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God's Traitors: Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England

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A true story of plots, priest-holes and persecution and one family's battle to save Catholicism in Reformation England.

Elizabeth I criminalised Catholicism in England. For refusing to attend Anglican services her subjects faced crippling fines and imprisonment. For giving refuge to outlawed priests -- the essential conduits to God's grace -- they risked death. Almost two hundred Catholics were executed in Elizabeth's reign and hundreds more wasted away in prison. They were beleaguered on the one hand by a Papacy that branded Elizabeth a heretic and sanctioned her deposition and on the other by a government that saw itself fighting a war on terror and deployed every weapon in its arsenal, including torture, to combat the threat. With every invasion scare and attempt on Elizabeth's life, the danger for England's Catholics grew.

God's Traitors explores this agonising conflict of loyalty from the perspective of one Catholic family, the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall. To follow the Vaux story -- from staunch loyalty to passive resistance to increasing activism -- is to see, in microcosm, the pressures and painful choices that confronted the Catholic community of Reformation England. Theirs in an enthralling tale of plots, priest-holes and persecution plated out in a world of shadows people by spies and agents provocateurs. They lived in a state of siege, under constant surveillance. The petty squabbles, unsuitable marriages, love and laughter of family life were punctuated by dawn raids, sudden arrests and clandestine meetings. Above all, this is a timeless and timely story of human courage and frailty, repression and reaction and the power of faith against the sternest of odds.

443 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2014

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About the author

Jessie Childs

3 books69 followers
Jessie Childs is an award-winning historian, broadcaster and the author of God's Traitors (PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History), Henry VIII's Last Victim (Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography) and, most recently, The Siege of Loyalty House, which tells the story of the heroic resistance of a royalist mansion in the English Civil War. Simon Schama has called it ‘extraordinary, thrilling, immersive… at times almost Tolstoyan in its emotional intelligence and literary power’.

Jessie has written and reviewed for many papers, including the Sunday Times, Guardian and London Review of Books. TV contributions include the BAFTA-nominated Elizabeth I's Secret Agents (BBC 2 & PBS) and two BBC series on Charles I.

She lives with her husband, two daughters and a cairn terrier in Hammersmith, not far from a brewery, a distillery and the River Thames.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 52 reviews
Profile Image for fourtriplezed .
455 reviews96 followers
August 30, 2022
Following the lives of the recusant Vaux family from 1570s through to the Gunpowder Plot and a little beyond, author Jessie Childs has given this reader an in depth look at how aristocratic families dealt with their deep Catholic faith during Elizabethan and Stuart times.

In February 1570, Pope Pius V declared Elizabeth excommunicated in what can only be described as a turning point in the history of Europe and beyond. Protestant backlash was almost immediate and with that such families as the Vaux’s trod a very fine line to stay out of the firing line of the recriminations that followed. Many aristocratic English Catholics were willing to compromise their faith but those that did not paid for it with a loss of privileges, be that pecuniary or with their lives. The Vaux family eventually lost its hereditary rights to a seat in the House of Lords.

This is a very well researched history; it has copious endnotes and an excellent bibliography, one that anyone looking for further reading on the subject could not ignore. Childs writes at a good pace, one that is fairly easy to read, though I thought a few of the passages quoted from other sources may have been cut back a little, a minor quibble though.

I would probably only recommend this to anyone that has had deeper reading into the religious issues of the time as this is no beginner’s book by any stretch. For example, a deeper knowledge of the Gunpowder Plot is a must in my opinion.
Profile Image for Geevee.
344 reviews190 followers
August 15, 2018
DNF. Rarely do I not finish a book, especially when it relates to English history. However, try as I might I just didn't connect with this, even after 120 pages.

I didn't find the Vaux family that interesting despite the times they were living in, nor did I find myself interested in the subject...and yet I am, normally.

So why? Well certainly not because the book is not highly researched or detailed as Jessie Childs has put significant of both into the book.

