Crown, advocating as lawful the intended deposition of queen Elizabeth. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Parsons left no means in his power untried to invite the duke of Guise, at that time all-powerful in France, to a second invasion; and when nothing effectual could be obtained that way, he endeavored to raise a rebellion in England. He tampered with the earl of Derby to appear at the head of it, and when that nobleman refused to be led into disloyal schemes he was poisoned, it is charged, by Parsons' procurement. Nor is this the only charge brought against Parsons. We find Sir Ralph Winwood informing secretary Cecil from Paris, in 1602, of an attempt to assassinate the queen that year by another English Jesuit, at the. instigation of father Parsons (Winwood, Memorials, vol. 1). Finding all his projects against queen Elizabeth blasted, he plotted the exclusion of king James by several means; one of which was exciting the people to set up a popular form of government, for which he had furnished them with principles in several of his books. Another was to engage the pope in a design of making his kinsman the duke of Parma king of England, and securing the assistance of lady Arabella by marrying her to the duke's brother, cardinal Farnese. Cardinal d'Ossat gives the king of France a large account of both these projects in one of his letters, and in another mentions a third, wherein he himself had been dealt with by Parsons, which was that the pope, the king of France, and the king of Spain should agree among themselves for a successor for England who should be a Catholic, and that they should join their forces to establish him on the throne (Ossat, Letters, pt. 2, lib. 3). However, the death of his friend, cardinal Allen, in 1594, drew Parsons's attention for a while off these weighty public affairs upon his own private concerns. It was chiefly by his interest that the cardinal had obtained the purple, and he conceived great hopes of succeeding him in it. The dignity was worth his utmost endeavors, and he turned every stone to compass it. For that purpose he employed some Jesuits to set about in Flanders a petition to the king of Spain, subscribed by great numbers of the lowest of the people as well as those of better rank and quality. He applied also to. that monarch by John Piragues, one of his prime confidants, but received no answer; and then repaired himself to Rome in 1596, under pretense of settling some quarrels that had arisen in the English college there during his absence. He had the year before been complimented, in a letter from some of the principal persons of his order there, on the assured prospect he had of succeeding; and upon his arrival was visited, among others of the highest rank, particularly by cardinal Bellarmine, who encouraged him to wait upon the pope, as he did, with an account of the reports that were spread all over Flanders, and even at Rome, of his holiness's design to confer the purple upon him, and that the king of Spain had written to his holiness regarding this promotion. But in a personal interview with the pontiff, Parsons learned that there had been sent to his holiness so many complaints of him from the secular clergy, that, instead of bringing him into the sacred college, he had some thoughts of stripping him of the posts he was already possessed of. To avert this disgrace, Parsons withdrew on pretense of health to Naples, and did not return to Rome till after the death of the pope (Clement VIII) in 1606. Parsons now continued to devote his attention mainly to the successful termination of the English work; and under the next pontiff, Paul IV, enjoyed greater favor at Rome. When suddenly brought to a sick-bed, and his recovery was regarded as extremely doubtful. the pope indulged Parsons in all the ceremonies usually granted to cardinals at the point of death. Upon his decease at Rome in 1610 his body was embalmed, and interred, pursuant to his own request, in the chapel of his college, close to that of cardinal Allen.
