Jessie Childs, God’s Traitors: Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England, The Bodley Head, London, 2014.

Jessie Childs, God’s Traitors: Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England, The Bodley Head, London, 2014. £25.00/CAN $35.00, ISBN 9781847921567 (hardback), pp. xx + 443

Reviewed by: Katie McKeogh, University of Oxford, June 2014.

God’s Traitors is an impressive popular history that centres on an important network of Catholic gentry families in Northamptonshire, chiefly the Vauxes of Harrowden, at the epicentre of which was William, third Baron Vaux (1535-95). Childs’ hope is ‘that for the general reader it might throw a shaft of light on a rather murky corner of England’s past, one that was for a long time kept hidden’ (p. 5). Her stated aim is ‘to go some way towards explaining how “acts of religion came to be treasons” and why “unnatural practises” were motivated by faith’ (p. 5). She uses the Vaux family as a case-study because their lives, as captured in the surviving Tresham family papers, reveal how ‘sensational stuff that was sensationalised at the time’ (p. 5) was more broadly significant to the experiences of English Catholics in the post-Reformation period. Childs is successful in illuminating her chosen murky corner, and follows in the footsteps of Antonia Fraser in producing a popular yet scholarly work on the familial context of the Gunpowder Plot.

God’s Traitorswould be of use to undergraduates as well as general readers, and might interest scholars who study popular representations and receptions of the early modern world. The volume is accompanied by a helpful scholarly apparatus including endnotes, a select bibliography and a thorough index, enhanced by beautiful colour plates that serve to elaborate Childs’ narrative for those readers who are interested in the wider historical context. The inclusion of a map of the area under discussion, an enhanced genealogy, and an annotated list of ‘Principal Characters’ (pp. xii-xiii; xv; xvii-xx), are also valuable contributions.

The book’s title, possibly the publisher’s choice, neatly encapsulates the important dichotomy faced by Childs’ subjects: how to reconcile spiritual allegiance and the care for one’s soul with ‘natural’ loyalty to one’s queen and country. Childs’ narrative encompasses the story of the Gunpowder Plot, the role of women in supporting the Jesuit Mission and an examination of midlands Catholic families—topics that are not only fascinating in their own right, but are facets of early modern English Catholicism which are necessary to complete the picture of religious experience in this important period. Individuals’ experience of the Reformation and its consequences were dependent on considerations as diverse as education, family position, geographic location, wealth, status, and coexistence with neighbours, to name but a few. Intimate personal faith and conscience must also be taken into account, and case-studies such as this one, which have the family at their heart, are a profitable route to understanding a complex picture within a distinct regional, temporal and religio-political context.

What sets this work apart from much popular history (and indeed some purely academic literature) is its recourse to manuscript sources. Childs’ narrative is colourful, and the primary sources are never too far in the background. The Tresham Papers, a body of diverse and incredibly rich material bound up and hidden by the family in 1605, was discovered in 1828, but has not received detailed scholarly attention since its discovery. At eleven volumes, and damaged by damp, they are a gargantuan task, and Childs has successfully deployed a manageable portion of the most relevant material for her purposes in using the first two volumes, which mostly contain correspondence. Childs also makes occasional references to Bodleian MS Eng. Th. b. 1-2, an enigmatic Catholic manuscript book dating from the first decade of the Seventeenth Century and compiled by a Catholic layman writing under a pseudonym. This generous and promising source, almost certainly proximate to the network around Vaux, has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves. Childs is most concerned with the prefatory material, which contains epistles ‘dedicatorie’ and ‘to the reader’, and with an account of an exorcism which took place at Vaux’s London residence in Hackney. These are but a fraction of the phenomenally rich material offered by the manuscript: a promising area of further research.

A glance at the acknowledgements in God’s Traitors shows fine scholarly intuition; Childs has looked in all the right places, read some of the right people and covered an impressive amount of ground in archives. Childs’ methodology, to address broad historical tropes such as loyalty and faith in the family context is a successful model, following the impressive scholarly precedent set by Geoffrey Scott, Peter Marshall and Michael Questier.[1]Childs is also aided by the seminal work on Vaux, published by Godfrey Anstruther in 1952, which has long been a stalwart of the secondary literature, and should continue to be of enormous use to historians of Catholicism, and of the gentry, in this period. She makes excellent use of Anstruther in the first half of her book, and of John Gerard’s adventurous Autobiography of an Elizabethan, in the second.[2]