Ultimately this is one of those relationships I have with a book every now and again: "look sorry it's not you, it's me".

Rated as 3 stars as it would be wrong to dismiss this well received book with anything less just because we didn't hit it off. Maybe another time.
Profile Image for Christine.
6,614 reviews478 followers
May 6, 2015

Disclaimer: ARC read via Netgalley.

Let’s get it out there. What’s not to like about a book with a chapter entitled Hot Holy Ladies?


God’s Traitors covers much of the same ground that God’s Secret Agents did - the activities in Tudor and Early Stuart England of Catholic spies, worshippers, and rebels. Traitors is different from Agents in that it ties the famous people like Campion to a family – the Vaux. Particularly interesting in this family are the women who seemed far more involved in the movement. This includes three daughters, one of whom eloped.

Childs’ use of a family to help to illustrate a larger history is particularly apt. The Vaux family was a Catholic family who responded to the demands made upon in a variety of different ways. This including one girl running off with a man who works for her uncle.


Childs covers the movement from its infant beginnings under Edward and culminates in the Gunpowder Plot. At times, when the family takes a backseat to the national plots, the history drags, just a little, and at all times, for instance with the Gunpowder Plot, more background, at least for some readers, would be helpful. It helped, for instance, that I had about the Gunpowder Plot prior to reading this book. Childs’ book isn’t a generalized history but more specific. Having some knowledge of the time period would undoubtedly help when reading the book.

The second problem is that like God’s Secret Agents, it almost feels like the book is longer than it has to be. The use of a family’s personal history and in fighting between members does somewhat solve this problem, but not entirely. It is not surprising that the place of the book picks up as the women begin to take more central stage.

Yet, if you are interested in the time period or the issue, this is a good book to read.

Crossposted at Booklikes.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,427 reviews2,505 followers
June 26, 2016
Explores the Elizabethan Catholic experience through the Vaux family of Harrowden Hall

There have been more than a few recent books which have explored the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for a non-academic audience: Child’s book plays in this space, but approaches her subject not via the spies and intelligencers but through the Vaux family of recusants.

At a time when religious belief could overlap with treason – and carry the ultimate penalty of death – English Catholics were forced to choose between their spiritual conscience and their political loyalty: but, too often, religious dissent was conceived of as political rebellion, even revolt.

The Vaux family were acquainted with many of the prominent Catholics of the time: Campion and his Jesuit mission, Babington who plotted to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her on the throne with Mary Queen of Scots, Tresham and Catesby who were prime movers in the Gunpowder Plot.

