QAB Interview with Historian Jessie Childs

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Jessie Childs
Jessie Childs

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Historian Jessie Childs hails from London, England. While a student at West Heath, Stowe School and Brasenose College, Oxford, Jessie read history and took a first in 1999. Jessie’s debut biography, Henry VIII’s Last Victim, the Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was a resounding success, winning the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography in 2007.  Jessie is well known for her public speaking, and has written and reviewed for many publications, including The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Literary Review, History Today, BBC History Magazine and Standpoint. She resides in London, England with her husband and two daughters.  

1. Jessie, God’s Traitors, focuses upon the experiences of recusant Catholics and priests in Reformation England, a topic which until very recently was rarely examined. Why do you think that is?

Elizabeth, Regina
Elizabeth, Regina

Well, it’s a truism that history is written by the winners. The dramatist Thomas Dekker wrote that Elizabeth I ‘brought up, even under her wing, a nation that was almost begotten and born under her, that never shouted any other Ave than for her name’. It’s terrific spin. Thousands of her subjects continued to say their Hail Marys, but they didn’t fit neatly into the Protestant national story. When I was growing up, most schools tended to focus on the mainstream Protestant version, Gloriana and all that – with perhaps a nod to the Catholic predicament – whereas in Catholic schools, it was much more about the heroic age of the martyrs. So it was polarized; the Catholic experience of Elizabethan England was seen as something that only Catholics would want to write about. That’s not the case now. Many historians transcend confessional lines and succeed in bringing the Catholic experience – in all its variegations – into the mainstream and vice versa.

2. The recusant Vaux family features prominently in your research. Their combined and individual life stories are absolutely remarkable. What would you like to share with members and browsers of your research of the Vauxes, and how was their story so well preserved when so little in general is known about the Roman Catholic experience from contemporary Roman Catholic sources?

William, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, 1575
William, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, 1575

First, I have to kowtow to the late Godfrey Anstruther, a Dominican monk who wrote about the Vauxes in 1953. When I came across his marvellous book, Vaux of Harrowden: A Recusant Family, I wailed, ‘oh no, they’ve already been done!’ But it’s been over sixty years since he wrote and there’s an awful lot to add, both in terms of historiography and new evidence. There’s a wonderful manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, for example, of which I make extensive use, especially for the exorcism at the Vaux house in Hackney in 1586. Also, the fabulous letters of a Spanish noblewoman, Luisa de Carvajal (recently translated into English by Glyn Redworth) provide a wealth of new information on the Vaux family and the Gunpowder Plot.

I wanted to write about a family in order to give multiple perspectives and show how conditions changed as the reign went on. It also helps to humanize a subject that contains some pretty inhumane elements – torture, terror, fanaticism etc. The Vauxes still had marriage scandals, petty squabbles, lawsuits and black sheep. One of the best sources for the family’s skeletons, so to speak, are the Tresham Papers, which were discovered in 1828 by builders knocking through a wall at Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire.

3. You highlight in God’s Traitors that the lives of Roman Catholics who desired to practice their faith in England and Wales became exponentially more complex upon the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I. Can you explain to readers and browsers why this was? Can you also speak to how some Catholics, such as Jesuit priests active in the realm, complicated matters for recusants further still?

Pope Pus V
Pope Pus V

Regnans in Excelsis, the bull of excommunication issued by Pope Pius V on 25 February 1570, not only labelled Elizabeth I a heretic, but also an illegitimate queen. It demanded that English Catholics withdraw their obedience from her, upon pain of anathema. ‘There is no place left for any excuse, defence, or tergiversation,’ it said. From henceforth, Catholics could either obey their queen and consign their souls to damnation or they could obey the Pope and suffer temporal punishment. Theoretically, it put them in an impossible position. Parliament reacted in 1571 with stricter laws, including a ban on the importation or receipt of rosaries, Agnus Deis, crucifixes and other ‘superstitious things’ blessed by the Pope or his priests.

When the Jesuits launched their mission in 1580, they came with a resolution from the new Pope, Gregory XIII, that the bull of excommunication should not be implemented ‘under present circumstances’, but this was scant comfort to the queen and her advisers – the effective message being that she should still be deposed, just not quite yet. And the Jesuits were very hard-line on the subject of conformity. They refused to condone attendance at Protestant church services – even if it was only qualified or occasional – so a lot more Catholics became ‘recusants’ (refusers) and paid the price.

4. Were there ever real threats of assassination of Queen Elizabeth I or were Protestants such as Francis Walsingham and William Cecil merely paranoid? If so, how did these real threats impact Roman Catholics, whether loyal to the monarchy or not? 

