Antonia Fraser
Antonia Fraser; drawing by David Levine


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.

As Father Garnet and Father Oldcorne were being captured, a show trial of the eight surviving conspirators was beginning at Westminster Hall. The King and Queen and Prince Henry, then aged eleven, watched avidly from a secret room. The eight condemned men were put to death in two batches, four on January 30, 1606, and four the next day. Coke had condemned them to the cruel death for traitors. Their privy parts were to be cut off and their bowels and heart hacked out while they were still alive. Beheading followed and the dismembered pieces of the traitors’ bodies were stuck up on poles as “prey for the fowls of the air.” These gruesome executions were held at eight AM and were thronging public events.

In the mood of anti-Catholic paranoia King James and his advisers were determined to implicate the Jesuits fully in the plot. Many priests and Father Garnet, head of the English Jesuits, were taken to the Tower and almost certainly the usual tortures were applied. It was a final cruelty that Father Garnet was charged with having personally directed a plot which indeed had been divulged to him via the confessional, and which he had desperately tried to circumvent. Garnet protested that the seal of the confessional was inviolable. But this was not an argument likely to impress an English court in the reign of James I, and indeed, as Fraser points out, under English law today Father Garnet would still be obliged to disclose information received in the confessional where this related to terrorism. Garnet’s show trial and subsequent execution on May 3, 1605, was the last act of the “heavy and doleful tragedy,” so named by the ingeniously vengeful Sir Edward Coke.


Is there such a thing as a Longford book? It is tempting to think so when the Countess of Longford, mother of Antonia Fraser and wife of the seventh Earl, has written biographies of Queen Victoria (1964), the Duke of Wellington (two volumes, 1969 and 1972), Sir Winston Churchill (1974), and the present Queen Mother (1981). Antonia Fraser’s early books were similarly about great figures of British history, including Mary, Queen of Scots (1969), Oliver Cromwell (1973), King James I (1974), King Charles II (1979). Flora Fraser, Antonia Fraser’s daughter by her first husband, has written lives of Emma, Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s mistress (1986), and of Caroline of Brunswick, George IV’s rejected Consort, a book first published in Britain in 1996 under the title The Unruly Queen. This is a strange nest of historical biographers. In the oeuvre of all three Longfords there are clear family resemblances in shape and content, prose style and attitude to history, for which I can find no equivalent elsewhere. They share a common expertise in the clarity with which they set their power figures in pullulating landscapes.

From the warren of slum dwellings around Tothill Street to the wharves and alehouses on the river, east of Bridge Street up Parliament Street and Whitehall as far as Charing Cross, the roads converging on the great palace and abbey of Westminster were packed at first light on Thursday, 19 July 1821.

This is the opening sentence of Flora Fraser’s The Unruly Queen, but it could just as well have been written by her mother. The first paragraph of Faith and Treason shows the same efficiency in establishing place and an early sense of situation.

On 21 March 1603 Father William Weston, a Catholic priest imprisoned in the Tower of London, was aware that “a strange silence” had descended on the whole city. “Not a bell rang out. Not a bugle sounded,” although ordinarily both bells and bugles were often heard, even in the tiny cell in which he had been held without fresh air or exercise for over five years.

These books are composed in a way that may seem eccentric to more strictly academic historians. The Longfords’ methods of research are footslogging and dogged. In her autobiography, The Pebbled Shore, Elizabeth Longford describes in interesting detail how she breached and finally entered the Royal Archives at Windsor.1 The account reads like a memoir by an intrepid Victorian lady explorer. Antonia Fraser comments in an author’s note to Faith and Treason on the pleasure of doing all her own research; and her travels in tracing the complicated genesis of the Gunpowder Plot give her book great topographical authenticity.

Fraser is not immune to Longfordese, the stylistic lapses that beset the generations of Longfords. Sometimes it is a quasi-National Trust staginess: “It is time to peer into the strange, hidden world of Elizabethan Catholic England.” There are arch medievalisms: “Mary’s erstwhile husband”; “Robert’s derring-do.” Fraser relies too much on the sprightly exclamation mark: for instance, of Queen Anne of Denmark, “How different from the home life of their departed spinster Queen!” Through her text runs a certain matronliness of phrasing, as when she calls Francis Tresham “a scallywag” or describes the Countess of Suffolk as “this charming harpy.” She can be a little plodding: “There is, to be blunt, something very fishy about the whole episode,” she writes of the Monteagle letter. This is a pity, for in general the narrative flows well.

Longford books used to be pyramidal, rising throneward, reflecting accepted social hierarchies. Fraser’s more recent works have been different in form as she has become immersed in the broader history of women. She has written a succession of books on women’s lives: The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England (1984), The Warrior Queens (1989), a study based on Boadicea, and The Wives of Henry VIII (1992). In these group biographies she shows the authority of women shaping, as well as being shaped by, the lives of men. Flora Fraser is now working on a book about the lives of George III’s six daughters. The Longford book, as we once knew it, may shortly be defunct.

The nature of Antonia Fraser’s work has changed again with her book on the Gunpowder Plot. Here she writes about a single episode, a mystery. The book is a serious historical whodunit. Her aptitude for plotting and her emphasis on complex motivation bears an obvious relation to another of her literary achievements, the series of popular crime novels starring the sophisticated female investigator, Jemima Shore. But what distinguishes Faith and Treason is Fraser’s preoccupation with the morality of minority protest when that protest develops into terrorism, and with the legacy of terrorism long after the event.