So this is a detailed yet personable look at the history of the period through a single family. There are a few points where the narrative feels a bit circular and out of chronological order, but overall this is a readable story which explores the underside of the ‘golden’ age of Elizabeth.
Profile Image for Karen Brooks.
Author 15 books546 followers
March 27, 2015
God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England is a tour de force of research and wonderful prose. Reading like a novel, this non-fiction book explores the plots and plans of one particular family of desperate Catholics, the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall, during the reign of Elizabeth First but also James Ist of England and VI of Scotland.
Elizabeth came to the throne during a tumultuous period and she not only set about restoring the Protestant faith to her land, but trying to keep foreign Catholic enemies at bay – enemies who were encouraged by the Pope himself to bring down the heretic queen. Managing to stave off assassination attempts, encouraged by a Papal Bull that granted absolution to anyone who should murder her, the slaughter of Hugenots (roughly, French Protestants) in Paris (and beyond) and constant religious turf wars in the Low Countries as well, Elizabeth and her council’s tolerance for Catholics decreased over time. Faith, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, was no longer a private matter but a very public and political one.
In their attempt to practice their beliefs without being deemed heretic or treasonous while also providing refuge to outlawed priests whose intentions were not always so noble - as many set about “harvesting souls” for the Catholic cause, the Vauxes become a template for the position in which many loyal English subjects but devout Catholics found themselves, especially against this volatile and hostile backdrop where suspicion was rife.
There are a number of historians who explore this fascinating period of history and the tumultuous events but I’ve yet to strike one who does it through the lens of one family and over a few generations, years which saw them alter from being loyal to the throne (yet refusing to abandon their faith), to offering succour to those whom Sir Francis Walsingham and other members of the Queen’s Privy Council sought to capture (Jesuit priests mainly, many of whom were quite defiant if not militant), before turning to downright activism if not terrorism when it came to the Gunpowder Plot during the reign of James Ist.
What I particularly enjoyed about this book is how Childs is at pains to explain that in most instances, the differences between Catholics and Protestants (for all that over 200 Catholics were executed, many more imprisoned and others crippled by heavy fines – fines that increased throughout Elizabeth’s reign as Catholicism became outlawed) were never as black and white as is sometimes depicted. That is, just because you remained true to the Old Religion didn’t mean you were against the Queen or country. Many Catholics, including some Vauxes and the various branches of the family, never saw themselves as disloyal to either Elizabeth or England, even though they hid their faith. In fact, they had no choice but to keep it secret because of the zealotry and assumptions of high-ranking and influential Protestants and the punishments meted out to recusants. Continued pressure and assumption of guilt may have pressured some Catholics into open defiance, but many did not seek to harm the queen or want their country threatened. They simply wanted to be left alone.
The book also takes us into the heart of homes with priest-holes, escape routes; where clandestine masses were said, Jesuits hidden and disguised and it even dedicates a few chapters to the amazing women of the Vaux family – women who were either hailed as heroes and martyrs or condemned as viragos who were little more than whores to the priests they served and protected, depending on which side of the religious fence one sat and who was recording history.
Powerful, moving, at times difficult to read because of the injustice served or foolish decisions made, this is a terrific, action-packed and intelligent exploration of the schism that rendered England throughout Elizabeth’s reign and into that of her successor. It also offers a really erudite insight into a wealthy family’s choices, sacrifices and risks all because of faith during these times.
Profile Image for Ubiquitousbastard.
801 reviews62 followers
June 16, 2018
I decided to read this to try to get a better idea of the Catholic side of Elizabeth's reign, since I still have issues trying to understand why they'd do such risky and stupid things. This book helped a little with that, but I'm still kind of bewildered and I still couldn't see myself being an active recusant especially toward the very end of the Elizabethan Era.

This book was definitely also written from the point of view of Catholic or at least someone who strongly sympathizes with their cause. That wasn't a problem for me, since I was reading the book exactly for that reason, but it's good to know ahead of time if an author is going to show a clear bias. However, unlike other biased works, this isn't overly filled with pointless invectives and adjectives meant to unduly influence readers' opinions.

Overall, it's a decent microhistory of recusancy in an Elizabethan noble family, if not a great overview of the jesuit mission.

Profile Image for Stephanie.
Author 1 book13 followers
June 29, 2014
Rather like Adrian Tinniswood with "The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War, and Madness in Seventeenth Century England", which focused on that family's reactions to events like the English Civil War and Interregnum, in "God's Traitors: Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England" Jessie Childs focuses on the Vaux family of Harrowden Hall (and connected families like the Treshams of Rushton) and how they, remaining true to their Catholic faith, responded to the ever-tightening restrictions on recusant Catholics during Elizabeth I's reign--and how much they knew about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

One great feature of the design of this book, which includes two insets of color images, other illustrations, a list of principal characters, and a family tree, is the map of the Midlands of England with the Catholic houses identified in each county: Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire. Seeing the distances (if not the terrain) between the houses, I could imagine the missionary priests moving from house to house, celebrating the Sacraments, keeping ahead of the government pursuivants. I could also imagine the government pursuivants, going from house to house, hoping to catch a priest!

By telling the story of Vaux family, as each generation continues the family's faithfulness to the Catholic Church, Childs retells stories familiar to me, of St. Edmund Campion and Father Robert Persons, St. Robert Southwell, Fathers Henry Garnett and John Gerard, and other priests and martyrs, from a different angle: how the Vaux family had sheltered and assisted the priests.

