The man who supervised the painting at the English College, on Gilbert’s behalf, was Father William Good who, some years earlier, initiated Persons into the Ignatian way by guiding him through the Spiritual Exercises. In 1579, Father Persons wrote him a long, confiding letter from Rome about the teething troubles at the English College, when the English students rose up against the Welsh rector, Father Maurice Clynnog. At that time, Father Good was in Sweden, assisting the Jesuit diplomat Antonio Possevino in his attempt to negotiate King John’s re-conversion. Had they succeeded (and they came very close), the religious landscape of Europe would have been very different. Indeed, Father Persons, Father Good and Possevino shared a vision of a Baltic Counter Reformation, with Sweden, Scotland and England following Poland back into the Catholic fold. Sadly, there is hardly a trace of Father Persons’s correspondence with Possevino.
Writing to Father Good (“Father Good and good Father”), Father Persons was still a little unsure of himself, but he was putting his mind to the problems of seminary life. Years later, after the failure of successive schemes to restore Catholicism in England and Scotland by force, he concentrated his energies on the longer-term strategy of raising another kind of invasion force, of seminary priests. Hence his foundations at Valladolid (1589), Seville (1592) and St Omer (1593). He was supremely practical: wheedling money out of King Philip II, finding premises, working the local ecclesiastical scene. But beyond this, there was his immense enthusiasm for education. In November 1590, Persons sent a bundle of letters to the president of the English College at Rheims: his report could stand as a recipe for today’s Propaedeutic Year students: “Thes preestes have wel behaved them selves here and wel reposed them selves, and donne them selves much good many wayes by this years staying here, for they have had tyme to revewe ther bookes and learne both the language and the maners of this nation, and now att ther departure do they edify them much and accredite our Seminaries by the mission wherunto they show so great desire and corage.”
They had stopped in Valladolid for just a few months, and one, Matthew Billingfeld, died of a flux soon after arrival. “It chansid,” wrote Father Persons, “that I cam hether from Madrid the self same day that he departid this life, and arrived not tow oures befor his death, at the which time notwithstanding he had perfete judgment, and truly he died so well that he showed many synes of his proper salvation.”