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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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.