The Jesuits all abound in praise of father Parsons but there are many Romanists who impeach the integrity of his character. Thus cardinal D'Ossat, in a letter to the king of France, giving an account of Parsons's Conference, declares that he was a man who regarded neither truth nor reason. Pasquin also at Rome thus exposed Parsons's factious and plotting humor: "If there be any man that will buy the kingdom of England, let him repair to a merchant in a black square cap in the city, and he shall have a very good penny worth thereof." To conclude, the imputation laid upon him by the English secular Romish priests, as well as the Protestants, that Parsons was a person of a turbulent and seditious nature, is sufficiently supported by his numerous writings, the titles of which are as follows: A brief Discourse, containing the Reasons why Catholics refuse to go Church, with a Dedication to Queen Elizabeth, under the fictitious name of John Howlet, Dec. 15, 1580: — Reasons for his coming into the Mission of England, etc.; by some ascribed to Campian: — A brief Censure upon two Books written against the Reasons and Proofs: — A Discovery of John Nichols, unreported a Jesuit, all written and printed while our author was in England: — A Defence of the Censure given upon his two Books, etc. (1583): — De persecutione Ancylicana epistola (Rome and Ingolstadt, 1582): — A Christian Directory (1583): — A second Part of a Christian Directory, etc. (1591); these two parts being printed erroneously at London, our author published an edition of them under this title; A Christian Directory, guiding Men to their Salvation, etc., with many Corrections and Additions by the Author himself; this book is really an excellent one, and was afterwards put into modern English by Dr. Stanhope, dean of Canterbury, and has gone through eight editions, the last in 1782: — Responsio ad Eliz. Reginae edictum contra Catholicos (Romae, 1593), under the name of And. Philopater: — A Conference about the next Succession to the Crown of England, etc. (1594), under the feigned name of Doleman: — A temperat Wardword to the turbulent and seditious Watchword of Sir F. Hastings, Knight, etc. (1599), under the same name: — A Copy of a Letter written by a Master of Arts at Cambridge, etc. (written in 1584, and printed about 1600); this piece was commonly called "Father Parsons's Green Coat," being sent from abroad with the binding and leaves in that livery: — Apologetical Epistle to the Lords of her Majesty's Privy Council, etc. (1601): — Brief Apology, or Defence of the Catholic Ecclesiastical Hierarchy erected by Pope Clement VIII, etc. (St, Omer, 1601): — A Manifestation of the Folly and bad Spirit of secular Priests (1602): — A Decachordon often quodlibetical Questions (1602): — De Peregrinatione: — An Answer to O. E. whether the Papists or Protestants be true Catholics (1603): — A Treatise of the three Conversions of Paganism to the Christian Religion, published (as are also the two following) under the.name of N. D. [Nicholas Doleman] in 3 vols. 8vo (1603, 1604): — A Relation of a Trial made before the King of
France in 1600 between the Bishop of Evreux and the Lord Plessis Mornay (1604): — A Defence of the precedent Relation, etc. — A Review often public Disputations, etc., concerning the Sacrifices and Sacranent of the Altar (1604):The Foierunner of Bell's Downfall. of Popery (1605): — An Answer to the Fifth Part of the Reports of Sir Edward Coke, etc. (1606, 4to), published under the name of a Catholic Divine: — De sacris alienis non adeundis, quaestiones duce (1607): — A Treatise tending to Mitigation towards Catholic Subjects in England, against Thomas Morton afterwards bishop of Durham (1607)7 The Judgment of a Catholic Gentleman concerning King James's Apology, etc., — (1608): — Sober Reckoning with Thomas Morton (1609): A Discussion of Mr. Barlow's Answer to the Judgment of a Catholic Englishman concerning the Oath of Allegiance (1612); this book, being left not quite finished at our author's death, was afterwards completed and published by Thomas Fitzherbert. The following are also posthumous pieces: The Liturgy of the Sacrament of the Mass (1620): — A Memorial for the Reformation, etc.; thought to be the same with The High Court and Council of the Reformation, finished, after twenty years' labor, in 1596, but not published till after our author's death, and republished from a copy presented to James II, with an introduction and some animadversions by Edward Gee, under the title of The Jesuits' Memorial for the intended Reformation of the Church of England under their first Popish Prince (1690, 8vo). There is also ascribed to him A Declaration of the true Causes of the great Troubles presupposed to be intended against the Realm of England, etc.; seen and allowed, anno 1581. Parsons, besides, translated from the English into Spanish, A Relation of certuin Martyrs in England, printed at Madrid, 1590, 8vo. See Dr. James, Jesuits' Downfall (1612); Berington, Memoirs of Gregor Panzani (papal legate in England under Charles D. Henke, Kirchengesch. vol. 3; Dodd, Ch. Hist. (see Index); Lingard (Romans Cath.), Hist. of England; Hallam, Literary Hist. of Europe; id. Constit. Hist. of England; Green, Hist. of the English People, p. 412; Ranke. Hist. of the Papacy, i, 1439, 504; Nutt., Ch. Hist. of England; (Lond.) Gentleman's Magazine, 1823, p. 412 sq.; Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Authors, 2:1517, 1518.