Stock figure: during Elizabeth I’s reign nearly 200 English Catholics were executed. Image: Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman
Show Hide image

Gloriana’s underbelly: the terror of life as a Catholic in Elizabethan England

Jessie Childs's God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England is a detailed and absorbing account of the difficulties of being Catholic in England in the 17th century.

God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England 
Jessie Childs
Bodley Head, 464pp, £25

The stakes were high, the choice an agonising and unavoidable one for Catholics in England: loyalty to the queen or to the pope. No longer could people be subject to both. Those English Catholics who chose allegiance to Rome were regarded as traitors and risked being hanged, drawn and quartered. Nearly 200 people were to suffer this fate; others died in prison. Such was the dark underbelly of Gloriana’s England, a gruesome world of terror and faith that is normally associated with the reign of Elizabeth’s sister “Bloody Mary”.

In this detailed and absorbing account, Jessie Childs reconstructs the Elizabethan world of suspicion and surveillance through the experiences of the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall, a lower-rank aristocratic family from Northamptonshire. In many ways they were a typical family, with their sisterly squabbles, love affairs and financial worries, but in one respect they were set dangerously apart: they were Catholics in Protestant England and became the friends and protectors of outlawed Jesuit priests. Through the well-documented lives of William, 3rd Baron Vaux, and his nine children, Childs takes us to the heart of the underground resistance movement in Elizabethan England.

In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign the Vauxes lived in relative peace and avoided undue scrutiny. Although the queen was determined to kill off Catholicism in her kingdom, she was prepared to wait until it withered naturally, once the ageing Marian clergy had died out. Although she is wrongly believed to have said she did not want to make “windows into men’s souls” the phrase sums up her early attitude. Yet events abroad and at home raised the stakes and made toleration unthinkable. Over the course of 50 years and three generations, the Vauxes faced increasing persecution and lives of “unspeakable misery”.

In 1570, with the publication of Pope Pius V’s papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, Elizabeth was declared an unlawful queen and all Catholic subjects absolved from allegiance to her. It was now impossible to reconcile loyalty to Catholicism and to Rome with a loyalty to England and the crown. At a stroke, those who did not share the queen’s religious beliefs and practices became potential traitors. The Ridolfi Plot of the following year, which, supported by a Spanish army, sought to put Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, on the throne alongside Mary Queen of Scots, who had arrived in England two years earlier, heightened a sense of paranoia among Elizabeth’s councillors about the threat of a Catholic fifth column. The arrival in England in the summer of 1580 of the Jesuit priests Edmund Campion, formerly tutor to Lord Vaux’s son Henry, and Robert Persons was seen as the vanguard of a treasonous sect seeking to inspire attempts to overthrow Elizabeth. The government’s response was systematic and unrelenting: anyone who harboured or aided the Jesuits was now liable to loss of goods and life imprisonment.

Lord Vaux’s decision to shelter Campion was to change his life completely and to have profound consequences for him and his family. Hitherto, noble privilege had exempted Vaux from the Oath of Supremacy and allowed him to worship in his private chapel. Now all was to change. In 1581 Vaux, a man who had declared his good name to be “of more price with me than any worldly treasure”, was cited as a recusant. It marked a period of increasing suspicion and investigation for the family. Vaux was examined by one of his neighbours, Sir Walter Mildmay, to determine his beliefs, worship and connections with Campion and other seminary priests. He was subsequently imprisoned and spent roughly 20 months in the Fleet Prison for refusing to co-operate. That William Cecil, Lord Burghley, a determined anti-papist, drafted the submission by Vaux to the queen which secured his release, hints at the conflicting loyalties of the age.

In March 1585 an act was passed that made it a capital offence for Jesuit and seminary priests to be in England, and yet, as the threat of prosecution grew, several of Vaux’s children became active in support of the outlawed priests. Eleanor and Anne, his two eldest daughters, were seen as crucial to the success of the Catholic mission. Even when left a widow with two young children, Eleanor sheltered Catholic priests in her home at East Ham in Essex. Her unmarried sister Anne devoted her life to establishing safe houses for clerics and providing them with financial assistance. Her devotion to Father Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England, and the risks she took for him, even prompted questions as to the nature of their relationship.

Childs’s focus on the role of such courageous women as the Vaux sisters is compelling, and by describing the lives of some of the other children she highlights the broader social implications of recusancy in Elizabethan England. For younger sons such as Ambrose, who would traditionally have been destined for the church or the law, refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy barred them from graduating from university, taking up arms for the queen or working for the state. Ambrose, never out of debt, spent his life in and out of prison, and his younger sister Merill ended up running off with a servant. As Childs suggests, such recklessness seems inevitably born of hard and repressive times.

With the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James VI of Scotland as king of England, recusant hopes for toleration were raised. When the new king made it clear that he was prepared to tolerate English Catholics only as long as they remained “quiet and decently hidden”, some resolved, in desperation, to make attempts to bring about change. Childs argues that Guy Fawkes and his fellow Gunpowder plotters were what today we would call “terrorists”, and that the foiled plot and its aftermath served simply to consolidate the perception of Roman Catholics as traitors.

The Vauxes knew many of the conspirators, who looked to them for support and succour. When the plot was foiled and the rebels hunted down and executed, the Vauxes were questioned about their knowledge of what had been planned. Harrowden Hall was surrounded by a hundred armed men and searched. Anne Vaux went on the run but finally the authorities caught up with her. Four months after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, she was placed in solitary confinement in the Tower and interrogated on her role in the plans and her relationship with Father Garnet, who had been executed for his part in the conspiracy. Following her release, Anne continued to dedicate herself to the mission, as did Elizabeth Vaux, who carried on protecting the faith at Harrowden Hall.

God’s Traitors is both a dramatic and thrilling story of fear, faith, courage and deceit and an important exposé of the terror of life as a Catholic in Elizabethan England. 

Anna Whitelock is the author of “Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: an Intimate History of the Queen’s Court” (Bloomsbury, £20)

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Getty
Show Hide image

Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear