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After spending two years at Christ's College, Cambridge, and migrating to Caius College on 19 August 1573, aged 20, he removed to Oxford, where in 1574 he joined Hart Hall, the principal of which, Philip Rondell, was a papist, "but durst not show it".
Richard taught at Oxford University as well as Cambridge University as a young seminary priest in England. He knew Father Alexander Briant there as well, who later suffered death for the Catholic faith. Leaving Oxford without a degree, Holtby proceeded to the English College at Douay, where he arrived in August 1577, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He was ordained priest at Cambrai on 29 March 1578.
A year later he was sent to English mission, and he laboured with great zeal in the northern counties. In 1581, Father Edmund Campion paid him a visit, and while staying in his house composed the famous Decem Rationes and urged him to join the Society of Jesus. Richard entered the Society of Jesus in 1583 and crossed the English Channel to participate in his Spiritual Exercises with Father Thomas Derbyshire. He fulfilled the requirements of his noviceship at Verdun and continued on to Pont-à-Mousson to continue his studies. There he was one of three out of thirteen contemporaries who survived the black plague. After four years spent studying theology at the University of Pont-à-Mousson, he was appointed superior of the Scotch College there, in about 1587.
Mission in England
The father-general, Aquaviva, sent him back to England in 1589. In 1603 he was professed of the four vows. After the execution of Father Henry Garnett he was appointed superior of vice-prefect of the English mission, and during his three years’ tenure of that office he appears to have resided in London. When the question of the new oath of allegiance to James I was proposed, and the archpriest George Blackwell declared that it might be conscientiously taken by Catholics, Holtby at first forbade the Jesuits to write or preach against the oath, while leaving them free to give private advice on the subject; but after the condemnation of the oath by Pope Paul V he denounced it.
Later life and death
On vacating his office he returned to the north of England, where he exercised much influence among the Catholics. A government spy in a report to the privy council in 1593 describes him as "a little man, with a reddish bearde", and adds that he chiefly resided at Mr. Trollope’s house at Thornley, co. Durham. In order to evade arrest he assumed the aliases of Andrew Ducket, Robert North, and Richard Fetherston. He was a skilful mechanic, and constructed many cleverly contrived hiding-places for the persecuted priests. He could also ply the needle to make vestments and altar-cloths. In 1602–3 he was at Heborne, the residence of Mr. Hodgson, three miles from Newcastle; and in 1605–6 he was at Halton, Northumberland, the seat of Lancelot Carnaby. He died in the Durham district on 14 May (O.S.) 1640. "Of no other English Jesuit", remarks Dr. Jessopp, "can it be said that he exercised his vocation in England for upwards of fifty years, and that, too, with extraordinary effect and ceaseless activity, without once being thrown into gaol or once falling into the hands of pursuivants; and quietly died in his bed in extreme old age."
Richard died in England on 25 May 1640, aged 87.
- On the Persecution in the North, 1594 manuscript at Stonyhurst College, printed by John Morris in Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers, iii. 103-219, and partially printed in Dodd’s Catholic History,’ ed. Tierney, iii. 75-148.
- Account of Three Martyrs (namely Page, Lambton, and Waterson, priests), manuscript at Stonyhurst College; printed by Morris in ‘Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers,’ iii. 220-30.
- "Holtbie, Richard (HLTY571R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Bernard Basset, S.J., The English Jesuits: From Campion to Martindale (Sussex, England : Ditchling Press, 1967)
- Addit. MS. 5871, f. 172
- Butler, Hist. Memoirs (1822), ii. 456
- Charles Dodd, Church Hist.. ii. 413, and Tierney’s edit. iv. pp. 73 seq. cxxxix, cxl, cxcii;
- Douay Diaries, p. 427;
- Henry Foley, Records, iii. 3-17, vi. 769, vii. 369;
- Joseph Gillow, Bibl. Dict.;
- Jessopp, One Generation of a Norfolk House pp. 218, 222, 237, 251, s53;
- Life of Mrs. Dorothy Lawson (1855);
- More, Hist. Missionsis Anglicanæ Soc. Jesu, pp. 349–52;
- John Morris, Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers, iii. 105-230, 307;
- Oliver, Jesuit Collections, p. 118;
- Anthony à Wood, Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), i. 480.]