Every year on November 5, towns and villages throughout England erupt into flame and flash, to the noise of exploding gunpowder. Though losing ground in some places to the American import of Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, or “Bonfire Night,” is still very widely observed, a noisy national festival of light, fire, and explosions in the face of deepening winter.

This cheerfully inclusive neighborhood event was, in origin, an aggressively Protestant celebration, commemorating the foiling of a Catholic plot to murder the King and ruling classes. For centuries the Church of England gave thanks annually for the delivery of King and Parliament “by popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter,” and year by year on every village green and marketplace, effigies of the Pope were burned in boisterously Protestant bonfires. In modern secular Britain these sectarian origins have mostly been forgotten. But they can still resurface. A colleague of mine, giving what she hoped was an impeccably balanced public lecture for last year’s fourth centenary of the Gunpowder Plot, was disconcerted by a whispered question from a member of the audience—“I know you’re an academic, but whose side are you on?”

The fireworks commemorate attempted political terrorism on a colossal scale. Around midnight on Monday, November 4, 1605, a government search party entered the undercroft below the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster, where the state opening of Parliament was to be held the following morning. There, under an immense and suspicious-looking mound of firewood, were stacked thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. Lurking in the cellar was a man, Guy Fawkes, cloaked, booted, and spurred as if for flight, and also discovered were slow fuses and tubes to carry them through the piles of wood.

So began the unraveling of a plot whose audacity of conception was matched only by its incompetence in performance. The thirty-six barrels held almost a ton of gunpowder, enough to demolish not only the Palace of Westminster but also Westminster Abbey, the neighboring church of St. Margaret, which the Commons used as their chapel, and most of the streets for fifty yards around. Had it gone off as intended, it would have vaporized King James I and VI, Anne of Denmark, his queen, and their sons, Henry and Charles, along with most of the English nobility, the entire Protestant episcopate, the leading judges, and every member of the House of Commons. In comprehensiveness of intent, at any rate, the plot thus dwarfed every modern act of terrorism, September 11 included. At one blow the political elite of an entire nation would have disappeared, leaving a power vacuum which the plotters planned to fill by a Catholic coup. They would seize James’s daughter, the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth, crown her Queen, and appoint a Protector from among the surviving Catholic noblemen: they believed, on not much evidence, that the Catholic gentry of the shires would spontaneously rise to support them. With the fig leaf of legitimacy provided by the infant princess, they would thus inaugurate a puppet regime which would at last redress the wrongs suffered by Catholics in the bitter years of Elizabeth I’s reign, when the celebration of Mass had been forbidden, when it had been treason to be a Catholic priest or to receive a Protestant into the Catholic Church, and a capital offense even to give shelter to a priest.

It was a harebrained as well as a horrific scheme. No detailed plans had been made for the aftermath of the explosion. The conspirators had not even agreed on a suitable Lord Protector, though Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, self-appointed champion of the Catholic cause who had already been in negotiation with King James to secure relief for his coreligionists, was the likeliest candidate. In fact, even if Guy Fawkes had lit his fuses, the explosion would probably not have happened. Early modern gunpowder was notoriously unstable, liable to separate into its component elements. It had taken the conspirators almost a year to assemble their cache, and the opening of Parliament had already been postponed once because of plague in London. The officials who moved the barrels to the Tower of London noted that the powder was “decayed.” And even if it had exploded, the likeliest outcome of the devastation would not have been a triumphant Catholic takeover but a national Protestant backlash, and the massacre of innocent Catholics everywhere.

In any case, the secrecy which alone could have guaranteed the plot’s success proved fatally leaky. Ten days before the planned explosion a Catholic peer, Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him to stay away from Parliament. Monteagle, a friend of Robert Catesby, may in fact have written the letter himself to ingratiate himself with government, and he was to be richly rewarded for its disclosure. He took it to James’s chief minister, Robert Cecil, who thereby arranged for the discoveries in the undercroft, and the savage backlash which ensued.


