Review: GOD’S TRAITORS, by Jessie Childs
For Thy sake allow me to be tortured, mutilated, scourged, slain and butchered. I refuse nothing, I will embrace all, not indeed I, dust and ashes as I am, but Thou, my Lord, in me. ~~~ Saint RobertSouthwell
About 200 yards from the site of the Tyburn Gallows lies the Shrine of the Martyrs at Tyburn, located within the Tyburm Convent, home of the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, more commonly known as the Tyburn nuns. Since 1901, the Tyburn nuns have enjoyed their contemplative life within the monastic tradition of the Church under the Rule of St. Benedict. While doing so, they created their remarkable shrine to honor the memory of over 105 Roman Catholic Martyrs executed at Tyburn Gallows primarily during the reigns of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, today a location of international pilgrimage. Largely alone in their exhaustive efforts, the Tyburn nuns have ensured the life stories and sacrifices of those Roman Catholics martyrs executed at Tyburn Gallows are remembered and revered, if not commonly by British culture, at least by the Roman Catholic pilgrims who ventured through their doors.
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!
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. For more information about Jessie Childs, visit her website at http://jessiechilds.co.uk/.