I’m going to lay this out right here and now: God’s Secret Agents is the best non-fiction book that I’ve read this year (Song of the Vikings is an exceedingly close second) and this review is going to be heavy on the praise. The Cliffnotes version of this post reads something like this: You should read God’s Secret Agents.
In God’s Secret Agents Alice Hogge has produced a book that hits full marks for every aspect I judge history books on. Text is accessible and engaging? Yes. Presents a point of view that is as objective as possible/acknowledges potential biases? Yes. Offers a new interpretation or understanding of subject? Yes. Provides insights into modern culture? Yes. 10 out of 10, you go Alice Hogge.
God’s Secret Agents follows Catholics in England from the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign when Catholicism went from the state religion to the religion of traitors up until the extremely unsuccessful Gun Powder Plot that made Guy Fawkes so famous. Though the book’s cover implies that it is focused just on the Catholic priests who fled England to study in Europe and then risked their lives to return to England in an attempt to bring their home back to what they saw as the true and proper faith the book’s subject is far more expansive. While the narrative of these priests would be fascinating by itself Ms Hogge goes above and beyond by providing a history that puts the idea of the “revolutionary priests” in the context of its time and lays out the driving forces of all parties involved.
There are two points that I feel Ms Hogge deserves extra praise on. The first is that she takes apart the whole concept of the Catholic priest plotting to kill the Monarch and bring the Roman Catholic faith back into England. Priests in elaborate hiding holes and Guy Fawkes (who wasn’t a priest) style agents dominate our notion of this time period but Miss Hogge explains how this notion is rooted in the English government’s propaganda which was itself rooted in paranoia and not so much in fact. Yes, there were certainly some who did want to kill Elizabeth (and later James) but from the accounts of the active Catholics themselves these seem to be a minority. Despite a Papal decision that could be interpreted as allowing the assassination of Elizabeth most of the priests who traveled incognito throughout England were more concerned with the spiritual salvation of their countrymen than with Elizabeth’s life. Indeed the idea that a Catholic could not be a true Englishman loyal to his country was much more firmly held by the English government than the Catholics, many of whom didn’t see such a firm contradiction between holding onto the old religion and supporting their Queen. This is not to say that all was peaceful but it was certainly more complex than we like to imagine. Another important distinction that we tend to forget is that it wasn’t just Catholic priests (Jesuit or otherwise) who were active in trying to restore the Catholic religion to England.
The second point that I thought Ms Hogge addressed very nicely was how violent and terrifying this period could be. While the reign of Bloody Mary is well remembered for the persecution of Protestants and Puritans the reign of Queen Elizabeth has been more sanitized (I have two pet theories on why this is: Our desire to remember elevate Queen Elizabeth to impossibly high standards and the fact that Catholics never returned to power.) Ms Hogge introduces us to an England where suspected Catholics faced not just financial persecution but also gruesome tortures and executions. Indeed this is an England where one nobleman felt that if his friend had been a murderer or thief or pirate or anything other than a Catholic he would be able to ask for leniency from the courts but since his friend was accused of being a Catholic he would be risking his own life in asking for leniency that would not be served. This book is an important and strong reminder that even golden ages can be filled with horrific details that we try our best to forget.
Ms Hogge’s final chapter is a particularly important aspect of this book as it presents one of the best connections between the past and present that I have ever seen. She first dismantles the connections frequently made between this period and modern events and then offers up more reasonable ones that actually, you know, make sense. Her history on the evolution of Catholic identities in England from the Tudor/Stewart era to modern politicians is also highly fascinating.
God’s Secret Agents is a thorough and comprehensive history that brings light into an aspect of history that has been obscured by retention to the propaganda of the time and should engage even the most casual student of history.
God’s Secret Agents; Alice Hogge; HarpersCollins, 2005