Books

God’s Traitors: terror and faith in Elizabethan England

10 April 2014 | by Jessie Childs

Between a rock and a hard place

Reviewed by Jonathan Wright
THE BODLEY HEAD, 464pp, £25

Tablet bookshop price £22.50           
Tel 01420 592974

The “Elizabethan Catholic experience was a wide and wavering spectrum,” writes Jessie Childs, and she is absolutely correct.

One option for Catholics was heroism and, until fairly recently, this received a disproportionate amount of attention from historians of the period. The martyrs, the exiles, the recusants who never flinched – these seemed more glamorous. And why not? They were brave and their stories are fascinating and inspiring. For many Elizabethan Catholics, however, the reign was about survival and compromise. You could attend Protestant churches as infrequently as possible, or attend services but not receive Communion, or attend but make small gestures of resistance – sneaking in an illegal devotional book to read, grumbling about the minister’s sermon, or stuffing wool in your ears to keep the heretical menace at bay. This might break all the rules of theological correctness but, for many, it made perfect sense. Elizabethan Catholics were caught in a trap. They wanted to serve their consciences but they also wanted to avoid trouble. They wanted to be loyal to a government that made this balancing act extremely difficult.

The dilemmas became more thorny as Elizabeth’s reign progressed. For a decade or so, mild Catholic disobedience was often a feasible strategy, even winked at in many places. But then came the Northern Rebellion, the papal excommunication of Elizabeth, and the arrival of priests who looked askance at any variant of temporising. Increasingly harsh legislation appeared on the statute book, recusancy became ridiculously expensive, the monitoring of church papist activity rose to new heights, and any involvement with missionary priests was likely to land you in prison.

The Vauxes of Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire, the focus of Childs’ splendid book, had to live through all this. In many ways, they were not typical. Their lofty social position meant that they would always be under close surveillance, but there were advantages, too. At least for a while, they could stay in their private chapel and worship as they chose. With the occasional gesture of compliance, they could carry on without too much disruption. This, at least, was the strategy of William, the third Baron Vaux (pronounced, by the way, to rhyme with “forks”). During the first decades of the reign he kept his role as a respected member of local society, got along swimmingly with his neighbours (including those of the Protestant persuasion), and combined private Catholic practice with public statements of loyalty. After the Northern Rebellion of 1569 he stated that he accepted the Elizabethan settlement of religion and promised to worship according to the prescribed Prayer Book in his chapel or local church. These were falsehoods but they made for a quieter life.

The early 1570s witnessed some moments of resistance. In the House of Lords, Vaux objected to proposed measures that would require not only church attendance but also participation in Communion, and that would oblige people of his status to attend the local church rather than worship in the privacy of his family chapel. The real turning point, however, was the arrival back in England of Edmund Campion in 1580. Campion had been to Harrowden before, in the late 1560s, but he was now one of the first Jesuit missionary priests to enter the kingdom. Lending him support was now a much more serious matter and in 1581 Vaux found himself languishing in the Fleet Prison. He claimed that his actions derived from religious scruple not disobedience and he received a hefty fine. For the rest of his life, Vaux would take the path of more active recusancy and this cost him a great deal of money.

His children were clearly inspired by his example. Son Henry would become an important cog in the Catholic underground, and daughters Eleanor and Anne would play a crucial role in supporting the work of men like Henry Garnet and Robert Southwell. They would rent properties for missionary priests, host Jesuit conferences, catechise youths, and preserve relics. Daughter-in-law Eliza Roper would also play her part, becoming a supporter of John Gerard.

Not everything in the world of Catholic resistance was wholesome, of course, and it is hard to determine how much the Vaux family knew, or what they thought about, more militant action. So far as the infamous Babington plot against Elizabeth is concerned, “all is suspicion and circumstance”, and much the same applies to the Gunpowder Plot. The conspirators were a tight-knit group and kinship ties, including those to the Vauxes, were clearly in evidence. Direct involvement seems highly unlikely, but suspicion was rife and Anne spent a predictably unpleasant spell in the Tower. She also remained fiercely loyal to Garnet and, ahead of his execution, promised to pass on instructions to his Jesuit successors.

It is hard not to feel a little sorry for the Vauxes of Harrowden. They had little appetite for civil disobedience, not least because, as Childs puts it, “they owed everything to the Tudors”, but they also felt compelled to express their faith and champion those who sought to preserve Catholicism. Childs does a splendid job of explaining this unenviable situation and of putting it in the wider context of Elizabethan Catholic life. There are many fruitful digressions: on the key role of Catholic women in the period, on the controversial issue of equivocating when being quizzed by the regime, and of the damaging internecine bickering that developed between Jesuits and secular priests in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England. In 1602 William Watson complained about the “hot holy ladies” who “mightily dote and run riot after” the Jesuits. Such “silly gentlewomen”, Watson wrote, “prattle up and down all that they hear and see”. Such mean words did a huge disservice to women as fascinating and passionate as Anne and Eleanor Vaux who, like their father, encapsulated the “resilience and resourcefulness of the Catholic community”.



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