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

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.