Despite its rather contrived title, this is a fine book: extraordinarily learned, exciting (most of the time), and beautifully written. There is already an enormous body of writing about how English Catholicism survived the tidal wave of the Protestant Reformation under Elizabeth, but this study must have a special place therein.
It centers on one distinguished Roman Catholic dynasty: the Vaux (pronounced Vorx) family of Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire, which, along with Huddlestones, Treshams, Catesbys, and dozens of others—many of them linked by marriage—formed the backbone of Catholic recusancy (i.e., non-conformity, from the Latin recusare: to refuse). Recently ennobled at the time of the Reformation and well connected, the Vauxes were a good choice. But, as it happens, they had already been biographed by a very distinguished historian of recusancy, Father Godfrey Anstruther, in the 1950s. His is a learned and lively book, and it should have received more recognition in this one. But this is an even better book—even more lively and learned, and a historiographical age away from its predecessor. So, yes, we needed it.
And what a story it tells: plots and counterplots, assassinations and Armadas, horrendous torture and unspeakably gruesome executions, stinking prisons, secret messages written in orange juice (invisible until heated), spies and traitors and clandestine printing presses. Hollywood could not have made it up.
Jessie Childs is not Roman Catholic, but she is remarkably fair and astute in her judgments and (though she should not say that Catholics believe that the Eucharistic presence is a physical one) has a deep understanding of Catholic culture. She understands how bewildering it was for Catholics to find that the faith of their forefathers (and of English kings and queens since time immemorial) was now treason and that they apparently had to choose between queen and pope—let alone between queen and the king of Spain, who conveniently believed that Holy Mother Church was best served by Spanish imperialism.
Childs also understands how the arrival in England of the refugee Mary Queen of Scots, that most fatal of fatal women and immediately the centerpiece of Catholic plots against Elizabeth, heightened the dilemma of those Catholics who wanted to be both loyal subjects and loyal to the faith. She explains well how a Catholic family like the Vauxes could be constantly fined for nonattendance at their parish church, in and out of prison for their recusancy, excluded from the universities and professions, unable to travel, and subject to the sudden siege and ransacking of their house by sheriffs and their men (plus sniffer dogs) searching for priests in “hides” in attics and stairwells—even sewers.
There are saints and sinners galore. There is Henry Vaux, devout son of the third baron and no mean poet, wholly dedicated to serving the young Jesuit mission to England, launched in 1580. There is Ambrose Vaux, his stepbrother and a swashbuckling tearaway. There are those astonishing Jesuits: dazzling Edmund Campion, of course, sometime tutor of that same Henry Vaux; John Gerard, the only man ever to escape from the Tower of London; Henry Garnet, superior of the Jesuit mission and one of the Society of Jesus’ most admirable English sons, a martyr who was never canonized and is subject to exact probing in this book. Then there is the sadist Richard Topcliffe, who delighted in racking Jesuits almost to death and who seems to have made a young Catholic female prisoner pregnant. He also (can this be true?) claimed that he was wont to “pleasure” sexually the queen herself.
It is three other women, Anne and Elizabeth Vaux, daughters of that same third baron, and Eliza, their stepsister, who steal the show. Unmarried Anne gave her all to caring for Garnet, moving with him as he bolted from one safe house to another in order to elude detection; Elizabeth, a fiery widow, was another devotee of Garnet and mother of a zealous Catholic family; Eliza, no less committed, was a particular associate of John Gerard. All three were hunted down and suffered for their faith. Anne spent time in the Tower of London, and Eliza was sent to another London jail, the Fleet. They were not the only ones. As the author explains, women played a crucial role in the story of this underground Catholicism: harboring and succoring the missionary priests, guarding Mass vestments, portable altars, missals, and relics—and, above all, catechizing their children and even their servants.
Holy women had hitherto usually been nuns or hermits. Now it was laywomen—virgins like Anne Vaux, as well as mothers and wives presiding over Catholic households—who led the way, and were even being martyred.