Post-Reformation England was jittery with fears of a Catholic revival. Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster and priest-hunter at the court of Elizabeth I, regarded Jesuits as a sinister sect involved in popish attempts to dethrone his patron-monarch. Spain’s ill-fated attack on England in 1588 intensified Walsingham’s clampdown on perceived traitors. In the paranoid post-Armada years, Jesuits and other “Romish” suspects were smoked out of hiding and publicly executed.
Historian Jessie Childs won the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography with her first book, Henry VIII’s Last Victim. Now she has written a superb account of cloak-and-dagger religious intrigue in Tudor England. God’s Traitors describes a John le CarrÃ©-like world of political double-dealing and “spiery” (as the Elizabethans called it). This was a time when moles were planted in Catholic seminaries abroad and Elizabethan diplomacy created a looking-glass war in which priest was turned against priest, informant against informant.
The brutal and insistent Protestant dogma under Elizabeth I had much in common with the anti-Protestant Inquisition in Spain. The Spanish courts of inquiry controlled by Philip II, like the Tudor courts of inquiry controlled by his arch-enemy Elizabeth I, extracted confessions by means of the rack or burning tongs. Its methods of intimidation and control were designed above all to spread fear and suspicion.