Sir Thomas Tresham
Sir Thomas Tresham

Absolutely there were real threats and the government was right to take them seriously. The security of the realm depended entirely on the queen’s survival in an age that saw brother rulers taken by bullet and blade. Regent Moray of Scotland was shot dead in 1570, William of Orange in 1584, Henri III of France was fatally stabbed in 1589, the list goes on. It only took one extremist, bent on martyrdom and blind to worldly consequence, to effect an assassination. Even the Babington Plot (1586), which involved double agents, entrapment and forgery, was real in the sense that Catholics genuinely planned to assassinate the queen.

On the other hand, councillors were not above taking advantage of whispers and magnifying threats. This was particularly evident in 1594, when court rivalries seeped into intelligence work and the result was an occasional – and occasionally deliberate – blurring of perception and reality.

The tragedy for the Catholics who wished to remain loyal to the queen is that they were increasingly seen as the enemy within. Even if they did nothing seditious, they were feared for what they might do in the event of an invasion. Provisions like the 1593 ‘statute of confinement’, which forbade recusants from travelling beyond five miles of their home without a licence, must have been devastating. It’s quite easy to calculate the cost of not going to church – £20 a month after 1581 – or the number of people executed for harbouring priests, but it’s not so easy to quantify the psychological damage or the knock-on effects of recusancy for individuals and families. When Sir Thomas Tresham was imprisoned in 1588 as a precaution against the landing of the Spanish Armada, he likened it to being ‘drenched in a sea of shameless slanders’. He described his life as ‘moth-eaten’. He also recounted seeing Lord Vaux in 1593 ‘with tears trickling down his cheeks’ in despair.

Neither Vaux nor Tresham were complete innocents, however; both were on the fringes of plots. It’s important to appreciate how hard it must have been for the government to assess threats and preserve national security. As Walsingham wrote to Cecil towards the end of 1568: ‘There is less danger in fearing too much than too little.’

5. I was absolutely fascinated with the bravery and outright ingenuity of Roman Catholic recusants in how they found creative ways to celebrate mass, while also creatively harboring, hiding and protecting priests. Can you share with members and browsers a few of your favorite stories of how masses were celebrated and priests hidden?

A Catholic priest disguised as a peddler, carrying this trunk, had everything he needed to carry out religious services.
A Catholic priest disguised as a peddler, carrying this trunk, had everything he needed to carry out religious services.

Anyone caught hearing Mass risked being fined and imprisoned, while, from 1585, it was a capital offence to be, or even to harbour, a seminary priest in England, so, yes, they had to get creative. Vestments would be made to look like patchwork quilts or folded up with the linen. Chalices were sometimes made to a small scale and unscrewed at the stem for portability and concealment. Miniature, portable altars were used instead of the big traditional ones. These were slabs of natural stone (about the size of an ipad) and could be slotted into a tabletop or the surface of a sideboard or bureau.

Priests were less easy to conceal; they often masqueraded as gentlemen, merchants, soldiers, schoolteachers or servants. There’s quite a fun story about the Jesuit missionary priest, Edmund Campion, who was pushed into a pond by a maidservant – her act of disrespect proving an effective disguise for his priesthood.

Sometimes, during raids, lay hosts or servants would volunteer themselves as priests and be taken into custody. By the time their true identity was discovered, the real priest was long gone, but it was incredibly risky.

Women were good at deploying distraction, delay and feminine outrage during raids on their homes. In Warwickshire in 1591, for example, Anne Vaux subjected the Queen’s men to a barrage of damish outrage: ‘Do you think it right and proper that you should be admitted to a widow’s house before she or her servants or children are out of bed? Why this lack of good manners? Why come so early? Why keep coming to my house in this hostile manner?’ (She wasn’t in fact a widow or a mother; she was impersonating her sister, Eleanor, who found the raids nerve-shattering).

On another occasion, Eleanor’s eleven-year-old adopted daughter, Frances, took charge. ‘Oh! put up your swords!,’ she cried, ‘or else my mother will die, for she cannot endure to see a naked sword.’ At the sight of the little girl and her swooning mother, the men were momentarily abashed and under the guise of fetching some wine, off trotted Frances to see the priests safely hidden.

Priest hole in the cupboard of Harvington Hall, Worcestershire
Priest hole in the cupboard of Harvington Hall, Worcestershire

The ‘priest-holes’ that were made to hide the missionaries and their massing equipment were remarkable; many survive to this day and are well worth a visit. Baddesley Clinton, Coughton Court, Harvington Hall, Harrowden Hall and Rushton Hall all feature in God’s Traitors. The first three are open to the public, Harrowden Hall is now a golf club and Rushton Hall a hotel.

