Review: Emigrants by James Evans

Otto von Bismarck was once asked to identify the pre-eminent fact in modern world history. That America spoke English, he replied. In Emigrants, James Evans attempts to explain how and why that happened.

For much of the 17th century, England was something of a failed state. In mid-century it collapsed into a brutal and protracted civil war, but extensive persecution of religious minorities was rife throughout. Widespread enclosures drove people off the land. Prices rose. Wages fell in real terms. Harvest after harvest failed. Famine and plague killed thousands. Begging children were so numerous they were like “the lice of Egypt”, it was said.

It is hardly surprising then that people looked for deliverance from what looked, to a religious-minded people, very much like the wrath of God.

But America? At the beginning of the century it was a far from obvious choice. Sir Walter Ralegh had tried and failed to establish a colony in the 1580s. Jamestown in Virginia was founded in 1607, largely in the illusory belief that gold would be found nearby. Further north, in Newfoundland, settlement began in 1610, primarily to support the extensive fisheries offshore.

This did not sound like the promised land, but it is a measure of England’s failure that it seemed like such to so many people. Close to 400,000 emigrated over the course of the century, roughly half of them to North America, out of a total population of some 5.5million.

We think of the early colonists, especially in New England, as Puritans and many of them were. But they came seeking the freedom to be themselves, not to allow others a similar freedom; Evans reminds us that the Puritans were hanging Quakers in Boston in the 1660s.

During the Interregnum, however, many disillusioned royalists came here too, and in particular to Virginia where the governor, William Berkeley, was loyal to the Stuart cause. It took four ships from by Cromwell to dislodge him.

Between the English settlements in Virginia and New England lay New Amsterdam, Dutch in theory but even in its earliest days a melting pot. By the 1640s, although there were just 500 people in the settlement, they spoke more than 20 different languages. Its leader, Peter Stuyvesant was more clear sighted than most – or perhaps merely more cynical. He dismissed those who sought “an imaginary liberty in a new and, as some pretend, a free country” with contempt.

But still they came. In the case of New Amsterdam, the principal economic draw was beaver pelt. Thanks to changing fashions in Europe, four beaver skins could buy enough grain to feed a family for a year. And it wasn’t just their fur that was in demand: eating their tails was said to help men maintain an erection. “If some of our ladies knew the benefit thereof,” one colonist wrote, “they would desire to have ships sent to trade for the tail alone.”

Many who came were far from the pioneers we imagine them to be. Soon, the slave trade would fulfil the need for cheap labour, but for much of the 17th century indenture that answered that want. The starving and desperate of England sold themselves to the colonies for fixed terms – usually five years for an adult – in exchange for the promise of land and a house thereafter. Nearly half of the 200,000 who sailed to North America were indentured. But fewer than one in ten of them lived to claim their reward.

Some 8,500 poor children were simply taken from the London streets between 1619 and 1625. Often parents never knew what happened. Poignant letters home from one such boy, Richard Frethorne, form one of the more moving passages in the book.

The attrition rates for all were extraordinary, however. Often, 50% of those onboard died before they even made shore. Likewise almost half of those who reached America were dead within a few years of arrival; in some areas, the death rate was as high as 80%. Virginia was particularly deadly.
Why did so many English men and women emigrate? The same reasons people emigrate now: freedom from persecution; freedom from poverty; political exile; religious liberty; the pursuit of wealth.

But Evans’ book is eloquent testimony to the fact that the commodity America has always traded in, above all others, is hope.

This review first appeared in the Financial Times.

Review: So High A Blood by Morgan Ring

So High A Blood explores in detail the life of Margaret, Countess of Lennox, a Tudor princess without whom, perhaps, there would have been no Stewart succession and no subsequent union between England and Scotland.

Born in 1515, Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII, by her second husband Archibald Douglass, the Earl of Lennox. Her life in many echoes that of her cousins, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The stain of bastardy hung over her birth, owing to the complex legal status of her parents marriage, and she was herself at times close to the English succession under both Henry VIII and Mary. She was reported to believe her own claim to throne stronger than Elizabeth’s, comments which helped earned her a spell in prison when Elizabeth came to hear of them.