The man at the center of all this, Guy Fawkes, was the son of a York lawyer, and had spent most of his adult life as a professional soldier fighting for the Spaniards in continental Europe. He would eventually emerge in folk memory as the plot’s chief villain (or hero). In fact, he was almost marginal to it, his role essentially to light the fuses and escape as best he could. The real mover and shaker was Robert Catesby. Six feet tall in an age of small men, a dashing horseman, handsome and devastatingly charming, Catesby belonged to one of the leading Catholic gentry families of Shakespeare’s Warwickshire, related to an extensive and aristocratic Catholic cousinage. He had been one of the handful of talented and frustrated young Catholic gentlemen who had tried to improve their fortunes by joining the ill-fated rebellion of the Earl of Essex against Elizabeth in 1601. Fined and imprisoned, he had been lucky to escape then with his life. Catesby epitomized the recklessly despairing radical edge of Catholic discontent, a man who, had he been willing to conform to the state religion, could certainly have expected a glittering career at court and in government: he felt his exclusion bitterly.

He was to be more fortunate, however, than Fawkes and the half-dozen other conspirators eventually put to death in the horrifyingly protracted manner prescribed for traitors—dragged head-down through the streets on a wicker hurdle, hanged till semiconscious, then castrated and disemboweled while still alive, and finally beheaded, their bodies quartered and boiled and the parts displayed on spikes. Catesby escaped this ghastly fate by fleeing to a sympathetic Catholic stronghold at Holbeach in Staffordshire. On November 8 the house at Holbeach was surrounded by a posse of two hundred men. After a brief skirmish, Catesby’s companions were captured for the horrors of a traitor’s death. But he himself was shot, and crawled back into the house, where his corpse was discovered clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary.


The Gunpowder Plot, the rancid fruit of two generations of religious and political oppression, was to ruin far more than the dozen or so plotters. James’s government, already convinced that Catholics were a dangerous fifth column, owing allegiance to a foreign power (the Pope), exploited the discovery to the full, and a series of show trials and executions followed. No clergy had been involved, but fear of Catholicism had long been concentrated on the seminary priests, trained abroad, and sent in disguise to sustain the beleaguered Catholic community. Above all, Protestant paranoia dreaded the Jesuits, the elite and talented missionary religious order, “storm-troopers of the Catholic reformation,” widely perceived as the al-Qaeda of their day. More than two hundred priests and their lay supporters had been brutally put to death in the last twenty-five years of Elizabeth’s reign, including the talented and charismatic Jesuit writers Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell.

The superior of the Jesuit mission in 1605 was Father Henry Garnett, a prudent and decent priest who had led his colleagues with resourcefulness and wisdom for almost twenty years. As a matter of fact, Garnett had known something of the plot. One of the conspirators had broached it to him under the seal of the confessional, and he knew Robert Catesby well. Alarmed, he had declined to hear any details, and seems genuinely to have tried to dissuade the plotters from action. He was under strict instructions from his superior, the Jesuit General, Claudio Aquaviva, to “shun every species of activity that might make priests of our order hated by the world and branded the instigators of tragedy,” and he warned Catesby that rebellion was “against the pope’s express commandment.” Nevertheless, he could not bring himself to denounce the conspirators, as some Catholic loyalists undoubtedly would have done. Instead, he kept his peace: though some of his knowledge had been acquired outside the sacrament, he felt bound by the seal of the confessional.

In any case, thirty years of mounting government savagery, aimed at what they perceived as treason and Garnett as the propagation of the saving Gospel of God, had made collaboration with the secular authorities almost unthinkable. Suspecting both the nature and the unreality of what was proposed, Garnett convinced himself that Catesby and his conspirators would see the folly and the wickedness of their plan, and would not act after all. Hunted down in the outcry that followed, he was unjustly accused of having urged them on. Inevitably, he was executed for treason, though the spectators seem to have recognized a man of integrity and distinction, and he was, unusually, allowed to hang till he was dead before the prescribed disemboweling began.


That appalling butchery was more than the official sanction for crimes against the state. It was a mark of the loathing which Catholicism and its alleged murderous treachery evoked, and which was to characterize English Protestant attitudes toward Catholics for centuries to come. Parliament added to the Book of Common Prayer the annual celebration of a service on November 5, an observance which continued till 1859. Savagery evoked savagery, sometimes in surprising places. Preaching before King James on the tenth anniversary of the plot, the Protestant Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, spiritual and literary hero of T.S. Eliot and often accounted a saint, dwelled with lip-smacking relish on the details of the executions:

Nay, would they make men’s bowels fly up and down in the air? Out with those bowels. Would they do it by fire? Into the fire with their bowels, before their faces. Would they make men’s bones fly about like chips? Hew their bones in sunder. Just is [the psalmist’s] prayer “Their delight was in cruelty, let it happen to them.”

