Focus on people brings history of English Catholic 'recusants' to life - Catholic Courier

Focus on people brings history of English Catholic ‘recusants’ to life

"God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England" by Jessie Childs. Oxford University Press (New York, 2014). 464 pp., $29.95.

In "God’s Traitors," author Jessie Childs tells the history of Catholics in 16th-century Protestant England by following the lives of individuals and family connections. While one could accuse the author of not seeing the forest for the trees, the close-up action, including extensive use of letters and other source materials, brings this history to life.

With the focus on people more than on sweeping political and theological trends, the book offers a very good understanding of just what the English "recusants" were put through after the death of Henry VIII, with most of the action from Elizabeth’s reign and the following decade under King James I.

The Latin "recusare" means "to refuse" or "to protest," characterizing English Catholics’ rejection of the laws that forced them to appear at an establishment church a certain number of times per year and to avoid partaking in Catholic culture, including owning and using sacramentals such as rosaries and relics. Punishments varied from reign to reign, but became increasingly heavy during Elizabeth’s rule, to the point of becoming economically ruinous.

Childs shows us how recusancy affected the finances, status, religious life and psychological health of the various leading aristocratic recusants. They were hounded, limited in their travels and attacked by mobs of Protestants.

The author could be criticized for keeping us focused on the upper classes, but she points out repeatedly that the Jesuits and other priests coming over from the continent-based English seminaries tended to work within the upper classes, as these latter could provide the monetary, logistical and intellectual support so necessary to the cause. So while it is true that we see only glimpses of the lower classes and their struggle with the Protestant establishment, the real fight concerned the hearts and minds of the educated and the gentry, with the hope that this would then filter down.

The history focuses on the Vaux clan (pronounced "Vorx"), who through their increasing suffering attested to their great faith. Often the reader is surprised by what people were willing to undergo for their creed, including public humiliation, torture, and death by various terrible means, including having weights placed on top of one’s body in order to crush the lungs and rib cage.

Despite this religious-based violence, readers will not have to put up with the common hue and cry over the supposed violence of religion. Childs shows great respect for all beliefs at play at this time.

While Childs mainly focuses on the local level and on individuals, she covers enough of the wider political scene to show the fear that drove Queen Elizabeth to put increasing pressure on her Catholic subjects. In Europe, the author observes, "the counter-Reformation was rampant. Protestants were massacred in France and the Low Countries, Armadas were launched from Inquisition Spain, rebellion was fomented in Ireland and, from across the Scottish border, a rival queen with Tudor blood pitched up and became the willing instrument of Elizabeth’s enemies. Militant religious orders were sent on missions to save souls, both in the New World and in the old. The queen and her council felt under siege from Catholic Europe. This was the age of assassination; with every attempt on Elizabeth’s life, fears for national security grew and increasingly draconian laws were passed to protect it."

Childs connects the international situation to the one in England. With Spain-led Catholic Europe threatening and on the offensive, a growing anti-Hispanic feeling spread throughout the land. Catholics were seen as traitors, favoring the pope and perhaps even the Spanish crown over the queen.

Yet Childs hints that this antagonism did not define the whole social structure. Puritans and Catholics on the whole did tend to get along, as country gentlemen tended to care more about the welfare of their own class than anything else. This could lead to awkward situations, where a Catholic such as Lord Vaux had in previous years worked with local gentry on legal issues, and now those same peers were holding Lord Vaux for rather tough questioning about his recusant activities, such as supporting the underground Jesuits and holding Masses at his estates.

Perhaps more on how the Protestants and Catholics got along in Elizabethan England would have given an even richer view of events, but on the whole, "God’s Traitors" offers a memorable story on the drama of that time.

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Welter has degrees in history and theology and teaches English in Taiwan.

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