It wasn’t only her alleged bastardy that stood in Margaret’s way. She remained a devout Catholic, and she was both English and Scottish, to the discomfort of all, it seems. Margaret was born in England while her mother was in temporary exile and would spend most of her life here. However, her estates were largely in Scotland – even if she wasn’t always able to assert her ownership of them, or of their revenues. As such, she was uniquely ill-positioned to manipulate events in either country to her advantage.

That did not stop her trying, however. What she couldn’t achieve for herself, she aimed to do for her children. Of the eight she gave birth to, only two survived to adulthood. One of those, Henry, Lord Darnley, was murdered aged 21, less than two years into his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots. Margaret had connived to bring the two together – which Elizabeth saw as part of a plot to overthrow her and had Margaret committed to the Tower as a result – and, you could argue, her work was ultimately vindicated: it was Darnley’s brief marriage to Mary that produced James I of England.

Morgan Ring has written an absorbing account of Margaret’s life, and has found a fresh angle from which to view the Tudor court, which is no mean feat. If at times Margaret herself seems to fade from the scene as tumultuous events at both courts take centre stage, that is perhaps only fitting for a woman who had to fight all her life for what she believed to be her due.

This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

 

The Kiso Road (for William Scott Wilson)

I
Kiso: clear as a bell among the mountains.
Write me, the river says,
Witness the road beside me.

II
The clouds are still tonight.
The sky is smoke-blackened
But the fires here are cold.
The children grow and leave
And do not come back
Time claims the haiku
The rain on the water

The temple floor is charmed though:
Each step across it
Stirs another nightingale to song

At dawn, an old dog fox breaks
The hermetic line of the field
Holding in his mouth
A stone of nothingness
To lay at the shrine

He sniffs the violet air
As if to confirm a thought.
Go and come back, the fox says,
Watching where you slide the day open.

III.
Write me, the forest says,
Cypress, pine and cedar,
As if the road were blocks of ink
The mist a white brush wet with the river
And the air were paper
Partitioning you from the dead

The road asks for nothing
Remembering the curve of your life
As trees remember the shape of the rocks and stones.
The fields are damp with story.
Metaphor drips from autumn’s leaves.

Go and come back, the poets say.
Bridges burn by torchlight;
The barriers are where we meet
Shuffled together on our different travels
Lives and languages weaving together
Like the long dry grass of a sparrow’s nest
Or a ball of cedar hanging in the street at night

IV
Rest your feet, traveller,
Watch the swallow’s flight through the mountains

Go and come back, your book says:
What was first a gateway has become
A meeting place among us.

 

Note: I don’t usually post my poems here, but given this one’s provenance, I thought it more fitting than most.

One of the best things about being a writer is how generous and supportive other writers can be – both those you come to know personally and those who you have never met.

Just before Christmas, the author and translator William Scott Wilson got in touch with me on social media with some very kind words of praise for my book, Impossible Journeys. He also sent me, by way of a thank you, his own recent book, Walking the Kiso Road, an account of his travels on the ancient Japanese thoroughfare.

Walking the Kiso Road – and William’s generosity – was the inspiration for this poem. I recommend the book highly. It’s a beautiful, subtle, meditative journey through Japanese landscape, culture, history and myth and William makes the best of literary companions: erudite, passionate, self-effacing and insightful. I was going to review it, but this wanted to be written instead.

Books are many things, but they are also where many of us meet to share a little of ourselves, sometimes unexpectedly. They surprise things from us, including friendship.

Review: The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

the-black-prince-of-florenceThis review first appeared in the Financial Times on April 29, 2016

Alessandro de’ Medici reigned from 1532 to 1537 as the first duke of one of Italy’s greatest city-states. Yet just as he lived in obscurity until his teens in the late 1520s, he has largely been returned to that obscurity by historians ever since.

Why then, asks Catherine Fletcher, has her subject been so ill-served by posterity? He was by all accounts intelligent and charming, and a great patron of the arts; Vasari was a life-long friend. If he was also ruthless and decadent, those qualities hardly make him unique among Renaissance Italian princes. And while it is true that Alessandro was illegitimate, so was his patron, Guilio de’ Medici — who rose to become Pope Clement VII in 1523 — and his chief rival and cousin, Ippolito de’ Medici.

