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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.

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

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)