Here it seems worth mentioning the work of the historian Raphael Samuel, who died in London last December. British newspaper obituaries were more than usually emotional, partly because he died relatively young, at sixty-two, with only the first volume of his projected three-part cultural history, Theatres of Memory, completed. Samuel had been a key figure in the Oxford-based radical History Workshop Movement of the late 1960s. His loss was deeply felt because he was an intellectual outsider who had just begun seriously affecting mainstream thinking by his arguments that the ways of transmitting memory are themselves an active, changing social force. As a writer he was a democratizer who delighted in recording the constant reworking and regurgitation of history through ordinary human memories, arguing with mischievous conviction that history is too important to be left to professional historians. Whose history is it, after all?

Fraser cites in the introduction to Faith and Treason the advice of F.W. Maitland that we should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future. It is easy to detect the influence of Simon Schama on Antonia Fraser, as on many of the current generation of historians, in the verve of her narrative and personal portraits, and in her use of atmospheric detail to revivify the past. But the generous historical imagination of Samuel is, in my view, even more relevant to Fraser’s latest book, particularly in her notion of the Gunpowder Plot as part of British communal memory, and the persistence with which she traces the plot’s afterlife, watching it acquiring “a rich historiographical life of its own.” Please to remember the Fifth of November Gunpowder Treason and Plot We know no reason why Gun-powder Treason Should ever be forgot

This is the ditty which, at least until the Thatcherite 1980s, children in urban England used to sing, standing on street corners with a Guy Fawkes figure fabricated out of pillows, dressed unconvincingly in their fathers’ cast-off pullovers and jackets and a battered scarecrow hat: “A penny for the Guy?” But what Guy exactly were these children attempting to memorialize? In both A Nursery History of England and Our Island Story, books widely circulated in mid-twentieth- century Britain, Guy Fawkes is depicted as a pallid desperado, caught in the act of igniting the fuse. The caption of the picture in Our Island Story reads “STERN MEN WITH DRAWN SWORDS CLOSED IN UPON HIM.”

The wave of anti-Catholic propaganda after the Gunpowder Plot had been discovered was far reaching and long lasting. From then on Catholics were banned from practicing law and could not serve as officers in the army or navy. Recusants could not act as executors to a will or as a guardian to minors. They were not permitted to possess weapons, except in proven cases of self-defense. Catholics could not receive a university degree and could not vote in English local elections (until restrictions were lifted in 1797) or in parliamentary elections until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. They were forced to be married in Anglican churches and to have their children christened in them, and finally to be buried in Anglican burial grounds.

More insidiously, Catholics were now picked out as “foreigners” with a crudeness that prefigures Nazi treatment of the Jews. In 1613, Fraser writes, a bill was introduced into the House of Commons to force Catholics to wear red hats, like Jews in Rome, or parti-colored stockings, like those worn by clowns, to distinguish them as people to be “hooted at” in public. Though these proposals were never carried out, they were symptomatic of the climate of opprobrium that created England’s most effective propaganda villain, the shadowy subterranean figure of Guy Fawkes.

The effigy of Guy Fawkes, carried in procession and ritually burned, provides the raison d’être for an English winter ceremony of peculiar staying power. The first bonfires were lit on November 5, 1605. The Fifth of November continued to be celebrated under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the only national feast day to survive. Fraser notes the illogicality in commemorating the saving of a king from destruction by a nation which had recently beheaded Charles I. She also points out the strange transmutation of Bonfire Night into the rumbustious all-purpose anti-authoritarian Pope Day held into the nineteenth century in parts of America, especially New England.

In 1994 Fraser found Bonfire Night being celebrated fervently at Lewes in East Sussex, attended by an estimated eighty thousand people, with two thousand of them marching in procession with derisory effigies not just of Guy Fawkes but also of Lady Thatcher, John Major on a dinosaur taken from the film Jurassic Park, and the then-Home Secretary Michael Howard in the week the unpopular Criminal Justice Bill was introduced. On the eve of every opening of the British Parliament the vaults of the House of Lords are still searched by the Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard.

In the twentieth century folk memories of the Gunpowder Plot entangle with those of more contemporary conspiracies. The portentousness of Catesby and his followers reminds us of the Dublin uprising of 1916, carried out by a similar small band of terrorists who believed that their actions would lead to great change. Within living memory a counterpart could be found in the plot to blow up Hitler in 1944: the same personal charisma and intellectual clarity in one of the chief plotters, Adam von Trott zu Solz; the same agonizing build-up with crucial failures to attend to detail, as the would-be fatal briefcase is badly positioned under Hitler’s conference table; similar savage reprisals when the plot is known to fail.

Few people emerge well from Fraser’s Faith and Treason. This is clear-eyed history, like Orlando Figes’s recent unsparing reconstruction of the events of the Russian revolution, A People’s Tragedy,2 and indeed Anne Somerset’s Unnatural Murder,3 an account of the next sensational event at the Court of James I, when the Earl and Countess of Somerset were accused of having killed Sir Thomas Overbury with a batch of poisoned tarts. In these books there are no heroes. People creep to more or less dishonorable graves.

In her admirably perceptive book, Fraser recognizes the sheer messiness of history, and how our views of events shift with the benefit of hindsight. After Guy Fawkes’s arrest, eighteen hundred pounds of gunpowder were removed from the vault and examined in the Tower of London, where it was officially described as “decayed,” having passed the date at which it was ignitable. It appears likely that, on November 5, the House of Parliament could not have been blown up.

This Issue

May 15, 1997