What role, then, does the colour of his skin play in all this? Certainly, racist pseudoscience served to demean Alessandro in the Victorian era, with one 1875 study describing him as having “all the known features of the delinquent amoral constitutional type: proud, arrogant, selfish, sensual . . . a born criminal”.

The irony, as Fletcher shows in The Black Prince of Florence, is that these kind of pejorative racial distinctions are distinctly modern categories of thought. Alessandro’s father was Lorenzo de’ Medici, the duke of Urbino. His mother, Simunetta, was most likely a servant or slave of the Medici family with a partly African ancestry. Although after his death he was given the descriptive sobriquet Alessandro il Moro, no one seems to have thought the complexion of his skin worth disparaging while he was alive — and enemies were not in short supply, not least within his own family.

In fact, Alessandro’s illegitimacy seems to have been a far more potent issue for contemporaries — and for the duke himself. Alessandro would rule on an inheritance dispute that revolved around the birth of a nephew out of wedlock: “For all that he’s a bastard,” he asked the respondent, “is he not made of flesh, and born of a man and woman like you? . . . Does he not have soul and body like all those legitimately born?”

It is his illegitimacy that accounts for the obscurity of his upbringing, then, and familial necessity that accounts for his dazzlingly swift rise to power. Alessandro’s father died in 1519, which made Alessandro’s older cousin Ippolito the focus of the family’s political aspirations in Florence. But when Clement VII suffered a life-threatening illness in the late 1520s, he made Ippolito a cardinal to ensure the family retained its firm grip on the church. Ippolito never forgave him — or Alessandro, who was next in line.

Indeed, Ippolito never stopped scheming to seize Florence for himself, and his complicity in a plot against Alessandro led to his own assassination in 1535, almost certainly on Alessandro’s orders; Fletcher’s more-or-less verbatim account of the assassin’s interrogation and torture makes one of the more astonishing setpieces in the book.

Alessandro would ultimately be murdered by another cousin, Lorenzino, for reasons that remain unclear. It seems unlikely that Lorenzino, regarded by some contemporaries as little more than Alessandro’s pimp, acted on principle; nevertheless, the lurid allegations of despotism and tyranny used to justify the murder have tainted Alessandro’s name ever since.

Fletcher’s first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (2012), was a study of Vatican intrigue that demonstrated her ability to use rarely accessed Italian archives to create a gripping and original account of a well-worn subject. Here she has used the same skills to even greater effect, creating a compelling portrait of a forgotten man — himself both brutal and brutalised — once at the very heart of the Renaissance world order. Her narrative follows the extraordinary arc of Alessandro’s life closely, but also uses it to illuminate the bloody opulence of Renaissance Italian politics in all its squalid, operatic glory.

If we think of the Renaissance courts constructed by the Medici as simply corrupt or venal, however, we are missing the point. They merely commoditised power — and sex and art and information and all things besides, but above all power — to an exquisite degree. The Medicis knew the price of everything, but they knew its value too, right down to the last drop of blood.

Review: Merchant Adventurers by James Evans

merchantsThis review appears in the current December/January issue of  Management Today.

The recent media coverage of the discovery of Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, on the sea floor in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is a reminder of the public’s abiding fascination with the Age of Exploration and of its huge cost, in terms of both blood and treasure. Neither the Erebus, nor HMS Terror, the other ship under Franklin’s command had been seen since 1845. A search party found three graves in 1850. The other 126 bodies have never been found.

With this in mind, James Evans’ new book Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England seems particularly timely.

Franklin and his men were among the last to perish in the centuries-long quest for a North-West Passage over the top of the Americas to the rich markets of the east, and in particular to China, or Cathay as it used to known. While many books have been written about that quest, Evans has, quite literally, gone in another direction.

At the heart of his book is a 1553 voyage, seeking to find a North-Eastern route to China over the top of Scandinavia and Russia. It is one of the great untold tales of English exploration. Three ships sailed out of London on May 10th that year under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby a soldier of great character but unremarkable achievements – and precious little knowledge of the sea. More vital to the expedition’s success was its pilot – and also captain of the largest ship – a young man fully versed in the nascent science of navigation named Richard Chancellor.

A year later just one ship returned. It was Chancellor’s. The three ships had become separated by a storm the previous July; no-one yet knew the fate of the others. Chancellor, however, had travelled inland to the court of Ivan the Terrible, initiating the first contact between England and Russia. It was, says Evans, in some respects a model for how England – and the future East India Company – would create an empire.

