Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt

This was a really interesting read if for no other reason than it examined the paranoia and cruelty extant around recusants during the latter part of Elizabeth 1st’s reign – 1581. Focussing on a small cast of mostly Catholics, who are hiding their faith and the various rites that form part of their belief system from tTreason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan Englandhe Protestant majority, the novel, which occurs over a few days, explores their desperation and fear.

There are two principal characters around which the rest of the cast orbit: a young woman who desires to be a nun but was forced into marriage with a Protestant to protect her, and a freshly minted priest sent to English shores by the Society of Jesus to offer solace to English Catholics and convert other souls.

Because it’s told from the Catholic point of view alone, it does read like propaganda, the reign of “Bloody Mary” – where a few hundred “heretic” Protestants were put to death, and the mass slaughter of the Hugenots across France and other parts of Europe – conveniently forgotten. Likewise, the fact two Popes issued Bulls against Queen Elizabeth, offering to pardon anyone for murdering her, as she was a heretic, thus encouraging civil war and worse, is overlooked as the tragedy and betrayal of these good Catholic folk is portrayed.

With few exceptions, Protestants are very much the villains in this novel. They’re either bloodthirsty hunters of Catholic souls or vainglorious and self-righteous about Catholics and gloating in the deaths and exposure.

In the end, this is what troubled me; how black and white the book appeared. I didn’t mind reading about the whole religious schism and fears of plots and heretics and what it signified for the Queen and government from a Catholic point of view at all. Writing in this period myself and having spent now almost two years immersed in it, the whole question of religion and how political as well as personal it was is utterly fascinating and distressing. Knowledge of the early Renaissance (and other historical periods) also reveal how many wars and injustices, as well as bloody murder, have been committed in the name of God. This is by no means a modern phenomenon. We really haven’t learnt from history. What I didn’t like was the reductive way in which both sides of the religious coin were portrayed – as simplistic “goodies” or “baddies” – even though some of the characters themselves were really interesting beyond and because of their faith. While the novel is mostly historically accurate, a few more shades of grey would have also reflected the actual period, as well as the politics and even religion better as well.

Nonetheless, it was interesting to read about this fraught time from a different, if very myopic religious, point of view.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book Review: Danger to Elizabeth by Alison Plowden

Danger to Elizabeth is the second volume in Alison Plowden’s engrossing quartet about Elizabeth the First’s life and times. In this book, Danger, she examines the threats that Elizabeth personally faced as well as those that beset the kingdom during her reign, all of which arose from the religious schism that divided England, particularly in the years before the defeat of the Spanish Aramda in 1588.

Danger to ElizabethWhile the main focus of the book is the principal plots around which the menace to Elizabeth’s person coalesced, such as the Ridolfi, Throgmorton and Babington ones and the influx of Jesuits and Catholics into England determined to succour recusants and rescue Protestant souls, it also takes into account the Papal Bulls issued from Rome that fundamentally gave permission for English Catholics to not only renounce Elizabeth as their monarch, but do harm upon her person. While describing these various perils and their outcomes, it also explores Elizabeth the queen and woman.

After reading Alison Weir’s historical novel, The Marriage Game (and enjoying it very much, even if I didn’t like the portrait it painted of Elizabeth), it was refreshing to read the queen’s tergiversations and choices around marriage and policy (especially with Mary, Queen of Scots), in the terms Plowden describes them. On page 37, she writes:

“Elizabeth was very well aware of her value in the international marriage market and zestfully exploited the advantages attached to being the most eligible spinster in Europe, turning the apparent disability of her sex into a diplomatic weapon which for the next twenty years she was to wield with deliberate, ruthless feminine guile.”

There is no doubt this powerful and intelligent queen, whom Sir Francis Walsingham, her Secretary of State from 1573 until his death in 1590, once described as the “best catch in the parish”, understood her value and, despite some evidence and arguments to the contrary, knew her mind – even when it appeared she did not.

Plowden charts the various threats to Elizabeth posed by the Catholic Church, the Catholic countries that surround England and their advances into the Low Countries, the Enterprise of conversion (or “harvesting”) of English souls, all conducted with the blessing of the “Bishop of Rome” and which was led by William Allen and his followers such as Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons. Written in wonderful, colourful and detailed prose that makes what can sometimes be dense detail easy to absorb, this book is a great read. There were times when it felt like I was reading a picaresque novel, so fast and exciting was the action. I also found, after devouring many, many books on these threats, plots and their consequences, that Plowden’s book fills in many gaps the others either skimmed over or did not bother to elucidate. Having said that, I did wonder if I hadn’t read so many other books on this era, would I have gleaned as much as I did from Plowden’s book. I also wonder if some knowledge of events and personages helped me draw from this book what I needed, meaning I’m not persuaded it would be a good book for beginners wanting to learn about the era and the dangers Elizabeth and her realm faced.

That said, it is the second volume in a four-book series, a series I will now look forward to completing very much.

Highly recommended for lovers of history and Elizabethan politics in particular.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments