Weston, William (1550?-1615) (DNB00)

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WESTON, WILLIAM (1550?–1615), jesuit, also known as Edmonds and Hunt, born at Maidstone in 1549 or 1550, was educated at Oxford, where he is said to have been a fellow of All Souls' College. His name, however, does not occur in the college registers, and it is more probable that he was the William Weston who was admitted at Christ Church in 1564, and graduated B.A. on 17 Feb. 1568–9, though Foster conjecturally identifies this Weston with Sir William Weston (d. 1593), who became chief justice of common pleas in Ireland. There is no doubt that Weston was at Oxford, where he was a contemporary and friend of Edmund Campion [q. v.] After graduating he went to Paris to continue his studies, but in 1572 removed to the newly founded seminary at Douay, where he was enrolled among the theological students. In 1573 he was tonsured and received minor orders at Brussels. Two years later he resolved to become a jesuit; he set out on foot for Rome, and on 5 Nov. 1575 was received into the St. Andrew's novitiate on the Quirinal Hill. He left all his property to the college at Douay, and out of respect for Campion adopted the name Edmunds or Edmonds, by which he was chiefly known in England; he also passed sometimes under the name of Hunt. After some months at Rome he was sent to Montilla in Spain to complete his novitiate; thence he removed to the college at Cordova, where he remained three years. In 1579 he was ordained priest, and stationed as confessor at San Lucar and Cadiz. In 1582 he was appointed to teach Greek at the college at Seville, where he remained until in 1584 he was selected on Parsons' recommendation for the English mission. Early in July he reached Paris, where he spent some time with Parsons, and on 12 Sept. he embarked at Dieppe, landing on the coast of Norfolk, and proceeding thence to London.

Weston's appointment was as superior of the English jesuit mission in succession to Jasper Heywood [q. v.], who was in prison, but at the time of his arrival there was said to be not a jesuit at liberty in England. His first success was the conversion of Philip Howard, earl of Arundel [q. v.], but he soon acquired great fame by his reported exorcisms of devils. These miracles had already proved a potent means of converting heretics on the continent, and Weston's introduction of the method into England is said to have been marked by equal success [cf. art. Darrel, John]. ‘He went from one country house to another with a number of priests … who cast out devils and performed many prodigies upon certain maidservants and others … eye-witnesses swore to the facts. They actually saw the devils gliding about in immense numbers under the skins of the possessed like fishes swimming … A number of the devils revealed their names and offices under the interrogations of Weston; and Shakespeare has perpetuated the memory of Modo, Mahu, Hobbididance, and Flibbertigibbet, foul fiends who did homage to the relics of Campion and testified to the sanctity of Weston’ (King Lear, act iii. sc. iv; Harsnett, pp. 45–50, 180; Law, Jesuits and Seculars, pp. xliv–xlv, and ‘Devil Hunting in Elizabethan England’ in Nineteenth Century, xxxv. 397 sqq.) Weston wrote an account of these proceedings in a ‘Book of Miracles,’ but it is only known from the extracts printed in ‘A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures … practised by Edmunds alias Weston, a Iesuit,’ published by Samuel Harsnett [q. v.] in 1603. A passage in this book quoted from Weston describing how he cast out of one Mainy ‘Prince Modu’ and the representatives of the seven deadly sins, also suggested to Shakespeare some features in the feigned madness of Edgar. Weston, who was himself ‘grossly superstitious and credulous even for his time,’ probably believed sincerely in these manifestations, and there is no need to suppose that there was deliberate fraud on his part.

The excitement caused by this fanaticism and the discovery of Babington's plot probably led to Weston's arrest on 4 Aug. 1586. He was imprisoned in the Clink and examined as to his connection with Babington's conspiracy; no evidence was found against him, and he escaped his associate Ballard's fate. The Countess of Arundel is said to have visited him in disguise and to have offered to purchase his release, but Weston declined. He remained in the Clink till 1588, when the alarm of the Spanish armada suggested to the government the plan of having all imprisoned Roman catholics, laymen, secular priests, and jesuits, confined in one stronghold, to prevent their co-operating in any invasion. Wisbech Castle was selected, and Weston was transferred thither from the Clink on 7 Jan. 1587–8 (Acts Privy Council, 1587–8, p. 332). For six years he endured solitary confinement and great hardships; but in 1594 a considerable change was made in the treatment of the prisoners, either because immediate danger had passed, or, as has been suggested, because the government thought that if the Roman catholics were given rope enough they would hang themselves.

