“But foreknowledge is not fabrication, even if Salisbury, or perhaps Coke, did embellish the truth with certain vivid details afterwards, such as the celebrated – and infamous – mine which somehow vanished without a trace. In the same way, the very different foreknowledge gained by Father Garnet, in the confessional, did not mean he was, as Coke tried to suggest, the principal ‘author’ of the plot. Neither Salisbury nor Father Garnet was the author of the Powder Treason, though both have been blamed for it.”
Yesterday the United Kingdom celebrated Bonfire Night, also sometimes known as Guy Fawkes Day. Over here in North America, the holiday is seldom marked, but you may have seen more than a few instances of the famous rhyme on your social media yesterday: “Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot. I can think of no reason why the Gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” But while the rhyme is remembered, for many, it is now more closely associated with Alan Moore’s comic V for Vendetta, or its 2005 film adaptation starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman. Published in 1996, Lady Antonia Fraser’s popular history of the Gunpowder Plot, Faith and Treason, predates this revival but remains an excellent account of a controversial historical event that has been largely superseded by fiction in the public imagination.
Fraser begins with context, starting with the final years of the reign of Elizabeth I, a Protestant queen who was virulently anti-Catholic. Under Elizabeth, attending Protestant services, marrying and performing baptisms in the Protestant church were all mandatory, even for Catholics. Priests were banned from the country, and Catholics who refused to attend Protestant services were fined for their absence, earning them the nickname Recusants. Catholics were also banned from holding government offices, and could not take a university degree unless they were willing to swear the Oath of Supremacy. Although Elizabeth’s successor, James I, was the target of the Gunpowder Plot, the time Fraser spends on Elizabeth I is important because it illustrates the anti-Catholic atmosphere prevalent in England in the forty five years before James I became king.
Equally important to the Gunpowder Plot’s prelude is the fact that Elizabeth I never named an heir. Elizabeth I died in March of 1603, and the Gunpowder Plot was afoot within months of her death, finally coming to a head in November 1605. In the final years of her reign, there was a great deal of jockeying by her potential successors, as they tried to position themselves to inherit. James, at that time King of Scotland, was descended from Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest sister. His foreign birth was a disadvantage under the terms of Henry VIII’s will, but unlike his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, James was a Protestant. However, his wife, Anne of Denmark, was a Catholic, and James deftly used the possibility of his conversion to quietly gain the support of Rome and of the English Catholics for his succession. This gave the English Catholics hope that under James’ rule, they would finally have toleration, and freedom to exercise their religious consciences. Thus James was greeted surprisingly happily by his new English subjects, Protestant and Catholic alike. Fraser carefully covers this maneuvering, and explores what promises James may or may not have made to the English Catholics before he gained the throne.
Hard as it is to ascertain any verbal promises that may have been made four hundred years ago, Fraser’s examination of this topic is important because toleration decidedly did not occur under the rule of James I. Although James I was tolerant and sympathetic on a personal level to the Catholic plight, politically he was extremely wary of Catholicism, particularly the power of the Pope to release Catholic subjects from obedience to their sovereign through excommunication. James I was adamant that the number of Catholics in England must not grow, and Catholic persecution continued apace. Once in England, James’ political priority became affecting a union between England and Scotland. Far from receiving the immediate toleration English Catholics believed they had been promised, the subject was not even on the agenda. And with three living children, and a fourth on the way, James I was not just another Protestant sovereign; by accepting him as King, the Catholics had invited in a Protestant dynasty.
Fraser designates herself as a “pro-plotter,” as opposed to a “no-plotter,” meaning that she is arguing that the Gunpowder Plot did in fact take place, and was not a fiction manufactured by the government to justify Catholic persecution. Her position is that a group of English Catholics, under their own volition, rented a gallery room beneath the Houses of Parliament, filled the room with gunpowder and firewood, and planned to ignite the lot when Parliament opened, killing the King, his heir, and the members of Parliament. Although Fraser takes a pro-plot position, she examines the evidence on her own terms, and draws some conclusions that differ from other pro-plotters. Chief among these is her analysis of the authorship and purpose of the infamous Monteagle letter which gave the plot away. The letter is frequently attributed to Francis Tresham, but Fraser has her own opinions on the matter. Nor does Fraser find evidence that the plot was hatched by Jesuit priests secretly ministering in England, as the government prosecution would later claim. With neither the government nor the Jesuits authoring the plot, the leader of the conspiracy was one Robert “Robin” Catesby, a charismatic English Catholic who had grown weary of priests counseling patience, and advising him to trust God to bring about toleration in his own good time. Guy Fawkes, the central figure in popular memory of the event, was in fact a latecomer to the plot who took centre stage because he was the one captured in the galleries below Parliament, and tortured in to Tower to reveal the names of his fellow conspirators. An English mercenary who regarded himself as something of a holy warrior, Fawkes spent much of his adult life abroad, fighting in the Low Countries. He was recruited precisely because he would not be known or recognized England after so many years.
After the discovery, however, Fraser finds ample evidence of the government taking advantage of the Plot to pursue its own agenda, particularly in attributing authorship of the Plot to the much-maligned Jesuits. The famous mine that was supposedly dug under Parliament also appears to be a dramatic piece of government propaganda; with a rented room in the galleries under the House, the plotters had no need to dig a mine. There is also ample evidence that confessions were altered or even forged to produce the desired results, implicating Jesuit priests, and Catholic intriguers that had eluded the court in the past. Two priests did have foreknowledge of the plot, gained in the confessional, and did everything in their power—without breaking the holy seal—to prevent an event they rightly believed would have disastrous consequences for English Catholics. Fraser chronicles not only the pursuit, capture, and trial of the conspirators, but also the persecution of the Jesuits which followed, and the fall out for English Catholics not involved with the scheme.
Fraser’s is not the most stylistically compelling narrative non-fiction, but she is exceptionally clear. She is excellent at elucidating complex political and social contexts, and marshalling a vast cast of characters in a way that enables the reader to keep track of the major players. She may not have the panache of V for Vendetta or other popular reimaginings of the Gunpowder Plot, but her more measured account comes with the immense satisfaction of actually grasping a significant historical event, and grappling with those details that have made it the subject of controversy and investigation for four hundred years.
You might also like The Black Count by Tom Reiss.