As Childs describes each Vaux generation's response to recusancy, the tension and the danger mount: fines, arrests, imprisonment, debt, danger, conflict within the extended family, and death. Trying to find a way to practice his faith and yet be an Englishman proved exhausting for William the second Baron Vaux. Recusant Catholics could "either obey their Queen and consign their souls to damnation", as Childs says, "or obey the pope and surrender their bodies to temporal punishment". His son Henry and daughters Anne and Eleanor and daughter-in-law Eliza would be even more courageous, leading the underground network of safety for the missionary priests. The later generations of Vauxes--further and further separated from how the Catholic faith had once been practiced in England--grew more and more desperate as they found their choices so limiting: unable to take part in the leadership of their country, they fled to the Continent as mercenaries, like Ambrose, the black sheep of the family.

The Vauxes are always on the edges of the conspiracies against Elizabeth I (the Ridolfi Plot, the Babington conspiracy, the Throckmorton Plot)--and thus William Vaux spent so much time answering questions, along with his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Tresham, paying fnes, enduring imprisonment and house arrest. But at the end of the book, the Gunpowder Plot attempt to blow up Parliament with King James I, his family, and all the Lords and Commons, sums up the entire struggle. Anne Vaux feared that young men she knew well like Robert Catesby were plotting something horrible and she wanted Father Henry Garnet to tell them not to go forward with their plans. Did Father Garnet do enough? did he ask the right questions? respond forcefully enough to tell Catesby and Digby et al not to pursue whatever plot they had in mind? Those were questions he asked himself while in prison and even during his questioning. Although he did not instigate the plot or encourage the plot--he knew about the Gunpowder Plot and he did not report it to the authorities, citing the seal of the confessional.

In the Epilogue, Childs continues the story of the Vauxes: the sisters Anne and Eleanor and their sister-in-law Eliza continue their good works, focused now on the children to be raised in the Catholic faith. The family endures the long Eighteenth century and then finally enjoys Emancipation and freedom. One of the best details of this after story is that the nine Baron Vaux was Father Gabriel Gilbey, O.S.B. and took his seat in the House of Lords in 1962, 403 years after the last Benedictine served in the House (I presume that could be John Feckenham, the last abbot of Westminster Abbey).

Alice Hogge in "God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot" (2005) described the lives and deaths of the missionary priests who studied abroad and returned to England, branded as traitors for their priesthood, in her build-up to the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. It could almost serve as the companion volume to Childs' great story of the Vaux family. By focusing on the noble Vaux family, the lay men and women who struggled to remain true to their Church and to their nation, however, Childs has given us a great story of faithfulness and endurance. I cannot recommend "God's Traitors" highly enough: it is well-narrated and her analysis is always balanced and insightful.
June 17, 2020
I read this whilst researching my dissertation. Childs' use of narrative in this micro-history allows for a smooth and gripping read; this is very rare in academic texts which are often dry and dull.

Though the title may be initially deceiving, I'm baffled that people are rating it so low because it explores Elizabethan Catholicism through the lens of one family - that's the whole point of the book! I can understand why this book may not be the best place to start for those only starting to read about catholicism under the Tudors, however, it does specify it focuses on Vaux family on the blurb... For someone well acquainted with Tudor religious history, this book is an excellent read.
Profile Image for Kyra Kramer.
Author 7 books38 followers
January 26, 2016
Religious turmoil was ubiquitous in sixteenth century England. In fact, the entire continent of Europe was a roiling cauldron of ecumenical and dogmatic crazy-sauce. The question of who had the “correct” form of Christianity – the Catholics or the Protestants – was so controversial and important that people were burned to death over their answer, and chose to be martyred in such a painful fashion rather than recant. Even death itself could not excuse you from choosing sides, inasmuch as corpses were exhumed and burned as traitors or exhumed and given monuments.