As for Willoughby, he and his men would die trying to see the winter out. Their bodies were discovered perfectly preserved on board their ships by Russian fishermen the following year. It is often said they froze to death, although Evans persuasively argues that they may have been died from carbon-monoxide poisoning as a result of burning sea-coal and closing all the vents to preserve the heat.

Where Evans’ triumphs is in the breadth of his interest: the story of the 1553 voyage is superbly told, drawing on Willoughby’s surviving logbook and accounts given by Chancellor and his men on his return. But, unusually for a maritime historian, Evans also has much to say on the less viscerally exciting material – the formation, structure and financing of the Muscovy company and, more generally, on the economic climate that made it an attractive investment. It is hard to say which he excels in most.

The Muscovy Company was the first joint-stock company in England. As such, Evans argues, its importance is hard to overstate. On previous international trading ventures, merchants might have come together to fund a voyage, their mutual interest was strictly limited to the period of the journey, and any goods their individual factors bought and sold were always held separately.

But the incorporation of the Muscovy company allowed no individual trading. All stock was held in common. Investors were asked to buy shares not just in the voyage, but in the ongoing trade that the voyage was intended to spawn. The company would exist in perpetuity.

It was certainly an innovative and influential model for England, although as Evans notes it seems to have been based on existing business practices in Italy and was likely introduced to the Company by one of its prime movers, the Bristol-born Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot. It was also immediately successful: the company quickly found 240 investors at £25 a share.

Evans all this brings to vivid life: not merely the courage and peril of the men who risked and often sacrificed their lives at sea, but also the foment of political, economic and intellectual life. Importantly, he captures the sense of these great endeavours not merely as enterprises but first and foremost as ideas, as projects that grew of the new-born sciences of cartography and navigation, out of the daily reality of world’s map being redrawn, and of the need for men of commerce to adapt their own practices to these bewildering, exciting developments.

In that sense, the subtext of the book might be seen as the battle between traditional thought – the supposed givens of trade and travel – and newer empirical approaches. In their different ways all these men are battling to find a way forward at what Elizabeth I called the unknown limits of the world.

Divided Souls – a review of God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England by Jessie Childs

God's TraitorsThe daily lives of catholics in England under Elizabeth I and James I have long been neglected by historians. True, much as been written about the various attempts against Elizabeth during her reign – most obviously the Babington ‘complotment’ which resulted in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – and, of course, the Gunpowder Plot against James I, which we still remember every November 5th. But did such outbursts of violence really reflect the views of the faithful? Was the government right to fear a catholic uprising against the Elizabethan settlement? How did catholics experience the narrowing of their rights and prospects over the course of Elizabeth’s reign? How did they reconcile their loyalty to Rome, to their faith, with the loyalty they owed to their country and its crown?

These and many other questions are addressed in Jessie Childs’ superb and groundbreaking new book, God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England. Childs charts the catholic experience of those decades through the turbulent history of the Vaux family, prominent landowners in Northamptonshire and by any measure a family of considerable status and means when Elizabeth came to the throne at the end of 1558.

While not sharing Elizabeth’s religion there seems every reason to suppose they and most other catholics viewed her accession with something approaching equanimity. There were some, no doubt, who viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate and the daughter of a whore to boot – Anne Boleyn was, to put it mildly, far from popular in the catholic community – but the future course of the English church was far from certain. Who knew if Elizabeth would live, for one thing? And what would happen if, as seemed likely, she married a catholic prince?

At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, then, there was little to genuinely trouble most consciences. As Childs’ points out, Elizabeth and most of her ministers had conformed under Mary I. They were no doubt aware of the irony of their position – and aware too – how could they not be? – that conformity was not the same as acquiescence. Certainly there were fines for non-attendance at church but there seems to have been little appetite on the part of the government to demand much beyond outward conformity. And even if they had wished to police religious orthodoxy more aggressively, they cannot have been assured of taking the country with them. In the early years of the reign, Sir William Cecil, for one, believed protestants to be in the minority in England.

