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Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot

by Antonia Fraser
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 347 pp., $27.95


Around midnight on Monday, November 4, 1604, or possibly in the small hours of the next morning, a man in a cloak and dark hat was discovered in a cellar underneath the English House of Parliament in Westminster. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were stored there. The man, a Roman Catholic later described in official records as a “very tall and desperate fellow,” was booted and spurred, ready to take flight after the powder was ignited. His aim had been to blow up the Parliament building, killing the English peers assembled for the opening of the new parliamentary session, as well as murdering King James I of England (also James VI of Scotland), who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. Although with the arrest of the man, Guy Fawkes, the plot was foiled, it had lasting repercussions as religious persecution of Catholics in England was once again stepped up.

The Gunpowder Plot was the result of frustrated hopes. The Catholic minority in England had fared badly in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when penalties against them were cruelly enforced. Celebration of Catholic Mass was illegal. The Protestant Communion had to be taken, with fines levied on those, called recusants, who refused to do so (Antonia Fraser compares these sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Catholic recusants to the refuseniks of a later age). Catholic priests, when discovered, would be terribly tortured and then put to death. The succession of King James had by no means been a foregone conclusion. When it finally emerged that the new ruler of England was the son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, Catholic expectations rose to an unrealistic level, encouraged by the cannily pro-Catholic utterances of the monarch-to-be.

James’s wife, Anne of Denmark, was also a Catholic, albeit a discreet one, converted to the faith in her twenties. Father Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England, voiced the optimism of all Catholics in the weeks before the King traveled from Scotland to claim his southern kingdom: “A golden time we have of unexpected freedom‌. Great hope is of toleration.” There were euphoric rumors that King James would himself convert.

Catholic hopes had been fixed on the new English Parliament, summoned on January 31, 1604. It quickly became clear that King James’s public statements bore no relation to his informal half-promises of toleration. On February 19 the King announced his “utter detestation” of the Papist religion, which he defined as “superstitious.” On February 21 all Jesuits and priests were expelled from the country and fines for recusancy, which had been temporarily lifted, were once again imposed. On March 19 the King’s speech in Parliament destroyed any hopes among the Catholics for liberty of conscience. On April 24 a bill was introduced in Parliament to denounce all Catholics as outlaws. The “Powder Treason,” as it came to be called, was an enraged reaction to these bitter disappointments. Parliament was chosen as the target because, as one of the leading conspirators explained it, “In that place have they done us all the mischief.” Perhaps this place of punishment had been designed by God.

There are many difficulties in establishing the truth about this complicated episode, so arcane is its detail. Incomplete records and testimonies extracted under torture obfuscate the case, which continues to baffle scholars of the period. Fraser divides these into “Pro-Plotters,” who accept the existence of the plot, and “No-Plotters,” who argue that it was fabricated by the government to bring the Catholics into disrepute. Fraser maintains that there was indeed a plot, though it differed in certain fundamentals from the Gunpowder Treason as defined by Sir Edward Coke, the prosecuting counsel, in 1605. She sees it as a species of terrorism, a desperate act of conscious outrage by a close-knit group of young Catholic men. The plot was underpinned by the hope of Spanish intervention on behalf of the English Catholics. These expectations turned out to be totally misplaced.

At the center of the plot was not Guy Fawkes but Robert Catesby, fondly known as Robin, the tall, handsome, and enormously charismatic son of a recusant family of Warwickshire and Northamptonshire landowners. Fraser gives a fascinating account of the “short, terrifyingly hazardous life” of the man the government would later term “a second Phaeton,” comparing him to the mythical Phaeton, son of Phoebus Apollo, whose rash destructiveness in upturning his chariot threatened the world with everlasting night. She identifies Catesby’s “crusader” mentality. He did not hesitate about using force for a spiritual cause. Most interestingly, he had a passion for theology, testing out his plan against the Church’s teaching. Catesby was a paradox, a hothead who saw clearly the moral consequences of the plot.

Would the plot have happened without Catesby’s flair and faith in it? His glamorous fanaticism was persuasive, influencing fatally the small group of his adherents from the recusant families, many of whom were intermarried, near-related. They were men in their thirties, the same age as the King. In May 1604, Catesby divulged his plans to Tom Wintour, his cousin. Wintour had at first been horror-struck, but finally consented: “I told him Yes, in this or what else soever, if he resolved upon it, I would venture my life.”