All in all, it was a difficult time to be devout, and one of the best books encapsulating the troubles that I’ve ever read is Jessie Childs’s latest work, God’s Traitors.

I was impressed beyond the telling with Childs’s writing, her in-depth research, and her ability to use the microcosm of a family to reflect and explain the macrocosm of history. The book manages to be both sympathetic to the plight of the Catholic populace, encouraging you to genuinely empathize with the choices the Vauxes made, and yet also frame the topic by the harsh realities of governing a state that has rebellion constantly fomenting within a particular segment of society, rendering Elizabeth's choices comprehensible within the context of their time and place. If you really want to understand one of the main driving forces between sociopolitical action and reaction in Elizabethan England (and incidentally why there are still bonfires on November 5th) then I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
449 reviews1 follower
October 19, 2016
An account of the lives of English Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth focusing on the noble Vaux family and the problems their Catholicism brought them. The role played by the women of the family and their support for the Jesuit mission to England is particularly fascinating and their personalities and those of the priests they sheltered come across strongly. The growing persecution of the Catholics by the government of Elizabeth I gives a different perspective on the reign of "Gloriana", though the author does point out that many of the priests and their supporters were by no means as innocent as they claimed. An interesting read.
Profile Image for Michael Bully.
299 reviews4 followers
December 6, 2020
I ordered this book as have got a great interest in the Gunpowder Plot and wanted some background reading . Can recommend this book for fellow 'gunpowder treason heads'. Some very useful information on Thomas Tresham ( father to 1605 Plotter Francis Tresham) and also William Catesby ( father to Robert Catesby). Also the Vaux family- particularly Anne - knew many of the Plotters...also helpful to learn about the Jesuit martyrs such as Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, Henry Garnet , and the one that got away, John Gerard.But some overlap with Alice Hogge's 'God's Secret Agents' in this respect.
Whilst the book connected with my requirements , I understand why other readers haven't been so enthusiastic. The title is misleading as so much of the book is about the Vaux family. Whilst suited me fine but can see why some people felt that there was too much emphasis on this one family- or perhaps the title should have been changed. Seems that those who have studied the Catholic underground in Elizabethan England, feel that this book covers what they already know, certainly as there are already books and other studies on the Jesuit martyrs . Some of those with a more passing interest felt that the book was too chunky as an introduction.
Profile Image for Charlotte Skinner.
2 reviews7 followers
July 18, 2020
Full of amazing characters like Anne and Eleanor Vaux who dedicated their lives to harbouring Jesuit priests, Nicholas 'Little John' Owen who designed and built the priest holes we're still discovering today, and 'Long John' Gerard who escaped from the Tower of London by abseiling down a rope. Childs allows us to make up our own mind as to whether the English Catholic community of the 1570s up to the Gunpowder Plot were treacherous terrorists or brave non-conformists. Whichever side you come down on, you have to admit that there were so many lives brought to a tragically early end in the name of the cause. It's hard to imagine believing in something that much, having such strength of faith that you'd be prepared to die (quite horribly) for it, but of course, back then salvation was everything.

I was particularly touched by the first-hand accounts that Childs includes, such as a sonnet penned by one exile entitled "Upon the Sight of Dover Cliffs from Calais":

Better it were for me to have been blind,
Than with sad eyes to gaze upon the shore,
Of my dear country, but now mine no more,
Which thrusts me thus, both of sight and mind.

Highly recommended read!
April 22, 2022
The set-up for this book is rife with opportunity for a thriller. Families hiding their faith and secreting away priests while being hunted.

This book does tackle that but in a more scholastic way. It focuses on the Vaux family during the time where it was illegal to be Catholic in England. Yes, that was a long time. Yes, I am still salty about it. Being of Irish heritage as well does not help. Some may say, “But Brendan, the Catholic Church killed a lot of people back then,” and I would say, “Well, I’m not reviewing a book about that right now so shut up, jerk.”

I digress. Jessie Childs book is well researched and eminently readable. However, it is a failure of mine that I expected something more up-tempo. There are many close calls which are documented but they do not make up the bulk of the narrative. This is a great book if your expectations are set properly. You will have a good time, if so.

