History Weekend 2014 preview: 5 minutes with… Jessie Childs

Elizabeth I is often hailed as a beacon of tolerance, but almost 200 Catholics were executed for their faith during her reign and torture was commonly used. In her talk at this year’s History Weekend, Jessie Childs will lift the lid on the ‘Golden Age of Good Queen Bess’, exposing a darker story of plots, priest-holes and religious persecution

Jessie Childs

In an interview with History Extra, Childs, whose book God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England has been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014, describes her “geeky” passion for archives, and gives us a preview of her talk about terror and faith in Elizabethan England.

Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?

A: No single moment, but lots of formative ones: bedtime stories about Portuguese explorers, kitchen-table chatter about my White Russian grandmother; the Chamber of Horrors on Sunday mornings; a fabulous book called God’s, Men and Monsters from the Greek Myths; seeing a priest-hole as a young child. I also vividly remember a rainy-day history lesson at school when Dr Timothy Stunt went off-curriculum and gave us a masterclass in Tudor handwriting.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a historian?

A: The geeky thrill of the archives. For me, there’s nothing better than a day immersed in a manuscript. I’ve even grown fond of that weird, antiseptic record-office smell.

Also: other historians, archivists, librarians, curators, publishers, readers, teachers. There are very few clock-watchers in this field – it’s incredibly uplifting to work alongside people who share your passion for the past.

Q: Are you reading any exciting history books at the moment?

A: For review and pleasure, I’m currently reading Dan Jones’s The Hollow Crown, which takes a long view of the Wars or the Roses and is quite brilliant. I’ve also just finished Merchant Adventurers by James Evans, a thrilling account of the 1553 expedition to find a north-east passage to Asia.

Q: What do you love about researching Elizabethan England?

A: I love the language: the poetry, the exquisite prose, the excessive alliteration, the scatological filth, the lot!

I’ve particularly enjoyed researching the Elizabethan Catholics, whose papers were secreted away for centuries, sometimes even bricked into the walls of their homes.

Q: What can we expect from your talk at Malmesbury?

A: I don’t go in for Elizabeth bashing, but I do think the airbrush can go. Elizabeth I wasn’t a fountainhead of tolerance, nor, given the age, could she have been. Thousands of men and women lived very hard lives under her regime, and you’ll hear some of their stories.

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