The daily lives of catholics in England under Elizabeth I and James I have long been neglected by historians. True, much as been written about the various attempts against Elizabeth during her reign – most obviously the Babington ‘complotment’ which resulted in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – and, of course, the Gunpowder Plot against James I, which we still remember every November 5th. But did such outbursts of violence really reflect the views of the faithful? Was the government right to fear a catholic uprising against the Elizabethan settlement? How did catholics experience the narrowing of their rights and prospects over the course of Elizabeth’s reign? How did they reconcile their loyalty to Rome, to their faith, with the loyalty they owed to their country and its crown?
These and many other questions are addressed in Jessie Childs’ superb and groundbreaking new book, God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England. Childs charts the catholic experience of those decades through the turbulent history of the Vaux family, prominent landowners in Northamptonshire and by any measure a family of considerable status and means when Elizabeth came to the throne at the end of 1558.
While not sharing Elizabeth’s religion there seems every reason to suppose they and most other catholics viewed her accession with something approaching equanimity. There were some, no doubt, who viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate and the daughter of a whore to boot – Anne Boleyn was, to put it mildly, far from popular in the catholic community – but the future course of the English church was far from certain. Who knew if Elizabeth would live, for one thing? And what would happen if, as seemed likely, she married a catholic prince?
At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, then, there was little to genuinely trouble most consciences. As Childs’ points out, Elizabeth and most of her ministers had conformed under Mary I. They were no doubt aware of the irony of their position – and aware too – how could they not be? – that conformity was not the same as acquiescence. Certainly there were fines for non-attendance at church but there seems to have been little appetite on the part of the government to demand much beyond outward conformity. And even if they had wished to police religious orthodoxy more aggressively, they cannot have been assured of taking the country with them. In the early years of the reign, Sir William Cecil, for one, believed protestants to be in the minority in England.
Many, perhaps most catholics simply swallowed what reservations they had and did as the government and its new church required. Some bowed less willingly to the pressure and joined public acts of worship under the Elizabethan settlement while also hearing mass at home. Others families would divide their loyalties: the husband, who was the primary target of the penal laws, went to church and conformed while the wife stayed home and heard mass with their children.
Other schemes were pettier still, highlighting the depths of indignation felt – but also perhaps the triviality of the stakes. One wealthy recusant built his own chapel, which had its own entrance, within his local church; another would openly read a book during each sermon. Some ostentatiously kept their hats on while their fellow parishioners prayed for the queen; one simply blocked his ears with wool each time he went to church.
If the government was content to tolerate such transgressions in the belief that the old religion would slowly wither and die with the aging Marian priesthood it was soon to be disabused of such complacency. In short succession, the rising of the catholic Northern earls in 1569, the issue of the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1571 – which charged English catholics with the moral duty to overthrow Elizabeth – and the exposure the same year of the Ridolfi plot – which sought to put Thomas Howard, fourth duke Norfolk on the English throne alongside Mary, Queen of Scots by way of a Spanish army – made clear that the status quo was not a safe option. (Regnans in Excelsis was still being referenced as an example of what not to do by the Vatican in the 1930s as it considered its advice to catholics in Nazi Germany. I have written in more detail about the Ridolfi plot here.)
But then, what was safety?
In a sense, the catholic experience in England after Elizabeth’s accession is a kind of tragedy. There is an inevitability about it, with the actions of all parties, all actors inexorably leading to a tightening of the vice, a limiting of freedom, of room for manoeuvre, for the ordinary mass of catholic men and women. The lack of freedom was, by the end of the reign, quite literal: from 1593 a ‘statute of confinement’ forbade recusants – those who did not attend church – from traveling more than five miles from their homes without a licence.
Most of us quite happily lead lives of quiet contradiction on one level or another; it is part of our charm. No-one much asks us to account for ourselves or charges us with hypocrisy or deceit. But the activities of the English government and the catholic church alike – and of their most zealous adherents in particular – brought an impossible level of scrutiny to the lives of catholic England, and with it a bright and unforgiving spotlight on the contradictions of their position.
Thus, what had perhaps been a tolerable existence of mild dishonesty became a life of privation, evasion and fear. The English catholics were forced to choose: but the choice they were offered was not one with which they could live.
Not all of their brethren seemed to care about such dilemmas.
The arrival of Edmund Campion and Robert Persons in England in the summer of 1580 as the first members of the catholic church’s English mission transformed the terms of the debate.
If anyone had intended the two men to slip into England unnoticed, they clearly hadn’t briefed Campion and Persons about the matter. On their way from Rome they made speeches at Bologna and Milan and tried to provoke a disputation in Geneva. The two men – as many fellow English missionaries would after them – had a magniloquent sense of martyrdom and destiny. “It often happens that the first rank of a conquering army is knocked over,” Campion said, grandly. The military metaphor, had it reached Elizabeth’s ears, would hardly have soothed her concerns.