The title is badass, though. Nothing to complain about there.
58 reviews
June 30, 2021
I can't quite put my finger on why this didn't work for me. The author clearly has a great deal of knowledge of this period and has done a lot of research. However, what should be a gripping account is instead a poorly constructed and rather dry meander through the history of the Vaux family. At the end I still didn't really get a feel for them as a family and ended up not really caring what happened to them. I don't know if this is because the information is actually quite scant and the author has tried to build a book around limited sources or whether it is just the writing. Whatever the reason, I found this very hard going and nearly gave up several times.
133 reviews
February 9, 2023
This is an interesting account of Catholicism in the 16th and early 17th centuries in England. It is well written and its main focus is the Vaux family of Harrowden Hall and how the political situation concerned recusants and their attempts to practice religion as they saw fit. I was particularly interested because I have traced my ancestry back to the period in question in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire where much of the story takes place. The book covers the latter period of Elizabeth's reign through to James I and the gunpowder plot, and is a book that I would recommend to anyone trying to understand the religious turmoil of the period.
Profile Image for Rodney Binley.
13 reviews1 follower
November 14, 2019
Well researched book of particular interest because I live in Northamptonshire. I found some of the extract texts a little difficult to get the grip of but not the fault of the Author However I did find some of the words in some of her text a unnecessarily ostentatious and little used, which prompted too frequent word searches. But a book I would strongly recommend for those interested or even remotely interested in the history of this period
951 reviews6 followers
February 19, 2023
A thorough and scholarly biography of the Catholic Vaux family of Northamptonshire. It is easy to view, at a distance of 400 years the torments and trials of the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, the constitutional crises between Royalty, Parliament and the Papacy and be judgemental. When, in reality, there are just as many schismatic conflicts today as there ever were. Will we ever learn? I doubt it.
12 reviews1 follower
July 2, 2019
The author has researched the subject matter in great detail and has unearthed some amazing stories. Unfortunately the stories are not well told and the characters do not come to life. Having finished the book I feel I have learnt some forgotten history but I’m not sure it was worth the effort of reading it.
January 23, 2020
I found this book really interesting. This book enlightened you about some of the horrors that catholics had to face in Elizabethan England. I would definitely recommend reading this if you enjoy learning about this part of history however if you are not really interested in the Tudors then I probably wouldn't recommend this book.
1,329 reviews17 followers
April 2, 2019
Well-written history of a Catholic landed family shortly after the Reformation. The author has clearly done considerable research, but the book's focus on one particular family made it a bit confusing to readers unfamiliar with the period.
Profile Image for Joanna.
616 reviews8 followers
July 5, 2020
A little dry, but an interesting look at the events leading to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, as seen through the eyes and actions of a Catholic family in the English countryside. I did learn that the Jesuits came out of the Reformation as a way to educate and convert Catholics. Who knew?
Profile Image for Johanne.
1,043 reviews14 followers
October 28, 2020
I enjoyed this, I have previously studied the reformation and this adds a human dimension to the story of religion in England. Its scrupulously footnoted and referenced and this pleases me too, much popularist history lacks these essential details that give confidence to the reader.
48 reviews
December 28, 2020
Excellent detail. It's hard to understand with a modern mind why they would have continued to reject a peaceable solution, to convert. However, in that I was a Roman Catholic, I suppose I can see it through the faith of my forebears. Well written, well researched, very enjoyable.
Profile Image for Ietrio.
6,614 reviews25 followers
December 27, 2021
Now that the Soviet archives were open, Childs has access to never seen before documents on the past events that probably hold the key to the Douchy of Afghanistan and the need to have the British there reclaiming this crown land.
Profile Image for Marianne Meyers.
583 reviews7 followers
November 13, 2017
Fascinating history of a Catholic noble family in Queen Elizabeth's time, great scholarship and the author kept me interested.
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