6. The forced depravity of recusant Roman Catholics was very touchingly detailed in God’s Traitors, as well as the heartbreaking martyrdom of priests and the recusants who sheltered them. Forty Martyrs of England and Wales were canonised by Pope Paul VI is 1970. Beyond the fairly recent recognition afforded by the Roman Catholic Church, why do you think these true heroes are not more revered by British culture in general?

Saint Robert Southwell
Saint Robert Southwell

A lot of people would dispute the phrase ‘true heroes’. They weren’t burned for heresy, they were chiefly executed for treason. It’s a specious distinction, perhaps, but it makes things more complicated. And some were involved in treason, not just the treason of being, or harbouring, a seminary priest in England, which was automatic after 1585, but also seditious activities like communicating with the queen’s overseas enemies or handling books that condoned the papal deposing power. There was a vast grey area and one has to be sensitive to the government’s position in having to deal with potential, if not actual, enemies at a time of war.

But I think it’s right to say that British culture doesn’t sufficiently recognize the sacrifices and hard choices that the Catholics had to make under Elizabeth I. Anti-popery was a powerful, enduring force and it left some weeds in the British constitution. It was only last year that the law was amended to allow heirs to the throne to marry Catholics without forfeiting their place in the succession.

I also think it goes back to the point we were discussing earlier – that until quite recently histories about Catholics just weren’t mainstream; they were thought to carry a whiff of hagiography. There may have been some justification for this view in the 1950s, but not now.

7. Francis Walsingham — hero or villain?

Francis Walsingham
Francis Walsingham

For many, he helped ‘save England’ and the ends justified the means. For others, he was a dangerous fanatic. I suppose he did what he thought was right and necessary for the commonwealth. He was very much of his time; toleration was not greatly esteemed by those in authority in this period.

Perhaps Walsingham can speak for himself. Here he is at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, at Fotheringhay on 14 October 1586:

Madam, I stand charged by you to have practised something against you. I call God and all the world to witness I have not done anything as a private man unworthy of an honest man, nor as a public man unworthy of my calling. I protest before God that as a man careful of my mistress’s safety, I have been curious.’

If anyone wants to know more about Walsingham, I highly recommend John Cooper’s excellent biography, The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I.

8. Roman Catholic women were major players in the recusant community. Their leadership roles, so atypical for a medieval society, factored very heavily in the protection of priests and the celebration of mass within the realm. What dynamics were in play that allowed women such prominence?

margaret recusant saint

Because of the nature of the mission, Catholicism in England became largely household-centered, rather than church-based, so it’s unsurprising that women played an important part in its preservation. Ironically, it was very much the perceived inferiority of women in society and their limited standing in the law that let them get away with things for which men would have been prosecuted. Elizabeth Moninge of Kent, questioned in 1591 about her refusal to go to church, answered rather wonderfully that ‘as a wife under subjection, she had no ability to give an answer’. One can see that there was little point in going to all the trouble of convicting a recusant wife if she couldn’t be fined because her husband owned all the property. Even after 1593, when husbands became liable for their wives’ nonconformity, there remained a reluctance to intrude upon family life.

Spinsters and widows could own property and were theoretically liable for prosecution, but they became adept at hiding their assets and, in practice, a great many of them also slipped through the net. As ever, there was a gulf between the letter of the law and its enforcement. One can often sense the awkwardness of officials ordered to ransack a pious mistress’s house. Of course, the women took full advantage of this.

The reaction – both Protestant and Catholic – to influential recusant women was entirely predictable. They were either lampooned as silly sluts who kept priests in their closets, or they were stripped of their femininity and portrayed as virile women whose ‘masculine spirit’ was inflamed by divine fire under exceptional circumstances. ‘Though she has all a maiden’s modesty and even shyness,’ wrote Anne Vaux’s Jesuit confessor Henry Garnet, ‘yet in God’s cause, and in the protection of His servants, virgo becomes virago.’

9. Jessie, is there anything else we did not cover that you would like to share with QAB readers and browser?

I’m always asked if I’m a Catholic, so perhaps I ought to put it on record that I’m not! I’m not trying to lionize or demonize anyone in God’s Traitors; there’s no confessional agenda, just a desire to lift the lid on some fairly neglected stories. It’s been a genuine pleasure – and eye-opener – to research and write the book.

And it’s been a pleasure to do this interview too. Thank you very much for having me.

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God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England

Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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