Religious turmoil was ubiquitous in sixteenth century England. In fact, the entire continent of Europe was a roiling cauldron of ecumenical and dogmatic crazy-sauce. The question of who had the “correct” form of Christianity – the Catholics or the Protestants – was so controversial and important that people were burned to death over their answer, and chose to be martyred in such a painful fashion rather than recant. Even death itself could not excuse you from choosing sides, inasmuch as corpses were exhumed and burned as traitors or exhumed and given monuments.
For example, during the five years of Mary I’s reign more than 280 Protestants were executed, usually by being burned to death at the stake. These included such influential high-ranking reformers as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, as well as common men, women, and even a few individuals young enough to be considered children today. Religious experts who were posthumously burnt included University of Cambridge scholars Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius. There was even a mere poulterer by the name of John Tooley whose devotion to the Reformation was enough to have him dug up and burned.
Elizabeth I, a Protestant queen, occupied the throne for nearly forty-five years (1558 – 1603) and to give her all the credit due her she spent the first dozen years of her rule trying not to make any Catholic martyrs at all. After 1570 and until her death in 1603, there were about 200 Catholics murdered for their religion … which is about 200 too many but considering the nearly never-ending attempts on Elizabeth’s life by Catholic factions both foreign and domestic it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
In God’s Traitors, Jessie Childs tells the fascinating story of one Catholic family, the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall, from the foundation of the Church of England in the 1530s to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and their struggle to keep the faith in Protestant England. Few Elizabethans would have disputed that obedience was a Christian duty, but following the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth by Pope Pius V in 1570 and the growing anti-Catholic sentiment in the decades that followed, it became increasingly difficult for English Catholics to maintain a dual allegiance to their God and their Queen. Childs follows the Vauxes into the heart of the underground Catholic movement, exploring the conflicts of loyalty they faced and the means by which they exerted defiance. Tracing the family’s path from staunch loyalty to the Crown, to passive resistance and on to increasing activism, Childs illustrates the pressures and painful choices that confronted the persecuted Catholic community. Though recusants like the Vauxes comprised only a tiny fraction of the Catholic minority in England, they aroused fears in the heart of the commonwealth. Childs shows how anti-popery became an ideology and a cultural force, shaping not only the life and policy of Elizabeth I, but also those of her successors. From clandestine chapels and side-street inns to exile communities and the corridors of power, God’s Traitors exposes the tensions and insecurities that plagued Catholics living under the rule of Elizabeth I. Above all, it is a timely story of courage and concession, repression and reaction, and the often terrible consequences when religion and politics collide.
I was impressed beyond the telling with Childs’s writing, her in-depth research, and her ability to use the microcosm of a family to reflect and explain the macrocosm of history. The book manages to be both sympathetic to the plight of the Catholic populace, encouraging you to genuinely empathize with the choices the Vauxes made, and yet also frame the topic by the harsh realities of governing a state that has rebellion constantly fomenting within a particular segment of society, rendering Elizabeth’s choices comprehensible within the context of their time and place. If you really want to understand one of the main driving forces between sociopolitical action and reaction in Elizabethan England (and incidentally why there are still bonfires on November 5th) then I cannot recommend this book highly enough.