The mission to England claimed to be about religion, not politics. But the passion with which it was proclaimed in its early years made the distinction largely a semantic one. It was equivocation avant la lettre. At the very least, Campion and Persons challenged the laws of the land – that is, challenged the authority of Elizabeth I and her government. If they weren’t explicitly involved in plots to assassinate Elizabeth, as Burghley and others alleged, they certainly helped nurture a climate of thought, a culture of resistance, in which such acts became not just permissable but – eventually – necessary.
It was a difficult and delicate situation for the Catholics in England and most were still trying to find ways of easing their consciences through the thorns without shedding blood. As Childs shows, the line between low-level civil disobedience – or dissent – and sedition was a perilously fine one. Each bled into the other. And it was a line Campion and his successors in the English mission were determinedly oblivious to. The missionaries had all accepted the prospect of martyrdom; some clearly relished it. They were – as Campion himself noted – dead to the world already. Those they ministered to had made no such peace; but they had the choice foisted on them no matter what.
When Campion was captured, the government went out of its way to charge him with treason under the statutes dating from the reign of Edward III. That is, they wanted to ensure his crimes were seen as political, not theological. And that would continue to be the frame through which the state defined its actions.
In its simplest expression, this became known as the ‘bloody question’: in the event of an invasion, of war, whose side were you on? Would an English catholic choose God or Caesar, conscience or crown?
Lord Vaux was one of those accused of having aided Campion. But did that make him part of a catholic fifth column? Where did the dictates of conscience become seditious opposition? What were public protestations of loyalty to the queen worth if those making them also welcomed members of the English mission into their homes, succoured, fed and supported them? Where did treason begin?
Then as now, there is no simple answer.
Campion’s death did not deter other missionaries. Indeed, it may have encouraged some. But it raised the stakes for everyone, and dissimulation – casuistry and equivocation – became the calling card of the catholic mission, in the eyes of the English state at least. And these slippery intellectual practices – necessary though they were for those of tender conscience – also helped to further taint catholics trying to stay loyal to both God and Caesar, further eroding their apparent trustworthiness and straining the sense of faithfulness and honesty which made social cohesion possible.
One of the many insights Childs offers is into the role of women in supporting the mission, from the education of catholic children to the domestic organisation required to accommodate catholic ritual within the household and, of course, to hide wanted men. On one level, they had greater freedom than men precisely because they were so subjugated: they were highly unlikely to face the punishments faced by men, and were not legally liable to the same extent. But two members of the Vaux family – Eleanor and Anne Vaux – one widowed and the other unmarried – became central to the success of the mission. The irony of this – given that the missionaries were not meant to spend time with women, particularly unmarried ones – was lost on no-one, and Anne Vaux’s intense relationship with Henry Garnet seems to have caused as much consternation in Rome as it did in London. Its propriety was questioned by everyone, although Childs believes there was nothing untoward about it. It was, at heart, devotional – in every sense of the word.
It is through the courageous actions of women like Anne Vaux that Childs reveals most clearly the depths of faith and conscience that drove many English catholics to disobedience and brought nearly two hundred of them to the steps of the scaffold and the executioner’s knife. Every social norm in early modern England demanded conformity and submission to authority, whether within the family, within the local polity or within the state. And yet Anne and many others like her chose to reject that ‘fast-fettered’ life: the choice was both brave and desperate, but ultimately mortal peril was preferable to denying the immortal soul.
It isn’t possible in the space of a review to do justice to the breadth and depth of Childs’ research and insight; but they illuminate the entire landscape of English life. She demonstrates brilliantly how interpenetrated the communities of recusants, protestants and puritans were within the country as a whole and within each region and shire – and how, therefore, he crisis tainted everyone.
After all, the problems created by the catholics’ increasingly difficult and anomalous position in England were not merely those of conscience. There were also strains on every aspect of their status. Refusing to take an oath renouncing papal sovereignty meant that young catholic men could not graduate from university or hold office under the crown. They could not be magistrates or MPs or command the queen’s forces. For young men keen to advance themselves, loyalty to their faith condemned them to a life of passivity and impotence. It is no wonder, as Childs notes, that second generation recusants were more militant than their parents.
But the schism also played out in marriages and property transactions, in Parliament and on the bench. Class by class, individuals were bound by geographic, social and familial loyalties, by histories of friendship. Marriage, for example, was a key traditional means by which families established status, security and advancement, tying themselves into the hierarchy on which society was built. But recusancy and its after-effects tainted marriage prospects – and narrowed the pool of potential suitors for catholic and protestant alike. It diminished everyone, and weakened every bond. One casuist text recommended marrying below one’s social status over marrying a heretic: it is hard to stress how unthinkable such advice was to the sixteenth-century mind.
