Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot

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

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