The book’s first part (of four) establishes the background to the family itself, including its earlier fortunes, and this prepares us well for the action of the rest of the work. The central two parts are named for the three Vaux women: Anne, Eleanor and Eliza, and it is clear that it is with these women that Childs’ keenest interests lie. Of particular value is her useful relation of women to the courtiers with whom they exchanged letters of petition. This important genre of epistolary evidence has provided fertile ground for the work of historians such as James Daybell and Gemma Allen in examining female agency, education, and patronage, and it was an important direct route of contact between influential members of the Privy Council and Catholic gentlewomen.[3]The connections between these individuals serve to lend nuance to the traditional picture of closed, conservative entirely Catholic networks. These were spheres in which women could wield influence, and where Protestant patrons and kin could be instrumental to the survival of a family when the outlook seemed bleak. God’s Traitorsis particularly valuable for its concentration on the family’s women as well as the men, who may be more visible in the State Papers, but whose political activism was matched, supported, and complicated by that of their female kin. Indeed, these women had a trajectory of their own, and had similar concerns for the salvation of their souls and the fortunes of their family to their male counterparts. More thorough and explicit engagement with the historiography of toleration and female agency would have been useful in elucidating these points, but the book is already substantial, and it is clear that Childs has chosen to prioritise the telling of a brilliant story over historiography, and to let her characters speak for themselves.

While the absence of historiography about toleration and women’s roles in the early modern period is understandable, given the space afforded to primary sources that reveal these themes, there are certain points of intersection between the narrative and historiography which would have benefited from a thematic segueto engage with other important areas of secondary literature. Martyrdom and relics feature prominently in Childs’ story, but she does not clearly situate them within a broader early modern English Catholic culture, which was characterised by new forms of confessional identity and devotion, influenced in part by missionary priests and the relocation of worship to the domestic sphere. In order to convey the contemporary understanding of these phenomena and their centrality within the Catholic community to her readers, Childs might have made reference to work by Anne Dillon and Brad Gregory, to name only two examples.[4]Relics and martyrdom were not isolated phenomena, but part of a vibrant post-Tridentine devotional culture.

In addition to a more robust historiography, some readers might have preferred for the work to have been organized by theme rather than chronologically. Personally, this reviewer feels that a chronological approach lends clarity to a complicated web of complicated individuals. Given that the focus of God’s Traitorsis the narration of individuals’ convergent lives, a chronological structure is suitable to the task.

With the proximity of William, third Baron Vaux and his immediate family to the Jesuit Mission, and to some of the most significant points of tension between the Elizabethan Regime and its Catholic gentry and aristocracy, Childs’ decision to focus on them is not unusual, nor is it indefensible. But for all the piety behind William Vaux’s actions in support of the Mission, the fervour of his defence of the lay Catholic position and the extent of the damage to his health and his estate, Vaux was a feeble character. As an estate manager, he was a disaster, and dependent on the tireless assistance of Sir Thomas Tresham, his brother-in-law and coreligionist, on whose good sense, accounting, learning and advocacy he relied. In Childs’ account, Tresham is an over-bearing and self-serving manipulator who receives his comeuppance in Chancery when Vaux’s daughter Anne, a determined spinster whose marriage portion had been placed in Tresham’s care by her father, sought to sue Tresham for the money. This reviewer found Childs’ reading of Tresham rather cynical. He was certainly a character who loomed large on the religio-political scene in debates surrounding Catholic loyalism and advocated gentry autonomy in matters of conscience, but like Vaux he was beleaguered, and he treated his kinsmen and women with charity throughout their association and all the trials it involved. Childs’ presentation of Tresham is, however, an interesting departure from the usual affection shown to the eccentric Trinitarian builder in the existing literature. Nevertheless, Tresham’s buildings ought to be seen as stone monuments to his faith, as well as an illustration of gentry architectural interests, rather than betraying ‘a fairly monstrous ego’ (p. 229). The message of Tresham’s Triangular Lodge is one of religious community, the symbolic nature of its artistic expression, and the overriding power of God; as Tresham had carved on its walls, consideravi opera tua, Domine, et expavi (‘I have contemplated your works, O Lord, and have been sore afraid’).

Despite these minor flaws and this reviewer’s divergent view of Tresham, Childs must be commended for her valuable work and admirable story-telling abilities. She succeeds in taking readers by the hand and walking them through an important era of post-Tridentine Catholicism. With Childs as our guide, and Vaux as her mouthpiece, we are invited to imagine ourselves in the prison cell, within the priest hole and beneath the scaffold.

[1]G. Scott and P. Marshall (eds.), Catholic Gentry in English Society: the Throckmortons of Coughton from Reformation to Emancipation (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009); P. Marshall, Faith and Identity in a Warwickshire Family: the Throckmortons and the Reformation(Stratford upon Avon: Dugdale Society, 2010); M. Questier, Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England: Politics, Aristocratic Patronage, and Religion, c. 1550-1640(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2]G. Anstruther, Vaux of Harrowden: a recusant family, 2nded. (Newport: R.H. Johns, 1953); J. Gerard,John Gerard: the autobiography of an Elizabethan, trans. P. Caraman, intro. G. Greene, 2nded. (London: Longmans, 1956).

[3]See, for example, J. Daybell, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); G. Allen, The Cooke Sisters: Education, Piety, and Politics in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[4]A. Dillon, The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Catholic Community, 1535-1603(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002); B. Gregory Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe(Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999).