November 19 – A Catholic recusant and priest harbourer

On this day in Tudor history, 19th November 1587, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, an important member of the Catholic underground, Henry Vaux, died of what was probably consumption.

The Catholic recusant and priest harbourer died at Great Ashby, the home of his sister, Eleanor Brooksby.

Henry Vaux is a fascinating Tudor man. He started out as a precocious child and poet and grew up to be an important member of the Catholic underground in Elizabeth I’s reign, helping Jesuit priests both financially and by giving them a roof over the heads.

Let me introduce Henry Vaux and tell you what happened to him in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign….

Book Recommendation: One of my very favourite history books is “God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England” by Jessie Childs, and you can enjoy a talk by Jessie on what life was like for Catholics living in Elizabethan England by clicking here.


On this day in Tudor history, 19th November 1587, poet, Catholic recusant and priest harbourer, Henry Vaux, died of what was probably consumption at Great Ashby, the home of his sister, Eleanor Brooksby. Vaux had been sent to Marshalsea prison after being arrested in November 1586 for offering accommodation and assistance to Catholic priests, but had been released in May 1587 due to ill health.

Let me tell you a bit about this Tudor man and how he came to this sad end.

By the way, I’ve had some questions about the term “Catholic recusant”. In brief, a Catholic recusant in Elizabeth I’s reign was someone who was a Roman Catholic and who refused to comply with the religious legislation of Elizabeth’s reign, i.e. he or she did not attend the Protestant style services of the Church of England.

Henry Vaux was born in around 1559 and was the eldest son of Catholics William Vaux, 3rd Baron Vaux of Harrowden, and his first wife, Elizabeth Beaumont. Vaux and his siblings were educated first by their maternal grandmother, also Elizabeth, and then in around 1567 or 1568, their father employed the famous Jesuit priest and later martyr, Edmund Campion, as a tutor for Henry, who was a precocious child. Campion joined the household and may have educated Henry’s sister, Eleanor, too.

Campion was arrested in 1581 and Henry’s father, William, were questioned and imprisoned regarding their links to the Jesuit. He was later released but kept an eye on. He outlived his son, Henry, dying in 1595.

From 1580, when he was around the age of 21, Henry Vaux, along with his sister Eleanor’s husband, Edward Brooksby, was a chief member of a group which included Campion and another Jesuit priest called Robert Parsons. This group helped missionary priests sent to England by Cardinal William Allen from the English College at Rome. They met them, supported them and introduced them into their households. Vaux was planning to become a priest himself. He also promised to give financial support to a fund supporting Catholic clergy which was established at a meeting of recusants, Catholic clergy and Jesuits in 1585 at a meeting in Hoxton.

On the morning of 5th November 1586, the Vaux house in Hackney was raided by men led by priest-hunter Richard Young on the Vaux home in Hackney. Young was hoping to catch the Vauxes hearing mass and to find a priest in their home. No priest was found but Henry Vaux was taken in for questioning after letters in Latin and signed by “Robert” were found in a bag belonging to him. It was thoughts that these were written by Robert Persons, the Jesuit priest, but were actually written by Robert Suthall (Southwell), another Jesuit. Vaux was thrown in the Marshalsea prison.

He was released in May 1587, for what was supposed to be three months leave, due to his ill health, and was able to travel to see his sisters Eleanor and Anne, fellow Catholic recusants and priest smugglers, in Leicestershire. He never went back to prison, dying at Eleanor’s home on 19th November 1587.

Jessie Childs, in her excellent book God’s Traitors, writes of how Henry Garnet, Jesuit priest and a man she believes attended on Vaux at the end, described Vaux as dying of a wasting disease brought on by his imprisonment, and that Robert Persons wrote of how Vaux died “most sweetly and comfortably”. He may never had achieved his ambition of becoming a priest, but he had helped many. Jessie Childs quotes Robert Persons saying that Vaux was a “blessèd gentleman and saint… whose life was a rare mirror of religion and holiness unto all that knew him and conversed with him.” Childs writes that “his chief legacy lay in the relief operation for Catholic priests that he had helped found and run” and that he had a pivotal role in the Catholic underground.

At the start of today’s talk, I mentioned him being a poet. Henry Vaux’s poems can be found in the collection of the Folger Library, Washington DC, and include a Latin poem on the passion of Christ, which Vaux wrote at the age of 13. His poems have led to him being labelled a “child prodigy”.

You may remember the character of Anne Vaux in Kit Harrington’s “Gunpowder”, played by Liv Tyler. Well, that Anne Vaux, the woman who hid men like Jesuit Henry Garnet, who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot, was the sister of Henry Vaux.

They’re a fascinating family, and I’d highly recommend Jessie Childs book on them and others like them in Elizabeth I’s reign. It’s a gripping read.

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