Interview with Jessie Childs

Jessie Childs is an award-winning historian, whose first book, Henry VIII's Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, won the 2007 Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography. Her second book, God's Traitors, which is out in paperback in March, was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Book Prize.

Jessie frequently speaks at festivals, and on the TV & radio, and has written and reviewed for many publications, including The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Literary Review, History Today, BBC History Magazine and Standpoint.

She lives in Hammersmith, London, with her husband and two daughters.

TT: For your first book, you chose to concentrate on a relatively-little known figure at Henry VIII's court. What attracted you to Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey?

JC: Initially it was his poetry – it's beautiful and elegiac, but also quite rebellious. He wrote about 'aged kings, wedded to will, that work without advice', and rulers, 'whose glutton cheeks sloth feeds so fat as scant their eyes be seen'. He was very well connected – the son of the Duke of Norfolk, cousin of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, best friend of Henry VIII's illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond – but ultimately he flew too close to the sun.

In a sense, the book is a tale of two Henrys. One, Henry Howard, was young, impetuous, idealistic and rash; the other, Henry VIII, had once been all those things, but had grown corrupt and capricious.

TT: Surrey was a highly-respected poet in his time, but now is overshadowed by his friend, Sir Thomas Wyatt. What do you think is the reason for that, when Surrey's work is so good?

JC: Well, to be perfectly frank, Wyatt is the better poet! Surrey received all the early attention because of his noble blood and because he was such a youthful trailblazer (he invented the 'Shakespearian sonnet', for example, when he was only 20) but Surrey was Wyatt's greatest admirer. He thought he possessed 'heavenly gifts' and 'taught what might be said in rhyme'. There really should be room at the party for both of them.

TT: Surrey was attainted of treason partly on the evidence of his sister, Mary, Duchess of Richmond, who seems to have made more effort to exonerate her father from charges of treason than her brother. Do you think she was actuated by sibling rivalry, fear, or her sense of duty to the family as a whole rather than one member of it?

JC: She's very interesting, Mary – 'too wise for a woman' as her father put it. I think you might be right on all three accounts. Sibling tension, perhaps, rather than sibling rivalry – she and Surrey clashed, as siblings do – but I think she probably realized that Surrey was a lost cause by then, that they were out to get him and that if just one branch of the family tree was removed, it might not fall.

We mustn't forget how terrifying it must have been for Mary to have the King's men storm her house before daybreak and take her to London for questioning. Her cousins, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, had both lost their heads. Mary knew she wasn't untouchable. We're told that she fainted from the shock of the news of the arrests and then, 'upon her knees', assured the commissioners that she was 'not forgetful of her duty' and would not keep anything from them.

TT: Your recent book, God's Traitors, is on a very different topic from your first, which concentrated on an individual. Did you find it easier or harder to look at a wider canvas?

JC: It's more of a challenge in terms of structure, but I relished it. One is dealing with more sources, stories and themes, so it can be tricky, but it's also very liberating. I also found – I don't know if I was just lucky with the Vauxes – but I found that the structure worked itself out quite neatly. One exception was the peculiar case of Ambrose Vaux, the black sheep, who popped up from time to time, leaving a trail of destruction and unpaid debts in his wake. I decided to confine him largely to a morality-tale chapter on the blighted potential of recusant younger sons and that allowed me to explore the less well-catalogued effects of recusancy.

TT: The people you write about in God's Traitors planned a terrible act – the blowing up of King and Parliament. Your research shows that the Catholic recusants were very harshly treated – did you feel any sympathy for their position?

JC: Not for the gunpowder plotters or for any of the men who conspired to kill Elizabeth I in her reign, no. But I certainly did feel sympathy for the non-violent recusants who were caught between a rock and a hard place. They were faced with a tough dilemma, the choice of two betrayals: betray the Pope (who had called on Catholics to resist the Queen) and condemn their souls to damnation, or betray the queen and surrender their bodies to imprisonment and possible death. Some very sincerely and very simply wanted to be good Catholics and good Englishmen. Parliament and the papacy conspired to make that impossible.

The recusants had a torrid time – one, Sir Thomas Tresham described his life as 'moth-eaten', but it's also very important to look at them from the government's perspective. They were regarded as potential – and some were actual – fifth columnists. In a sense, Elizabeth's officials were asking the same questions that ours do today: what price liberty for security? It's timeless.

TT: One of the intriguing things for a reader of God's Traitors is your research around the very poor personal relationships between the Vaux sisters and their uncle, Sir Thomas Tresham. Did that make them seem more real to you?

Yes, I think so. They're often placed on pedestals, as heroes of the mission, but they could behave quite appallingly. There were petty squabbles, secret affairs, lawsuits etc. Tresham called the Vaux sisters 'more like Furies than fitting for a feminine sex.' They said he was a brass-faced Machiavellian and 'a scandal to the Catholic religion and to all Catholics'. This was hardly good Christian charity!

TT: Anne Vaux was clearly a force to be reckoned with. Do you think her dedication to the cause was a result of her character, and that, had she not happened to be born into a recusant family, she would have found another cause to support?

That's an interesting question. There are some people who do seem to be innately drawn to extremes. George Gilbert, for example, who was a great supporter of the English mission, had been attracted to Puritanism before an encounter with a priest in Europe led to his conversion to Catholicism. It's possible that Anne could have dedicated her life to another cause, though she would have denied it to her last breath!

TT: For your first two books, you have clearly undertaken and enormous amount of research. Do you prefer to do all your research first, then write the whole book, or do you prefer to research a section, then write it up?

I do all the research first – in one great big compost heap – historiography, then printed primary docs, then the manuscripts. Only when I feel that I've totally exhausted the subject do I re-read everything, see what has come to the top, and write it all up. I know a lot of great historians who do it the other way round – and of course there's always the pressure to publish one's latest research – but I only feel confident in my assessments once I've digested the lot. I've found things at the very end of my research that have a huge bearing on the early chapters.

TT: Are you a full time writer, or do you have to juggle writing with other responsibilities?

JC: I'm a full-time writer in the sense that I don't have another job or any tutorial responsibilities. The last time I taught was in a school in Kathmandu when I was 18, which is a shame as I'd love to do it again, but my time isn't that 'full' because I'm a working mother and my girls are still quite young (3 and 6), so it's a constant juggling act. To be a historical writer today, you can't just research and write, you also need to dabble in journalism, book reviewing, public speaking, broadcasting etc. It's all part of the job, it's wonderfully varied and it keeps us on our toes.

TT: Do you have a favourite place and time to write?

JC: Anywhere quiet, uncluttered and offline – very early in the morning and very late at night.

TT: We understand you are working on a book about the Civil War. Is that a new area of interest, or did it grow out of your previous work?

JC: I've always been fascinated by the Civil War. Impossible not to be: everything and everyone was affected. But it is, in a way, a natural sequel to God's Traitors in the sense that the story I'll be telling involves a good few Catholics and a great deal of anti-papal rhetoric. It was practically an ideology by then.

TT: Have you said goodbye to the Tudors forever, or do you think they will draw you back?

JC: No and Yes. Nobody puts the Tudors in the corner.

TT: Are you planning to attend any events during early 2015 where our readers might be able to hear you speak?

JC: Yes, several – check out my website:

for details and updates.

Those who can't make the events may be interested in this YouTube recording from one of my recent talks at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India:

The paperback of 'God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England' is published by Vintage on 5 March 2015.

Click here to pre-order or purchase a copy.