George Blackwell

Trinity College in 1566 (looking north), shortly after its foundation
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Douai College
Pope Paul V by Caravaggio

Every so often you come across a story which is totally different than what you have seen before. Sometimes, these stories are very interesting and/or rather sad but nevertheless are quite interesting. Most time you come across them when you are looking for something else, as was this case.

This is the story of George Blackwell, an Archpriest. Who lived in the 16th century.

He was born in 1545 in Middlesex, England. It is believed that he was the son of a ‘pewterer,’ Thomas Blackwell. There are no details regarding his mother. He had a happy childhood compared with many other children and was admitted as a scholar to Trinity College, Oxford on the 27th May 1562. At the end of his course he graduated with a Batchelor’s degree in 1563 and then became a probationer of the college in 1565, a fellow the following year (1566) and graduated with an MA in 1567. He resigned or possibly was ejected from Trinity College in 1571, probably because of his religious beliefs. In 1574 he left the shores of England for the English College in Douai. He was ordained a priest in 1575 and graduated BST from the University of Douai the same year.

In 1601 a government spy described Blackwell as ‘about 50 years of age, his head brownish, his beard being more black, and cut after the fashion of a spade; of stature indifferent and somewhat thick, decently attired.

Father George Blackwell returned to England as a missionary in November 1576 and he was imprisoned in 1578 for his work as a priest. After being released from prison, he lived and worked from the house of Mrs. Meaney in Westminster, England in secret.

After the death of Cardinal Allen in 1594, the leadership of the clandestine Catholic mission in England was thrown into disarray. In March 1597, Cardinal Henry Cajetan wrote to Blackwell from Rome to tell him that Pope Clement VIII had appointed him archpriest, he lodged at the town house of Anthony-Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount Montagu, when in London. His instructions enjoined him to work in close consultation with the head of the Jesuit Mission in England. A number of secular priests in England, thinking that Blackwell was too close to the Jesuits, appealed to The pope to overturn Blackwell’s appointment and name a vicar apostolic with full episcopal powers. Bitter controversy followed on this appeal, and they followed this one appeal up with two more. The English government was keen to turn the controversy to its own advantage, and encouraged Blackwell’s ‘Appellant’ enemies behind the scenes. The upshot of this third and final appeal was that Blackwell’s powers were confirmed, but he was censured for his lack of tact and ordered that in future not to communicate to the Jesuits any matters pertaining to the mission of the secular clergy.

Then, following the gunpowder plot, Blackwell wrote to Rome and obtained a letter from Pope Paul V; condemning the plot and calling on English Catholics not to disturb the Peace. Part of the English Government’s response was to enforce a new ‘Oath of Allegiance,’ drafted in such a way that it was bound to create divisions within the English Catholic community, as to whether it could be taken in good conscience. It particular, one passage of this new oath could be read as giving the English authorities the right to define heresy.

Blackwell, citing the Pope’s call for civil obedience, advised all his priests that the oath could licitly be taken. The Pope, however, condemned the new oath soon afterwards. Blackwell, and a few other’s, continued to defend the oath despite this. An international theological controversy developed concerning the licitness of the oath.

On the 24th June 1607 Blackwell was arrested and taken to prison. Over the following ten days he was questioned seven times regarding his opinion of the oath. At the end of this ted-day period he was tendered the oath, which he then took. He also wrote an open letter to the English clergy, urging them to do the same as he had done. He insisted the oath could be legitimately be read as not contradicting the Pope’s ‘Supremacie in spiritual causes.’ It was a reading of the oath that did not satisfy the Pope himself, who relieved Blackwell of his position as an archpriest, nor the English Authorities, who kept him imprisoned for the remainder of his life.

He never went on trial for any wrong-doing he may have committed. Sadly, George Blackwell died in prison on the 12th January 1613, maintaining to the very last that his reading of the oath of Allegiance did not contradict either the Catholic doctrine or the actual meaning of the words enacted by Parliament, in fact he never did anything wrong although he was punished for it.

 David Rowland

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