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God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England Paperback – International Edition, April 17, 2015
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• "Vivid but measured...never has the actual experience of the recusants been rendered with such a wealth of searing detail...richly packed, absorbing... It is a parade of extraordinary characters and a banquet of Elizabethan and Jacobean prose." --Simon Callow, Guardian (Book of the Week)
• "God's Traitors, with its crisp prose and punctilious scholarship, brilliantly recreates a world of heroism and holiness in Tudor England... It is little short of a triumph." --Ian Thomson, Financial Times
About the Author
JESSIE CHILDS is an award-winning author. Born in 1976, she took a history first from Oxford and won the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography with her debut Henry VIII's Last Victim. She has written and reviewed for various publications and lives in London with her husband and two daughters.
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As Winston Churchill so candidly and perceptively observed, “History is written by the victors.” Consequently, when you look through any library, any book store, any online merchant, the vast majority of books highlighting the timeline of the English Reformation, whether fact or fiction, focuses on the Protestant experience. This dominance of perspective, both historically and currently, permeates the British culture, including education, cultural traditions and religion. Consequently, far more people can tell you who Thomas Cranmer is than Edmund Campion, and far more people view Queen Mary as religiously intolerant than her sister Queen Elizabeth. Through her exhaustive research and compelling narrative, Jessie Childs turns the tables upside down and backwards, and in doing so, she brings to life the experiences and remarkable life stories of Roman Catholics in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, demonstrating convincingly and emphatically, the creativity, ingenuity, courage, and perseverance of Roman Catholic priests and reclusants throughout the realm — men and women who through their civil disobedience, and in many cases sacrifice of their very lives, practiced their faith, insuring Roman Catholicism endured in England for future generations. God’s Traitor: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England is truly a masterpiece of historical research. I can hear the Tyburn nuns rejoicing and praising the Lord from here!
Jessie Childs centers her story through the remarkable history of the Veax family of Harrowden. The family patriarch, William, 3rd Baron Vaux, managed his estate Harrowden Hall, largely staying away from his seat in Parliament and the intrigues of court. Well respected by those neighboring his estate, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, Baron Veax kept his life close to home and away from the eyes of Protestant Privy Counselors, enabling him to harbor priests living in his home under assumed names, and to host mass at his chapel attended by family, servants and neighboring Roman Catholics. Initially, the Veax family was able to celebrate their faith, albeit not openly and with penalties of fines for failure to attend Anglican services, without undue interference by those who kept a blind eye. Their world, however, as well as the world of all practicing Roman Catholics in England, changed dramatically on February 25, 1570. On this day Queen Elizabeth was excommunicated by Pope Pius V, who declared “Elizabeth, the pretend Queen of England and the servant of crime” to be a heretic, further releasing all of her subjects from any allegiance to her, even when they “swore oaths to her”, and excommunicating any that obeyed her orders. With this one declaration, Queen Elizabeth became at immediate risk for plots to overthrow her rule, as well as outright assassination, while practicing Roman Catholics loyal to the papacy became enemies of the state, whether loyal to the queen or not.
With this simple fact established, God’s Traitors moves into full gear in earnest, the history so intense, this work of factual accounting begins reading like a tightly written thriller novel. In fact, historical fiction writers will find this accounting of Elizabethan history a “go to source” for research, along with a treasure trove of plot ideas. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction, and Childs convincingly proves the point by simply documenting the course of events as they unfold. English Roman Catholics sneak into Europe for seminary studies and sneak back in as priests. Mass is celebrated in private home attics, bedrooms, and secret rooms. Priests are financed, equipped, housed, hidden, fed, and constantly kept on the move by their reclusant supporters, for the Jesuits in the realm by a variety of Veax family members, most notably Veax’s son Henry and daughters Eleanor and Anne. Enter Francis Walsingham, Mary Queen of Scots, Edmund Campion, Henry Garnet, John Girard, women in leadership roles, plots against the Queen, outright state tyranny, heavy fines, imprisonment, deprivation, home raids, torture and execution both of priests and recusants. Enter ingenious disguises, portable mass altars and detachable chalices, vestments kept at the ready at all recusant homes, ingenious hiding spaces within homes, priest-holes, and caves.
