Tuesday, June 3, 2014

God's Traitors : terror and faith in Elizabethan England - Jessie Childs

It was a dangerous thing to be a Catholic in Elizabeth I's England. After all the religious upheavals of the 16th century, Elizabeth had devised a religious settlement that allowed most of her subjects to worship in their own way as long as they went through the forms of obedience to the State Church. However, that changed when Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull, Regnans in Excelsis, which excommunicated Elizabeth & exhorted her Catholic subjects to obey the Pope rather than their Queen. Catholics were now in an impossible position. If they obeyed the laws of their country, attended Church & bowed to the Anglican settlement, they were putting their souls in danger. If they refused to attend church, they would be fined heavily, suspected as traitors & potentially executed.

Jessie Childs' new book, God's Traitors, tells this fascinating story through the lives of the Vaux family. William, Baron Vaux of Harrowden, his son, Henry, daughters, Eleanor & Anne & daughter-in-law Eliza, were committed Catholics who put their lives & livelihoods in peril to practice their faith. The Vaux family were connected by blood & marriage to many other Catholic families, some of whom would become notorious through the many Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth & then her successor, James I - Tresham, Babington, Catesby, Wintour.

They also sheltered & supported many of the priests who were smuggled into England to minister to the faithful. They were particularly connected to the Jesuits Edmund Campion, Henry Garnet & John Gerard. The women of the family, especially Eleanor & Anne (known as the widow & the virgin in the correspondence of the Jesuit priests they helped), were vital in this Catholic underground movement. Lord Vaux was imprisoned in the Fleet & endured years of prison & house arrest over the years. He had manged to stay under the radar for some years. As a peer of the realm, he had certain advantages. He declared his house as a parish so that he could avoid attending church & was able to hear Mass in his private chapel. He got on well with his neighbours, both Catholic & Protestant. It was only when the laws tightened in the 1570s that his recusancy became a serious issue for the government.

Lord Vaux's daughter, Eleanor, was a widow with young children. Her sister, Anne, never married & both were devoted to the Catholic cause. They went to extraordinary lengths to support the priests who were coming to England from seminaries on the Continent. They needed the priests to say Mass, & guide their religious life so that they could be good Catholics. To that end, they were part of a network of safe houses with ingenious hidden rooms & priest's holes (mostly designed by Nicholas Owen. Some of his hidden rooms have only been rediscovered in the last century) so that the priests could perform their religious duties & hide during the inevitable raids by persuivants hunting for traitors.

The constant need to be careful, on the watch for anyone who might betray a secret, must have taken quite a toll. One of the priests, Robert Persons, describes the constant state of tension,

Sometimes, when we are sitting merrily at table, conversing familiarly on matters of faith and devotion (for our talk is generally of such things), there comes a hurried knock at the door like that of a persuivant. All start up and listen - like deer when they hear the huntsman. We leave our food and commend ourselves to God in a brief ejaculation, nor is word or sound heard till the servants come to say what the matter is. If it is nothing, we laugh at our fright.

However, it wasn't always nothing. The Jesuit, John Gerard, here describes a raid that took place on Easter Monday, 1594. Luckily he had a priest's hole to hide in.

I was hardly tucked away when the persuivants broke down the door and burst in. They fanned out through the house, making a great racket. The first thing they did was to shut up the mistress of the house in her own room with her daughters, then they locked up the Catholic servants in different places in the same part of the house. This done, they took possession of then place... and began to search everywhere, even lifting up the tiles of the roof to examine underneath them and using candles in the dark corners. When  they found nothing, they started knocking down suspicious-looking places. They measured the walls with long rods and if the measurements did not tally, they pulled down the sections that they could not account for. They tapped every wall and floor for hollow spots, and on sounding anything hollow, they smashed it in.

Gerard hid for four days with only a few biscuits & some quince jam for sustenance. He wasn't discovered that time but was captured three weeks later. The stakes were high. Once arrested, the priests were questioned, tortured, tried & executed as traitors. Those who hid them were in as much danger of imprisonment. When a plot to overthrow or assassinate Elizabeth was discovered - the Ridolfi Plot in 1571 or the Babington Plot in 1586 which led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots - Catholics & especially Catholic priests were automatically suspected. When Elizabeth died in 1603, there was hope that her successor, James I, as the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, would be more tolerant. However, the disappointment of those hopes led to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The discovery of the plot, the capture & execution of the conspirators led to the demonization of Catholics in England for centuries.

Jessie Childs has told this story so well. Her narrative is full of tension & excitement. Centering the story on one family is also an inspired way to describe such a complicated period of history. Eleanor, Anne & Eliza Vaux were central to the success of the Catholic mission in England. They were brave, resourceful but also incredibly stubborn. They exploited their position as women, bamboozling raiding persuivants & government agents, while single-mindedly pursuing their goal of living a good Catholic life. If that meant breaking mere temporal laws, they were not deterred. I love reading about familiar periods of history from a new angle & this book does that.


  1. Very nice review of a book I hadn't heard of that I'd like to read.Thankyou

    1. You're welcome! It's a fascinating period of history.