Many, perhaps most catholics simply swallowed what reservations they had and did as the government and its new church required. Some bowed less willingly to the pressure and joined public acts of worship under the Elizabethan settlement while also hearing mass at home. Others families would divide their loyalties: the husband, who was the primary target of the penal laws, went to church and conformed while the wife stayed home and heard mass with their children.

Other schemes were pettier still, highlighting the depths of indignation felt – but also perhaps the triviality of the stakes. One wealthy recusant built his own chapel, which had its own entrance, within his local church; another would openly read a book during each sermon. Some ostentatiously kept their hats on while their fellow parishioners prayed for the queen; one simply blocked his ears with wool each time he went to church.

If the government was content to tolerate such transgressions in the belief that the old religion would slowly wither and die with the aging Marian priesthood it was soon to be disabused of such complacency. In short succession, the rising of the catholic Northern earls in 1569, the issue of the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1571 – which charged English catholics with the moral duty to overthrow Elizabeth – and the exposure the same year of the Ridolfi plot – which sought to put Thomas Howard, fourth duke Norfolk on the English throne alongside Mary, Queen of Scots by way of a Spanish army – made clear that the status quo was not a safe option. (Regnans in Excelsis was still being referenced as an example of what not to do by the Vatican in the 1930s as it considered its advice to catholics in Nazi Germany. I have written in more detail about the Ridolfi plot here.)

But then, what was safety?

In a sense, the catholic experience in England after Elizabeth’s accession is a kind of tragedy. There is an inevitability about it, with the actions of all parties, all actors inexorably leading to a tightening of the vice, a limiting of freedom, of room for manoeuvre, for the ordinary mass of catholic men and women. The lack of freedom was, by the end of the reign, quite literal: from 1593 a ‘statute of confinement’ forbade recusants – those who did not attend church – from traveling more than five miles from their homes without a licence.

Most of us quite happily lead lives of quiet contradiction on one level or another; it is part of our charm. No-one much asks us to account for ourselves or charges us with hypocrisy or deceit. But the activities of the English government and the catholic church alike – and of their most zealous adherents in particular – brought an impossible level of scrutiny to the lives of catholic England, and with it a bright and unforgiving spotlight on the contradictions of their position.

Thus, what had perhaps been a tolerable existence of mild dishonesty became a life of privation, evasion and fear. The English catholics were forced to choose: but the choice they were offered was not one with which they could live.

Not all of their brethren seemed to care about such dilemmas.

The arrival of Edmund Campion and Robert Persons in England in the summer of 1580 as the first members of the catholic church’s English mission transformed the terms of the debate.

If anyone had intended the two men to slip into England unnoticed, they clearly hadn’t briefed Campion and Persons about the matter. On their way from Rome they made speeches at Bologna and Milan and tried to provoke a disputation in Geneva. The two men – as many fellow English missionaries would after them – had a magniloquent sense of martyrdom and destiny. “It often happens that the first rank of a conquering army is knocked over,” Campion said, grandly. The military metaphor, had it reached Elizabeth’s ears, would hardly have soothed her concerns.

The mission to England claimed to be about religion, not politics. But the passion with which it was proclaimed in its early years made the distinction largely a semantic one. It was equivocation avant la lettre. At the very least, Campion and Persons challenged the laws of the land – that is, challenged the authority of Elizabeth I and her government. If they weren’t explicitly involved in plots to assassinate Elizabeth, as Burghley and others alleged, they certainly helped nurture a climate of thought, a culture of resistance, in which such acts became not just permissable but – eventually – necessary.

It was a difficult and delicate situation for the Catholics in England and most were still trying to find ways of easing their consciences through the thorns without shedding blood. As Childs shows, the line between low-level civil disobedience – or dissent – and sedition was a perilously fine one. Each bled into the other. And it was a line Campion and his successors in the English mission were determinedly oblivious to. The missionaries had all accepted the prospect of martyrdom; some clearly relished it. They were – as Campion himself noted – dead to the world already. Those they ministered to had made no such peace; but they had the choice foisted on them no matter what.

When Campion was captured, the government went out of its way to charge him with treason under the statutes dating from the reign of Edward III. That is, they wanted to ensure his crimes were seen as political, not theological. And that would continue to be the frame through which the state defined its actions.

In its simplest expression, this became known as the ‘bloody question’: in the event of an invasion, of war, whose side were you on? Would an English catholic choose God or Caesar, conscience or crown?