This calculation was to some extent justified by the event; for the license allowed the prisoners was soon followed by the commencement of the famous ‘Wisbech stirs,’ which divided the Roman catholics in England into two bitterly hostile factions. At first their proceedings caused some alarm; the prisoners formed themselves into a sort of college, held discussions and lectures which were frequented not only by outside Romanists, but by protestants, some of whom were converted, and complaints were made that Wisbech had become a dangerous seminary (Harl. MS. 6998, f. 220; Strype, Annals, iv. 273). But divisions soon sprang up between the secular priests and jesuits. The death of Thomas Watson (1513–1584) [q. v.] in 1584 had removed the last bishop in England whose authority Roman catholics could recognise, and that of Cardinal Allen in 1594 left them no constituted authority to obey. Thus an opportunity was afforded the jesuits of arrogating to themselves the spiritual control of the Roman catholics in England. At the same time the free living of the seculars at Wisbech, extending, the jesuits declared, to gross immorality, shocked the jesuits with Weston at their head; while the secular priests are said to have looked with no less suspicion on Weston's devil-hunting and exorcisms.

Soon after his arrival Weston took upon himself to act as censor of his fellow-prisoners, and his intrigues to secure a recognised position of superiority while appearing to be reluctant to assume it are detailed by his opponent Christopher Bagshaw [q. v.] in his ‘True Relation of the Faction begun at Wisbech by Fa. Edmonds alias Weston’ (1601). Weston's own narrative of these events has been significantly torn out of his autobiography preserved among the manuscripts at Stonyhurst. His scheme of government was suspected as an attempt of the jesuits to usurp a superiority over the other Roman catholics, and he failed to secure anything like a unanimous consent to it. He then resolved that separation from the seculars was necessary to the jesuits to preserve their own morals from contagion. Matters seem to have been brought to a head by the introduction of the hobby-horse and mummers at the Christmas festivities in 1594. Eighteen priests seceded with Weston, whom they chose as their ‘agent,’ and wrote a letter to Garnett asking for his confirmation, which was granted. The quarrel became famous throughout England and abroad as the ‘Wisbech stirs,’ and to avoid the scandal caused thereby Garnett eventually induced Weston to resign his ‘agency.’ Thereupon, in order to maintain the influence of the jesuits, Parsons suggested the appointment as archpriest of George Blackwell [q. v.], who, although a secular, was a devotee of the Society of Jesus. This expedient, however, only widened the dispute into the ‘Archpriest controversy’ [see art. Watson, William, (1559?–1603)].

Meanwhile Weston was transferred from Wisbech to the Tower of London towards the end of 1598. He remained in close confinement until the accession of James I, when he was given the option of taking the oath of allegiance or banishment. He chose the latter, and embarked on 13 May 1603, proceeding by way of Calais to St. Omer, and thence to Rome. After spending some months at Valladolid in 1604 he went to Seville, where in 1605 he was made spiritual father of the English College, lecturing also on theology, Hebrew, and Greek. In June 1614 he was appointed rector of the English college at Valladolid, where he died on 9 June 1615.

A portrait of Weston hangs in the college at Valladolid, and another in St. Andrew's novitiate at Rome; the latter is reproduced as a frontispiece to Father Morris's ‘Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers’ (2nd ser.) Weston's head is preserved at the novitiate at Roehampton.

[Towards the end of his life Weston wrote an autobiography, a copy of which in a very defective state is preserved at Stonyhurst; so much of it as is legible is printed by Father John Morris (1826–1893) [q. v.], in his elaborate Life of Weston (Troubles, 2nd ser. pp. 1–284); Morris also used a life of Weston written in 1615 by Father de Peralta, rector of the English College at Seville. Besides these, the most useful authorities are Mr. T. G. Law's Jesuits and Seculars, 1889, Archpriest Controversy (Camden Soc. 1896–8), and article in Nineteenth Century, vol. xxxv. See also Foley's Records of the English Province; Letters and Mem. of Cardinal Allen, p. 378; Douai Diaries, pp. 5, 18, 24, 103; Simpson's Life of Campion, ed. 1896, p. 113; Acts of the Privy Council; Cal. State Papers, Dom.; Cal. Hatfield MSS.; Diego de Yepes's Historia Particular de la Persecucion, Madrid, 1599; Bridgewater's Concertatio Eccl. 1594; Harsnett's Declaration of Popish Impostures, 1603; Bagshaw's True Relation, 1601, and William Watson's Dialogue, Quodlibets, Important Considerations, and Sparing Discoverie, all published in 1601, with Parsons's Brief Apologie and Manifestation, 1602?; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. App. pp. 334, 337; Taunton's English Black Monks of St. Benedict, 1898.]

A. F. P.