Lords, spies and traitors in Elizabeth's England

A review of God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, by Jessie Childs. To see the power of 16th-century aristocrats, look at the ones being tracked as enemies of the state

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England Jessie Childs

Bodley Head, pp.442, £25, ISBN: 9781847921567

There are still some sizeable holes in early modern English history and one of them is what we know — or, rather, do not know — about the aristocracy. Of course, peers who held high office under the Crown often have their biographers. But there is still a rooted assumption among scholars that the aristo-cracy as a caste or class was in decline during and after the later 16th century. If the papers have not survived, we are left with little idea about a peerage family apart from snippets of information and the odd anecdote. Also, the sort of documents which tend to get kept are the ‘boring’ ones — estate papers, rent rolls and such like. Much less frequently preserved are the family’s private and confidential papers and letters.

One sure way for a peerage family to go into decline in the period after the Reformation was for it to turn to Catholicism. Historians tend to side with the winners and are inclined to regard high-ranking Catholic families as marginalised and dull. But compared even with much of the upper gentry, most of the Catholic peerage was still phenomenally rich and therefore socially powerful. Despite their often chronic indebtedness in terms of ready cash (and they were not unique in this), these families had at their disposal vast resources in the form of landed estates and various kinds of patronage.

Among them were the Vaux, who under Elizabeth I separated from the national church and flirted with quite dangerous forms of Catholic dissent. This drew the hostile glances of the authorities, especially since the family lived in Northamptonshire, which had its share of puritans. The surveillance generated by informers, JPs and other agents of the state as they watched the Vaux family has left behind quite a lot of information about them. This is really what God’s Traitors is about.

Here, in a truly excellent account of an extended family between the Reformation and the Gunpowder Plot, we have many of the well-known stories from the Catholic underground — and indeed the overground as well: the attempts to embed the new Counter-Reformation clergy into the structures of these Catholics’ lives; the extra-ordinary intervention of the Jesuit and martyr Edmund Campion in 1580–1581; the plots and crises of the mid-1580s, followed by the Armada; the miserable war- and famine-ridden decade of the 1590s; and the accession to the throne in 1603 of the Stuart king of Scotland as James I of England. He was the great white hope of so many Catholics, but that ended with the furore over the Gunpowder Plot, with which this volume concludes.

The narrative also manages deftly to recover the often conflicted and difficult family life and marriages of the Vaux as well as the other noble and gentry families with which they were connected. All of this sits alongside discussions of the culture of Catholic separation and related topics, not least the regime’s hostility and the rampages of the barmy, homicidal old sadist-cum-rapist (and royal servant to Queen Elizabeth I) Richard Topcliffe and his single-minded determination to destroy the Catholic networks around families such as the Vaux.

The repeated cropping-up of the Vaux name gives us a sense of the kind of patronage which the aristocracy could dispense; sometimes directly in the form of the employment of servants and (especially) household chaplains, sometimes less directly in the maintaining of the more dispersed connections which the influential could sustain through social interaction and friendship. One instance of the direct kind was Henry Vaux’s financial system in the 1580s for sustaining seminarist clergy. Without his support, their ministry, which heavily influenced Catholicism during the period, would have been almost impossible.

Jessie Childs tells an exciting story and also suggests how a major aristocratic family might be half in and half out of the establishment at the same time. Through her recovery of these people’s lives (and her research is really very thorough) we encounter the web of influence generated by the Vaux and other highborn Catholics. This undoubtedly helped to shape the course of events in Elizabethan England in ways which traditional accounts of the period — so often wedded to the cult of monarchy and the genesis and genius of Anglicanism — are frankly unwilling to admit.

God’s Traitors crosses the divide between popular and academic history. It raises issues of some real historical importance, not least of how much archival material, more often glimpsed than analysed, might still be out there which has things to tell us about the period but which is often excluded from mainstream versions of it.

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  • GeronimusRex

    I assume this includes Guy or Guido Fawkes [VAUX]