Lord Vaux was one of those accused of having aided Campion. But did that make him part of a catholic fifth column? Where did the dictates of conscience become seditious opposition? What were public protestations of loyalty to the queen worth if those making them also welcomed members of the English mission into their homes, succoured, fed and supported them? Where did treason begin?

Then as now, there is no simple answer.

Campion’s death did not deter other missionaries. Indeed, it may have encouraged some. But it raised the stakes for everyone, and dissimulation – casuistry and equivocation – became the calling card of the catholic mission, in the eyes of the English state at least. And these slippery intellectual practices – necessary though they were for those of tender conscience – also helped to further taint catholics trying to stay loyal to both God and Caesar, further eroding their apparent trustworthiness and straining the sense of faithfulness and honesty which made social cohesion possible.

One of the many insights Childs offers is into the role of women in supporting the mission, from the education of catholic children to the domestic organisation required to accommodate catholic ritual within the household and, of course, to hide wanted men. On one level, they had greater freedom than men precisely because they were so subjugated: they were highly unlikely to face the punishments faced by men, and were not legally liable  to the same extent. But two members of the Vaux family – Eleanor and Anne Vaux – one widowed and the other unmarried – became central to the success of the mission. The irony of this – given that the missionaries were not meant to spend time with women, particularly unmarried ones – was lost on no-one, and Anne Vaux’s intense relationship with Henry Garnet seems to have caused as much consternation in Rome as it did in London. Its propriety was questioned by everyone, although Childs believes there was nothing untoward about it. It was, at heart, devotional – in every sense of the word.

It is through the courageous actions of women like Anne Vaux that Childs reveals most clearly the depths of faith and conscience that drove many English catholics to disobedience and brought nearly two hundred of them to the steps of the scaffold and the executioner’s knife. Every social norm in early modern England demanded conformity and submission to authority, whether within the family, within the local polity or within the state. And yet Anne and many others like her chose to reject that ‘fast-fettered’ life: the choice was both brave and desperate, but ultimately mortal peril was preferable to denying the immortal soul.

It isn’t possible in the space of a review to do justice to the breadth and depth of Childs’ research and insight; but they illuminate the entire landscape of English life. She demonstrates brilliantly how interpenetrated the communities of recusants, protestants and puritans were within the country as a whole and within each region and shire – and how, therefore, he crisis tainted everyone.

After all, the problems created by the catholics’ increasingly difficult and anomalous position in England were not merely those of conscience. There were also strains on every aspect of their status. Refusing to take an oath renouncing papal sovereignty meant that young catholic men could not graduate from university or hold office under the crown. They could not be magistrates or MPs or command the queen’s forces. For young men keen to advance themselves, loyalty to their faith condemned them to a life of passivity and impotence. It is no wonder, as Childs notes, that second generation recusants were more militant than their parents.

But the schism also played out in marriages and property transactions, in Parliament and on the bench. Class by class, individuals were bound by geographic, social and familial loyalties, by histories of friendship. Marriage, for example, was a key traditional means by which families established status, security and advancement, tying themselves into the hierarchy on which society was built. But recusancy and its after-effects tainted marriage prospects – and narrowed the pool of potential suitors for catholic and protestant alike. It diminished everyone, and weakened every bond. One casuist text recommended marrying below one’s social status over marrying a heretic: it is hard to stress how unthinkable such advice was to the sixteenth-century mind.

And then, of course, there were the fines, which would be impossibly steep by the end of the century. Lord Vaux ultimately forfeited two-thirds of his estate under 1587 legislation that made fines for recusancy cumulative. Sir Thomas Tresham died £11,500 in debt. He had paid some £8,000 in recusancy fines and the marriages of his daughters had cost him over £12,000.

It is worth remembering too, that those who would be required to raid catholic houses were usually neighbours and peers of the suspects, men who the family in question might well have entertained or done business with. The humiliation of such raids – and the sense of breached trust on both sides – must have run deep. Which is not to minimise the terror of such raids: large numbers of men – weapons in hand – poured through the house charged with destruction: tearing down walls, ripping up floorboards, stabbing at every cloth and cushion with dagger or sword. It was not just priests they were after: the furniture of ritual, religious texts, rosaries, agnus dei – everything sniffed of sedition.