Catesby was a man to die with. Guy Fawkes was more low-key. The government later cast him as a man of mystery. But Fraser points out that the essential facts about Guy Fawkes—or Guido Fawkes, as he became known in his role of Spanish go-between—are absolutely clear. Guy Fawkes was a “straightforward soldier,” a mercenary who had enlisted in the Spanish army in Flanders. He was a big burly man with thick reddish-brown hair, a mustache, and a great beard. He was a man of intelligence as well as courage, born in York to a family of civic officials and minor gentry. Although not overtly Catholic, the family had recusant connections and Guy was educated at the pro-Catholic St. Peter’s School in York. He went abroad in the early 1590s to serve with a foreign army where his own Catholic faith would not have to be concealed. Possibly he was married briefly. But Fraser sees Fawkes, with his purism and courage, as fundamentally “a kind of soldier-monk.”

Plans advanced through 1604, with surreptitious meetings in “safe” Catholic houses around Warwickshire, some of them not far from Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon. (Themes of sacrilege and conspiring to regicide would soon resurface in Macbeth, first performed in 1606.) The blowing up of Parliament had been intended to set off insurrection in Warwickshire. This grand plan involved the kidnapping of King James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, then aged nine, who was housed at Coombe Abbey, near Coventry. She would be established as titular Queen of England, with the Earl of Northumberland, a Catholic sympathizer, as Protector. A local woman noted the stables of “safe” houses filling up with a suspicious number of fine steeds.

The conspirators had counted on Parliament reconvening in early February 1605. But renewed fears of plague in London caused the opening to be postponed, first to October 3, then again until November. Tensions rose and, dangerously, more conspirators were admitted to the inner circle. The young Sir Everard Digby’s recruitment, on October 21, 1605, brought the total to an unfortunate thirteen. The plot was discovered through “a dark and doubtful letter,” as Sir Edward Coke described it, that eventually found its way through to the King.

Who wrote the letter? One of the main candidates has always been Francis Tresham, another cousin of Catesby’s, whose cynically contorted cast of mind already made him an unreliable conspirator. Antonia Fraser considers it more likely that the letter, delivered to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, by the young, ambitious Lord Monteagle, had in fact been written by Monteagle himself for his political advantage, after Tresham, his brother-in-law, had confided the details of the plot. Catesby, characteristically, refused to attend to danger signals. “The conspirators who had been the hunters, were now the hunted.” With a terrible inevitability, described extremely well by Fraser, the gunpowder was discovered and the panic-stricken conspirators dispersed.

London was left in a state of numbed confusion, with none of the nobles knowing who could still be trusted. An observer made the comment that “a general jealousy possessed them all.” The emotive language of officialdom gave thanks for the saving of the King from death. Many English Catholics were genuinely appalled by the scale and the ruthlessness of the attempt, and the Catholic Archpriest Father Blackwell publicly denounced the plot as “intolerable, uncharitable, scandalous and desperate,” maintaining that it was not lawful for private subjects to take arms against their lawful King, even if the King turned into a tyrant. Catesby, Fraser writes, would have retaliated that “the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy.”

Catesby himself remained obdurate as rebellion in the Midlands petered out. On November 7 he and three dozen conspirators and followers arrived at Holbeach House, near Kingswinford in Staffordshire, a building they believed could be fortified, hoping that they could survive a siege. They had traveled with a load of gunpowder which, in transit in an open cart, had been drenched by pouring rain. Recklessly they spread this out in front of the fire. A spark caused it to ignite. As Fraser observes, “Catesby got his powder explosion at last.” Several men were badly burned and one, John Grant, was blinded. The King’s forces were closing in around the house. Catesby was shot at the doorway. He managed to crawl inside the house and grasp a picture of the Virgin Mary, dying histrionically with the image in his arms.

The worst was to come. The known conspirators were rounded up and taken to the Tower, where they were subjected first to “the gentler Tortures,” which involved the prisoner being strung up with his wrists enclosed in iron gauntlets or manacles. The next stage was the rack, a large open frame of oak over which the prisoner was stretched, his wrists and ankles attached by cords to rollers. This caused excruciating pain and lasting damage to the prisoner’s body. Torture was contrary to common law in England, but its use in cases of suspected treason was the King’s or Privy Council’s prerogative. King James gave personal directives in the case of the torture that finally broke Guy Fawkes’s resistance, framing the questions that were put to him.

Catholic priests were flushed out of their priest holes, the hiding places ingeniously built into the walls of English recusants’ houses in the shires. Nicholas Owen, “Little John,” architect of many priest holes, suffered the worst tortures of any, since he was physically disabled before torture began. Conditions in the priest holes themselves were unendurable for long. The Jesuit Fathers Garnet and Oldcorne emerged from their hiding place at Hindlip, near Worcester, after eight days incarceration, looking so much like ghosts that their pursuers ran terrified away. The hole had been too small to allow them to stand fully or to stretch their legs. They had been finally defeated by the insalubrious conditions created by “those customs of nature which must of necessity be done.” Father Garnet later claimed that had they been able to introduce a “close-stool,” or commode, into the priest hole they could have lasted out for three months more.

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