And then, of course, there were the fines, which would be impossibly steep by the end of the century. Lord Vaux ultimately forfeited two-thirds of his estate under 1587 legislation that made fines for recusancy cumulative. Sir Thomas Tresham died £11,500 in debt. He had paid some £8,000 in recusancy fines and the marriages of his daughters had cost him over £12,000.
It is worth remembering too, that those who would be required to raid catholic houses were usually neighbours and peers of the suspects, men who the family in question might well have entertained or done business with. The humiliation of such raids – and the sense of breached trust on both sides – must have run deep. Which is not to minimise the terror of such raids: large numbers of men – weapons in hand – poured through the house charged with destruction: tearing down walls, ripping up floorboards, stabbing at every cloth and cushion with dagger or sword. It was not just priests they were after: the furniture of ritual, religious texts, rosaries, agnus dei – everything sniffed of sedition.
Childs unfolds this secret world of priestholes and pseudonyms, of disguises and deceit with an expert eye for detail and an unerring sense of drama. And there is a current of almost psychological horror running through the book, no less in the terror of the hunted than in the tortures that awaited them. Perhaps it is useful to consider the experience of Elizabethan catholics as a whole as a kind or mental and moral torture: the contorted spaces that were built for the missionaries hidden between the skin and bones of each house might stand as a metaphor for the condition of being catholic in England.
And she is brilliant at teasing out the moral and social complexities of these lives. Lord Vaux had been imprisoned in the aftermath of Campion’s arrest and had spent some twenty months in the Fleet for refusing to answer questions about Campion and his mission under oath. The man who arranged for his release – to the extent of drafting Vaux’s submission to present to the queen – was Lord Burghley, as Sir William Cecil became. Why? We don’t really know. But the idea that loyalty to Rome – or Elizabeth for that matter – was the only loyalty that mattered to these men and women is a simplistic one. They regarded themselves as having duties to men of rank and status too; and the wide, all-pervasive networks of family and kinship were bonds of incalculable strength, the importance of which it is hard for us in our atomised world to understand. Everyone had conflicted loyalties; but it was only the catholics who were required to account for them.
It also reminds us that these great ideological struggles were also intensely personal. Burghley visited Vaux in his cell to discuss and arrange the latter’s submission and release. Later, when the Jesuit priest Garnet was in the Tower and being questioned about his role in the Gunpowder plot, he was questioned by Lord Salisbury – Burghley’s son Robert Cecil – and Lord Chief Justice Popham. Garnet and Popham jovially recalled meeting in the 1570s when Garnet had been considering a career in the law. Salisbury apologised to Garnet for making a salacious joke about his relationship with Anne Vaux, putting his arm around the priest’s shoulder as if asking for forgiveness.
The book is studded with moments of intense humanity like this, and they are unsettling because Childs’ sympathetic but acute portraits strip away any instinct we might have to judge these men and women for their choices. She shows us their divided souls, but she does not ask us to take sides.
Even the zeal of the missionaries served to hide complex motives and widely different personalities. At one end of the spectrum there was the handsome and charismatic John Gerard, who lived with the swagger of a gentleman, and a rich one at that, and struggled – manfully, one assumes – with the humility that ought to have suited his calling. Women fell over themselves to help him, he tells us in his autobiography. One Flemish woman learned English simply to be able to confess to him; two noble ladies almost fought each for the honour of kissing his feet in the Tower.
At the other, there was the little-remembered Thomas Lister who suffered from migraines, mood swings and claustrophobia among other neuroses. A priest with a fear of priest-holes must have been a trying companion for even the most saint-like of men.
This is a superlative, flawlessly written book, rich in its detailed evocation of the texture and fervour of the Catholic experience without ever losing sight of the moral and political crucible in which that experience was being tried. It is a joy to read and revelations abound, from the trade in ‘fresh green relics’ – that is the remains of the English martyrs – to the way that the English mission strayed into dramatic demonstrations of the power of their faith which made many fellow believers deeply uncomfortable. Childs’ description of an exorcism at Lord Vaux’s house in Hackney in the autumn of 1585 – which Anthony Babington, among others, was invited to witness – is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever read.
God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England superbly maps the trajectory of catholic England over fifty years and three generations. If we knew a little already about some of the better known figures – Campion, Southwell, Babington, Fawkes – there is much here that will make all of us re-evaluate the much-fabled tolerance of Elizabethan England and deepen our understanding of the English catholics’ long existential crisis of faith. Wise in her judgements and generous in her sympathies, Childs ensures we always see the activities of the Vaux family and its fellow travellers in the wider cultural and political context – teasing out references in Shakespeare and Jonson, for example – and she is as alert to alternate narratives and their possibilities as she is sensitive to the impossibility of the choices many were faced with. This is a book about saints and traitors, certainly; but above all it is about the strengths and frailties that made these people human. They have had to wait a long time, but at last they have found a historian who offers them both justice and dignity.
Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.