Liesbeth Corens, Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe (Oxford: OUP) 2019.

Liesbeth Corens, Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe, Oxford: OUP, 2019, pp. 240, £60.


Reviewed by: Dr Caroline Bowden

Queen Mary University of London

July 2019


Historians who find new ways of conceptualising movements or periods with which we are already familiar, often add unexpected value for the reader: offering their own interpretations can trigger new insights of our own. Liesbeth Corens’ recently published work Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe is one such ambitious venture. Corens sets out to challenge what she sees as old ways of interpreting the lives of the English Catholics spending time abroad in Counter Reformation Europe. Corens rejects the term ‘exile’ to describe the movement as unhelpful. She prefers to conceptualise the actions they were engaging in and suggests a new term ‘Confessional Mobility’, thereby allowing her to analyse a range of activities undertaken by the expatriates: those English Catholics abroad because of their faith. She selects the period from 1660-c.1720 arguing that it marks the time when “their existence was tacitly accepted in England” and before changes in the mid-eighteenth century when public opinion changed, the penal laws were toned down and many were encouraged to return to England. Corens sets out the fruits of extensive archival work using impressive linguistic skills to re-think the activities of the expatriate English focussing her attention on the laity who, she claims have been neglected in the past in order to add diversity to the groups in her study. She argues that the period after 1660 has been neglected and her re-examination will reveal its important vitality in strengthening and sustaining English Catholicism into the long term.

In keeping with this approach, the chapter headings (The Exile: The Fugitive: The Educational Traveller: The Pilgrim: The Intercessor and The Record Keeper) follow a conceptual path through the complex material gathered on both sides of the Channel. For instance, the second chapter is particularly interesting on the legal status of travellers and returners, how they saw themselves and how they wished others to see them. Corens demonstrates the importance of looking carefully at the impact of the law, showing that many Catholics were living within the law when they travelled; arguing that compliance could be a means of continuing dissent more subtly. Chapter Four headed ‘The Pilgrim’ opens with striking images of English Catholics encountering triumphant Catholicism in Europe in contrast to perceptions held by many (then and now) of the same English as persecuted victims in the exile period. The focus here is on experiencing pilgrimages and visits to shrines as spiritual journeys, selecting a hitherto little-known shrine in Flanders at Scherpenheuvel in Brabant for particular consideration. It is an interesting and enlightening discussion. However, it seems more likely that the Brussels Benedictines’ miraculous image, ‘the Virgin of Jesus Oak’ (p. 118) refers to a second shrine, that of Jezus Eik inaugurated in 1642. The distinction between the two is not clearly made in the original document cited nor in the chapter here. Craig Harline, in Miracles at the Jesus Oak, 2003, explains the importance of the new shrine at Jezus Eik and the proximity of the site to the Benedictine convent in Brussels makes it a more likely candidate. Corens discusses how lay pilgrims could use the boarding facilities provided by a number of English religious institutions demonstrating one of a number of ways that even enclosed nuns could serve the Catholic cause, while at the same time complicating the categories of ‘confessional mobility’.  She shows how relics served those unable to make pilgrimages in person.

One of the challenges of formulating bold arguments is setting the old and existing interpretations in opposition to the new. For instance, Corens’ claims in Chapter Three that research on English Catholics abroad has long presupposed stasis and isolation, citing in a footnote Beales, (1963) on education and Guilday’s (1914), pioneering overview of the foundations and their early history. However, such a claim needs to be more fully substantiated. I would argue that both works cited remain of importance as base texts and both locate their subjects in context. Moreover, since they were published much research has been undertaken and new work written which have already expanded, refined and complicated our understanding of Catholic actions abroad. Early Modern Catholic Studies have been a vibrant area for some time. Studies of the exile period have already brought new perspectives on the period: many of the authors are cited in the extensive bibliography. Equally it is clear that even now that much remains to be done on the exiles. In a book of this length, attempting an overview is ambitious and inevitably there are omissions that particular readers regret. For instance, I was sorry not to see more discussion of gender differences in educational provision and the aims of schooling for girls. The latter would, I think, lead to more discussion of the role of women in the survival of English Catholicism.

Confessional Mobility makes an important contribution to the debate around the exile period and suggests new ways of approaching the material. It is a bold venture that sheds light on the significance of those Catholics who spent time abroad in order to make a difference for those of their co-religionists who remained at home. Whether active themselves or supporting the activities of others through prayers and pilgrimages, benefactions and a raft of other actions as interpreted by Liesbeth Corens, this book helps us to shift English Catholics further away from victimhood to positive contributions to the survival of the Catholic faith.