Although this historical accounting is thrilling and downright chilling, Jessie Childs also often poignantly details the tragic endings of many of the brave priests and reclusants of Elizabethan England, honoring their memory through respectful accounting of their life stories. Have some tissues ready when you learn of the deprivation, torture and torment priests and recusants endured. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking. Beyond all this, Childs’ accounting throughout is balanced, exquisitely researched, engagingly written, and, in short, brilliant! If you have any interest in Elizabethan history, you will not put this book down. Even the footnotes are well worth the read!
One great feature of the design of this book, which includes two insets of color images, other illustrations, a list of principal characters, and a family tree, is the map of the Midlands of England with the Catholic houses identified in each county: Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire. Seeing the distances (if not the terrain) between the houses, I could imagine the missionary priests moving from house to house, celebrating the Sacraments, keeping ahead of the government pursuivants. I could also imagine the government pursuivants, going from house to house, hoping to catch a priest!
By telling the story of Vaux family, as each generation continues the family's faithfulness to the Catholic Church, Childs retells stories familiar to me, of St. Edmund Campion and Father Robert Persons, St. Robert Southwell, Fathers Henry Garnett and John Gerard, and other priests and martyrs, from a different angle: how the Vaux family had sheltered and assisted the priests.
As Childs describes each Vaux generation's response to recusancy, the tension and the danger mount: fines, arrests, imprisonment, debt, danger, conflict within the extended family, and death. Trying to find a way to practice his faith and yet be an Englishman proved exhausting for William the second Baron Vaux. Recusant Catholics could "either obey their Queen and consign their souls to damnation", as Childs says, "or obey the pope and surrender their bodies to temporal punishment". His son Henry and daughters Anne and Eleanor and daughter-in-law Eliza would be even more courageous, leading the underground network of safety for the missionary priests. The later generations of Vauxes--further and further separated from how the Catholic faith had once been practiced in England--grew more and more desperate as they found their choices so limiting: unable to take part in the leadership of their country, they fled to the Continent as mercenaries, like Ambrose, the black sheep of the family.
The Vauxes are always on the edges of the conspiracies against Elizabeth I (the Ridolfi Plot, the Babington conspiracy, the Throckmorton Plot)--and thus William Vaux spent so much time answering questions, along with his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Tresham, paying fnes, enduring imprisonment and house arrest. But at the end of the book, the Gunpowder Plot attempt to blow up Parliament with King James I, his family, and all the Lords and Commons, sums up the entire struggle. Anne Vaux feared that young men she knew well like Robert Catesby were plotting something horrible and she wanted Father Henry Garnet to tell them not to go forward with their plans. Did Father Garnet do enough? did he ask the right questions? respond forcefully enough to tell Catesby and Digby et al not to pursue whatever plot they had in mind? Those were questions he asked himself while in prison and even during his questioning. Although he did not instigate the plot or encourage the plot--he knew about the Gunpowder Plot and he did not report it to the authorities, citing the seal of the confessional.
In the Epilogue, Childs continues the story of the Vauxes: the sisters Anne and Eleanor and their sister-in-law Eliza continue their good works, focused now on the children to be raised in the Catholic faith. The family endures the long Eighteenth century and then finally enjoys Emancipation and freedom. One of the best details of this after story is that the nine Baron Vaux was Father Gabriel Gilbey, O.S.B. and took his seat in the House of Lords in 1962, 403 years after the last Benedictine served in the House (I presume that could be John Feckenham, the last abbot of Westminster Abbey).
Alice Hogge in "God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot" (2005) described the lives and deaths of the missionary priests who studied abroad and returned to England, branded as traitors for their priesthood, in her build-up to the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. It could almost serve as the companion volume to Childs' great story of the Vaux family. By focusing on the noble Vaux family, the lay men and women who struggled to remain true to their Church and to their nation, however, Childs has given us a great story of faithfulness and endurance. I cannot recommend "God's Traitors" highly enough: it is well-narrated and her analysis is always balanced and insightful.