Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Very Dangerous Time to Be a Catholic in England

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Very Dangerous Time to Be a Catholic in England

Article excerpt

Byline: MELANIE MCDONAGH

GOD'S TRAITORS: TERROR AND FAITH IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND by Jessie Childs (Bodley Head, PS25) MELANIE MCDONAGH THE apocryphal Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times" could have been designed for Elizabethan England. And for no part of society were the times more interesting than for Catholics, who over the reign turned from the normative kind of English Christian to alien and feared conspirators.

Jessie Childs has had the excellent notion of following the plight of Catholics through a single family, that of William Vaux, a gentle individual, fond of hawking and country pursuits, a lower-ranking nobleman who mixed freely with the highest in the land at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign and died at the end of it worn down by imprisonment, trial and impoverishment for the faith of his fathers.

On this small canvas she depicts not only the fate of the family but of the great affairs of state that directly affected them. It's a rollicking story, "of stately homes and Thames-side taverns, spy rings and torture chambers, priest hunts, exorcisms and a swashbuckling escape from the Tower of London: sensational stuff that was sensationalised at the time".

She's not exaggerating: the cast in this drama includes Robert Southwell, the Jesuit author-poet, and Edmund Campion, formerly Elizabethan favourite, both hung, drawn and quartered, Sir Richard Topcliffe, the Queen's intimate whose penchant for torturing priests was such that he had his very own chamber for the purpose, and Nicholas Owen, the modest craftsman whose genius priest holes saved many lives.

Much of this is familiar territory -- not least from Alice Hogge's account of the Jesuit mission, God's Secret Agents -- but this story gets much of its vim from the richly entertaining members of the Vaux family. There was, it seems, an extraordinary feminist element to the recusant movement, not least in Eleanor and Anne Vaux, who not only hosted the English contingent of Jesuits but went to extraordinary lengths to fend off priest-hunters. …

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