God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, by Jessie Childs, Bodley Head RRP£25, 443 pages

Post-Reformation England was jittery with fears of a Catholic revival. Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster and priest-hunter at the court of Elizabeth I, regarded Jesuits as a sinister sect involved in popish attempts to dethrone his patron-monarch. Spain’s ill-fated attack on England in 1588 intensified Walsingham’s clampdown on perceived traitors. In the paranoid post-Armada years, Jesuits and other “Romish” suspects were smoked out of hiding and publicly executed.

Historian Jessie Childs won the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography with her first book, Henry VIII’s Last Victim. Now she has written a superb account of cloak-and-dagger religious intrigue in Tudor England. God’s Traitors describes a John le Carré-like world of political double-dealing and “spiery” (as the Elizabethans called it). This was a time when moles were planted in Catholic seminaries abroad and Elizabethan diplomacy created a looking-glass war in which priest was turned against priest, informant against informant.

The brutal and insistent Protestant dogma under Elizabeth I had much in common with the anti-Protestant Inquisition in Spain. The Spanish courts of inquiry controlled by Philip II, like the Tudor courts of inquiry controlled by his arch-enemy Elizabeth I, extracted confessions by means of the rack or burning tongs. Its methods of intimidation and control were designed above all to spread fear and suspicion.

In Childs’s estimation, the Tudor persecutions were cynically allied to state politics. With Machiavellian adroitness, Walsingham set out to burn “traitorous hearts” from the Elizabethan body politic. He was as devoted to the defence of the Tudor realm and its anti-Spanish cause as Elizabeth I. Yet it is doubtful how anti-Catholic the queen herself really was. She was thought to keep a crucifix, candles and other crypto-Catholic ornaments in her bedside cabinet. Unlike the fanatic Walsingham, she saw no contradiction between tradition and reform. Of course that did not make her a Catholic but, equally, she did not see papal purple as a sign of dangerous recusancy – refusal to attend Anglican services – and “spiery”.

Ultimately, Catholics and Protestants in Tudor England saw in each other the same heretic infidel. In her fast-paced narrative, Childs relates how Jesuits and other “mass-mongers” were chased out of hiding, and on occasion publicly disembowelled and dismembered. Up and down England, priests were attacked as meddlesome devils whose allegiance to God was in doubt. “People began to question if it was even possible for an English Catholic to be a true patriot,” Childs writes.

Refusing to be cloistered in a monastery, Jesuits took their Gospel message out across the world, and put much store by “persuasion” (sophistical reasoning) in their efforts to evangelise Protestants. Small wonder Jesuitical endeavour was regarded as unpatriotic in Elizabethan England. Beh­ind the fear and loathing of Catholics was the shadow of the St Bartholomew’s day massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572. Walsingham, who had witnessed the killings from the English emb­assy in the city, was left with a life-long loathing of Catholicism. His great coup was to have unveiled a Catholic conspiracy to put Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne and depose her cousin Elizabeth I; in 1586, Walsingham authorised Mary’s beheading.

Along the way, Childs describes the involvement of the recusant Vaux family of Northamptonshire in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. The Vaux stately home was frequented by the plotters, among them the Jesuit Superior Henry Garnet, who was hanged, drawn and quartered in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1606. The veneration of the Virgin Mary – “Mariolatry” – nevertheless continued to be practised in England in secret.

God’s Traitors, with its crisp prose and punctilious scholarship, brilliantly recreates a world of heroism and holiness in Tudor England. While it adds little to what historians already know about the Elizabethan Catholic underground, as a mainstream history it is little short of a triumph.

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