Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Petre, Edward

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PETRE, EDWARD (1631–1699), known as Father Petre or Peters, confessor of James II, born in London in 1631, was the second son of Sir Francis Petre, bart., of the Cranham branch of the family, of which the Barons Petre constituted the eldest branch. His mother was Elizabeth, third daughter of Sir John Gage, bart., of Firle Place, Sussex, and grandson of Sir John Gage [q. v.], constable of the Tower under Henry VIII. The story told in ‘Revolution Politicks,’ implying that he was educated at Westminster under Busby, is apocryphal. His family being devout Roman catholics, he was sent in 1649 to study at St. Omer, and three years later he entered the Society of Jesus at Watten, under the name of Spencer, though he was not professed of the four vows until 2 Feb. 1671. He obtained some prominence in the society, not so much for learning as for boldness and address. On the death of his elder brother Frances, at Cranham in Essex, about 1679, he succeeded to the title, and about the same time he received orders from his provincial, and was sent on the English mission. Being rector of the Hampshire district at the time of the popish plot (1679), he was arrested and committed to Newgate; but, as Oates and his satellites produced no specific charges against him, he was released, after a year's confinement, in June 1680. In the following August he became rector of the London district and vice-provincial of England; and, intelligence of this appointment having leaked out, he was promptly rearrested and imprisoned until 6 Feb. 1683. Exactly two years after his liberation James II ascended the throne, and at once summoned Petre to court. His correspondence with Père La Chaise and other ‘forward’ members of the society marked him out for promotion, and he soon gave evidence of his zeal and devotion. To him was given the superintendence of the royal chapel; he was made clerk of the royal closet, and he was lodged in those apartments at Whitehall which James had occupied when he was Duke of York. The queen appears to have regarded him with coldness, or even aversion, but he found an all-powerful ally in Sunderland. With Sunderland, along with Richard Talbot and Henry Jermyn (afterwards Lord Dover) [q. v.], he formed a sort of secret inner council, and it was by the machinations of this cabal that Sunderland eventually supplanted Rochester in the king's confidence; at the same time the king entrusted to Petre the conversion of Sunderland. James recognised in him ‘a resolute and undertaking man,’ and resolved to assign him an official place among his advisers. As a preliminary step, it was determined to seek some preferment for him from Innocent XI. In December 1686 Roger Palmer, earl of Castlemaine [q. v.], was sent to Rome to petition the pope to this effect. The first proposal apparently was that the pope should grant Petre a dispensation which would enable him to accept high office in the English church, and Eachard states that the dignity ultimately designed for Petre was the archbishopric of York, a see which was left vacant (from April 1686 to November 1688) for this purpose. The pope, however, who had little fondness for the jesuits, proved obdurate, both to the original request and to the subsequent proposal which Sunderland had the effrontery to make, that Petre should be made a cardinal. Innocent professed himself utterly unable to comply ‘salva conscientia,’ and added that ‘such a promotion would very much reflect upon his majesty's fame’ (see abstract of the correspondence in Dodd's Church Hist. iii. 424–5; D'Adda Correspondence in Addit. MS. 15396). He shortly afterwards ordered the general of the jesuits to rebuke Petre for his ambition.

Notwithstanding this rebuff, and in strong opposition to the wishes of the queen, James on 11 Nov. 1687 named Petre a privy councillor, along with the catholic lords Powis, Arundel, Belasyse, and Dover. The impolicy of such an appointment was glaring. James subsequently owned in his ‘Memoirs’ (ii. 77) that he was aware of it; but he ‘was so bewitched by my Lord Sunderland and Father Petre as to let himself be prevailed upon to doe so indiscreete a thing.’ Petre himself stated that he accepted the king's offer with the greatest reluctance, and it may certainly have been that he was over-persuaded by Sunderland. Until he took his seat at the council board his elevation was kept a profound secret from every one save Sunderland, whose efforts to remove Rochester from the council he henceforth powerfully seconded. With Sunderland he also took an active part in ‘regulating’ the municipal corporations and revising the commission of the peace. In December he was appointed chief almoner, and he had an important voice in filling up the vacant fellowships at Magdalen College. During these proceedings the pope's nuncio D'Adda frequently had occasion to write to Rome of Petre's rashness and indiscretion, while he said, with perfect truth, that his appointment gave a very powerful handle against the king (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. App. p. 225, 10th Rep. App. v. p. 119). The proclamation which the king caused to be made in the ‘Gazette’ of 2 Jan. 1687–8, to the effect that the queen was with child, was the signal for a crop of the most scurrilous broadsides against the king's confessor; and when the young prince was born, on Trinity Sunday, it was plainly insinuated that Petre was the father. Many versions, however, represented him as merely being the medium of the transference of the child from the ‘miller's wife’ to the queen's bed. When the crisis came in November 1688, Petre resolutely adjured the king not to leave Westminster (Barillon, 9, 18, 22, 25 Nov.; Dumont, Lettres Historiques, November 1688). This was probably the best advice that Petre had ever tendered to his sovereign, but he was thought to speak from interested motives—it being well known that he was most obnoxious to the rabble, and that his life would not be worth a day's purchase if he were left behind at Whitehall. Petre took ample precautions to avert this contingency. The night before the king's departure he slept at St. James's, whence, making his exit next day by a secret passage, he escaped to Dover in disguise, and succeeded in reaching France before his master. He never saw James again. His rooms at Whitehall were occupied by Jeffreys for a short time after his flight; when Jeffreys himself decamped to Wapping, they were broken into by a protestant mob (cf. Twelve Bad Men, ed. Seccombe, p. 92). Petre spent the next year quietly at St. Omer, unheeding the torrent of abusive pamphlets and broadsides with which he was assailed. In December 1689 he was at Rome, but ‘not much lookt on there’ (Luttrell, i. 616). In 1693 he was appointed rector of the college at St. Omer, where the enlightened attention that he paid to the health and cleanliness of the community made him highly valued (Oliver, Collections). In 1697 he was sent to Watten, where he died on 15 May 1699. His voluminous correspondence was transferred from St. Omer to Bruges, where it was unfortunately lost during the suppression of the jesuits by the Austrian government in October 1773. A few of his letters, however, are preserved among Lord Braye's papers at Stamford Hall, Rugby (Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. App. vi. p. 124). The abiding hatred with which he was regarded by the London mob was shown by the burning in effigy to which he was submitted on Guy Fawkes day and Queen Elizabeth's birthday until the close of Anne's reign.