The plot derived some of its plausibility—and scare value—from the culture of secrecy and concealment in which English Catholics were obliged to practice their religion. At the start of her reign, Queen Elizabeth had imposed a firmly Protestant settlement on a nation of Catholics or, at any rate, of religious conservatives. Most people conformed, but there was at first little enthusiasm for the new religion. So for her first ten years, Queen Elizabeth and her ministers thought it safer to leave Catholics alone. But the presence of Mary Queen of Scots in England after 1568, a Catholic with a plausible title to the Crown, and the general radicalization of religious divisions throughout Europe changed all that. It was an age of political assassinations, and Elizabeth’s death and Mary’s accession would have restored England to Catholicism. Catholicism would have to be stamped out.

By the end of her first decade Catholics no longer believed that Elizabeth might one day marry a Catholic. Their leaders recognized that their rank and file were drifting or being pressured into Protestant conformity, and that diplomatic intervention from Catholic monarchs could do little to secure toleration. Out of those perceptions emerged the seminaries in Europe, first at Douai in the Spanish Netherlands, to train priests who might rally the faithful and halt the erosion of Catholic identity in England. And in a world in which almost no one believed in the possibility of the peaceful coexistence of rival religions within a single nation, force seemed to some an attractive missionary strategy.

The excommunication of Elizabeth by Pope Pius V in 1570 was intended to legitimate an abortive rebellion by the northern Catholic aristocracy, but it only hardened Protestant suspicions. Punitive legislation would be cranked up throughout the reign, decimating Catholic property, threatening the extinction of Catholic dynasties, and eventually claiming almost three hundred Catholic lives, most of them priests accused of treason. Religious differences sharpened. Catholics who had once conformed outwardly, like England’s greatest composer, William Byrd, or Elizabethan England’s greatest lawyer, Edmund Plowden, now became “recusants,” refusing any part in the worship of the parish churches.

From the mid-1570s a steady trickle of priests flowed into England, and in 1580 the first two Jesuits, Edmund Campion and Robert Persons, arrived. By the end of the reign, hundreds of priests had been ordained abroad for England, though not all of them found their way back. Some of them were men of modest talent. But Campion, who would be captured, tortured, and brutally executed within a year of his arrival, had been the most brilliant Oxford orator of his generation, and as a university professor in Prague had participated in the reversal of the Reformation there. His arrival electrified England, and its consequences resonate still. The world of Shakespeare scholarship has been ruffled recently by the claim, almost certainly correct, that Campion’s converts in 1580 included John Shakespeare, the teenage poet’s father.

Most of these priests were political innocents, religious idealists anxious to serve God and their fellow Catholics. But it was impossible that Protestants should see them so. In theory, Catholic theology accepted that in certain circumstances a pope might depose a monarch opposing the work of God’s Church. Most Catholic rulers rejected this teaching as vehemently as any Protestant, but it had a venerable theological pedigree and it was hard for Catholics simply to disown it. Elizabeth’s government therefore insisted that the priests were political subversives, and killed them when it could. They in turn naturally reacted by stratagems of disguise, evasion, and, when captured, equivocal behavior and speech. It was Catch-22. Preach openly, and you would be instantly arrested. Preach secretly, and you proved yourself a spy and a subversive. As the prosecutor told Campion at his trial in 1581, “Your lurking and lying in secret places concludeth a mischievous meaning. Had you come here for love of your country you would never have wrought a hugger mugger.”

Alice Hogge’s vivid narrative culminates in a gripping account of the plot and its disastrous denouement. Her real subject, however, is the extraordinary history of the clandestine mission to Elizabethan England which formed its prelude. With its heroic endurances, disguises, searches, midnight escapes, concealment in cunningly constructed priest-holes, touching fidelities, and rank betrayals, that story is one of the most colorful, moving, but least-known aspects of the age of Elizabeth, and Hogge makes the most of her material. Her book has many heroes, perhaps the most remarkable of them the Jesuit John Gerard, a swashbuckling dandy whose silks and lace and gentlemanly skills with hawk and sword provided a perfect mask for his real activities, as an effective and daring missionary priest. In 1597 Gerard was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. After preparing the way with secret letters written with invisible ink made from orange juice, he staged a spectacular escape, while going to considerable trouble to ensure that his jailer would not be blamed: the grateful jailer converted to Catholicism.