Childs unfolds this secret world of priestholes and pseudonyms, of disguises and deceit with an expert eye for detail and an unerring sense of drama. And there is a current of almost psychological horror running through the book, no less in the terror of the hunted than in the tortures that awaited them. Perhaps it is useful to consider the experience of Elizabethan catholics as a whole as a kind or mental and moral torture: the contorted spaces that were built for the missionaries hidden between the skin and bones of each house might stand as a metaphor for the condition of being catholic in England.

And she is brilliant at teasing out the moral and social complexities of these lives. Lord Vaux had been imprisoned in the aftermath of Campion’s arrest and had spent some twenty months in the Fleet for refusing to answer questions about Campion and his mission under oath. The man who arranged for his release – to the extent of drafting Vaux’s submission to present to the queen – was Lord Burghley, as Sir William Cecil became. Why? We don’t really know. But the idea that loyalty to Rome – or Elizabeth for that matter – was the only loyalty that mattered to these men and women is a simplistic one. They regarded themselves as having duties to men of rank and status too; and the wide, all-pervasive networks of family and kinship were bonds of incalculable strength, the importance of which it is hard for us in our atomised world to understand. Everyone had conflicted loyalties; but it was only the catholics who were required to account for them.

It also reminds us that these great ideological struggles were also intensely personal. Burghley visited Vaux in his cell to discuss and arrange the latter’s submission and release. Later, when the Jesuit priest Garnet was in the Tower and being questioned about his role in the Gunpowder plot, he was questioned by Lord Salisbury – Burghley’s son Robert Cecil – and Lord Chief Justice Popham. Garnet and Popham jovially recalled meeting in the 1570s when Garnet had been considering a career in the law. Salisbury apologised to Garnet for making a salacious joke about his relationship with Anne Vaux, putting his arm around the priest’s shoulder as if asking for forgiveness.

The book is studded with moments of intense humanity like this, and they are unsettling because Childs’ sympathetic but acute portraits strip away any instinct we might have to judge these men and women for their choices. She shows us their divided souls, but she does not ask us to take sides.

Even the zeal of the missionaries served to hide complex motives and widely different personalities. At one end of the spectrum there was the handsome and charismatic John Gerard, who lived with the swagger of a gentleman, and a rich one at that, and struggled – manfully, one assumes – with the humility that ought to have suited his calling. Women fell over themselves to help him, he tells us in his autobiography. One Flemish woman learned English simply to be able to confess to him; two noble ladies almost fought each for the honour of kissing his feet in the Tower.

At the other, there was the little-remembered Thomas Lister who suffered from migraines, mood swings and claustrophobia among other neuroses. A priest with a fear of priest-holes must have been a trying companion for even the most saint-like of men.

This is a superlative, flawlessly written book, rich in its detailed evocation of the texture and fervour of the Catholic experience without ever losing sight of the moral and political crucible in which that experience was being tried. It is a joy to read and revelations abound, from the trade in ‘fresh green relics’ – that is the remains of the English martyrs – to the way that the English mission strayed into dramatic demonstrations of the power of their faith which made many fellow believers deeply uncomfortable. Childs’ description of an exorcism at Lord Vaux’s house in Hackney in the autumn of 1585 – which Anthony Babington, among others, was invited to witness – is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever read.

God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England superbly maps the trajectory of catholic England over fifty years and three generations. If we knew a little already about some of the better known figures – Campion, Southwell, Babington, Fawkes – there is much here that will make all of us re-evaluate the much-fabled tolerance of Elizabethan England and deepen our understanding of the English catholics’ long existential crisis of faith. Wise in her judgements and generous in her sympathies, Childs ensures we always see the activities of the Vaux family and its fellow travellers in the wider cultural and political context – teasing out references in Shakespeare and Jonson, for example – and she is as alert to alternate narratives and their possibilities as she is sensitive to the impossibility of the choices many were faced with. This is a book about saints and traitors, certainly; but above all it is about the strengths and frailties that made these people human. They have had to wait a long time, but at last they have found a historian who offers them both justice and dignity.

Review: Elizabeth I and her people – National Portrait Gallery exhibition

Elizabeth exhibitionThose whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.

Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.

A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.

But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments wear simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.

For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.

There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.

Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.