There is no contemporary likeness of Petre (excepting caricatures); an imaginary portrait is given a conspicuous position in E. M. Ward's well-known picture in the National Gallery, ‘James II receiving the news of the landing of the Prince of Orange.’ Satirical portraits are affixed to numerous broadsides. Of those in the British Museum the following are characteristic: 1. Petre as man-midwife, 10 June 1688 (F. G. Steevens, Cat. i. No. 1156). 2. Petre sitting by a cradle explaining to the miller's wife that the Society of Jesus must have an heir (ib. No. 1158). 3. Petre nursing the infant on board the yacht upon which the queen and her child embarked in their flight. 4. Petre as a conjuror with a satchel of ‘Hokus Pokus’ slung round his neck (ib. No. 1235). In an elaborate caricature entitled ‘England's Memorial’ (1689) the jesuit is depicted as ‘Lassciveous Peters.’ His flight from Whitehall is also illustrated by numerous medals. The portrait prefixed to the scandalous ‘History of Petre's Amorous Intrigues’ is of course unauthentic.

Petre's younger brother Charles (1644–1712) was also educated as a jesuit at St. Omer, and was attached to the English mission; he was included among Oates's intended victims, but succeeded in evading arrest. He was favoured by James II, and fled from Whitehall shortly after his brother in November 1688. He was arrested at Dover, but was soon liberated, and subsequently held various offices at St. Omer, where he died on 18 Jan. 1712.

[Foley's Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, v. 372, vii. 590; Oliver's Collections, 1848, p. 164; Dodd's Church Hist.; D'Orleans's Revolutions in England, p. 304; Quadriennium Jacobi, 1689; Higgons's Short View of English History, p. 329; Macpherson's Original Papers, 1775; Burnet's Own Time; Eachard's Hist. of England, vol. ii.; Rapin's Hist. of England, vol. ii.; Ranke's Hist. of England, vol. v.; Macaulay's Hist. 1858, ii. 319; Lingard's Hist. of England, x. 61, 98, 128, 170; Bloxam's Magdalen College and James II (Oxf. Hist. Soc.); Ryan's William III, 1836, p. 120; Banks's Life of William III; Granger's Biogr. Hist. of England; Roxburgh Ballads, iv. 316; Bagford Ballads, ed. Ebbsworth, ii. 317; Barker's Busby, p. 51; The Muses Farewell to Popery and Slavery, 1689; Reresby's Diary; Hatton Correspondence (Camden Soc.); Cartwright's Diary (Camden Soc.); Dalrymple's Memoirs of Great Britain; Lonsdale's Memoirs of the Reign of James II, 1857; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. i. 104, vi. 418, 589, 2nd ser. i. 31. See also An Account of the Life and Memorable Actions of Father Petre appended to the Popish Champion, 1689; An Ironical Friendly Letter to Father Petre concerning his part in the late King's Government, 1690; A Dialogue between Father Peters and the Devil, 1687; Rome in an Uproar, or the Pope's Bulls brought to the Baiting Stake by old Father Petre, 1689; Les Héros de la Ligue ou la Procession Manacale conduitte par Louis XIV pour la conversion des Protestans de son Royaume, Paris, 1691; and Histoire des intrigues amoureuses du Père Peters, jésuite … où l'on voit ses avantures les particuliers, Cologne, 1698.]

T. S.