Gerard, as he deserved, would eventually die safe in his bed. Like many other Elizabethan priests, he had ministered mainly to the Catholic gentry, partly because those gentry could offer some protection against the law, and partly on the principle that where the rich led, their servants and tenants would follow. This upper-class dimension of English Catholicism became a matter of pride. Campion, comparing the burnings of Protestants in Queen Mary’s days with the persecution of Catholics in his own, commented dismissively, “of their martyrs [the Protestants] brag no more now. For it is come to pass that for a few apostates and cobblers of theirs burned, we have Bishops, Lords, Knights, the old nobility.” But it was from the festering discontents of a few of the wilder sons of the lords, knights, and old nobility, excluded by their religion from a full share in their nation’s and their class’s privileges, that the plot would grow.

It was not only the Protestant authorities who hated the Jesuits. Many Catholics, including other priests, felt the tug of patriotism; they rejected the Pope’s right to depose rulers and longed, unrealistically, for an accommodation with the state which would leave them the practice of their religion while preserving their citizenship and the privileges of their rank. Hence they dreaded the ideological confrontation into which they felt the Jesuit mission was locking them. Successive popes and the leading missionary activists, by contrast, believed that toleration led to heresy, and persecution strengthened the Church. William Allen, the founder of the seminaries, cheerfully plotted Spanish invasion and Elizabeth’s overthrow, while insisting, unconvincingly though truthfully enough as far as it went, that the priests dispatched from his colleges had no political entanglements or agenda.

The fact was that loyalty to the Church might well seem incompatible with loyalty to a persecuting Protestant state, even to a patriot. Hence what Alice Hogge calls with pardonable exaggeration “the fundamental dishonesty at the heart of the English Catholic position.” Elizabeth’s government understood this dilemma well, and exploited it. In the deliberately incriminating “Bloody Question”—“if a Catholic invading army lands in England, will you be loyal to Pope or to Queen?”—they constructed a trap to catch Catholics, an ideological rack almost as painful as the literal instrument of torture on which Campion and many others were interrogated.

Hogge’s book is not a work of original research. She has skillfully digested a century of Catholic denominational and hagiographical scholarship, and has woven it into a gripping tale which anyone interested in the sixteenth century will enjoy. Her scholarship is sometimes old-fashioned. The works she draws on most heavily are fifty or even a hundred years old, and she occasionally follows discredited lines of interpretation, as in her reliance on the writings of Sir John Neale for her account of the Elizabethan Settlement and the character of the Elizabethan Church of England. Much of the best recent writing on Elizabethan Catholicism and on Tudor religion more generally—by Patrick Collinson, Alexandra Walsham, Anne Dillon, Alison Shell, Brad Gregory—seems to have passed her by, and if she is aware of the debate about the links between the Shakespeare family and the Jesuit mission, she does not mention it. So the book is thin on the cultural and social embedding of the clerical mission. Though we glimpse the composer William Byrd twice in her narrative, she has nothing to say about his sublime settings of texts invoked by the martyrs on the scaffold, a strange omission in a book so closely focused on those martyrs themselves. Nevertheless, she has written a book that will open for many readers a window into a neglected aspect of a cruel and colorful age.

If Alice Hogge reads backward from the plot, Jim Sharpe reads forward. His lively short book is a compressed cultural history of Guy Fawkes Day. He shows that for most of the seventeenth century, the November 5 sermons and bonfires were far more than a celebration of a past deliverance. Counter-Reformation Catholicism was resurgent in Europe, Protestantism steadily shrinking. Commemorating Gunpowder Treason was therefore an urgent rallying call to vigilance against an ever-present enemy. The Stuart kings all married Catholics, and so the monarchy itself became a source of Protestant alarm, culminating at the end of the century in the deposition of King James II, a Catholic convert, and his replacement by William of Orange. William’s expeditionary force landed in England on November 5, 1688, wafted on a “Protestant wind,” clinching the providential significance of the date, and it was duly added to the celebrations.

For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Guy Fawkes was strangely absent from all this. Effigies of popes, not of plotters, were burned in the commemorative fires. Only in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries does Fawkes move centerstage, and then, in popular drama and historical novels, is transformed into a misguided idealist, championing the cause of the poor against oppression. Meanwhile, the anti-Catholic dimensions of the celebrations were giving way to the expression of broader and more urgent popular discontents. Mid-Victorian Britain was plagued by riotous urban Guy Fawkes celebrations, in which the windows of the rich were smashed and their fences and door posts burned by hostile mobs.

In the twentieth century the festival was tamed, diminishing into municipally sponsored fireworks parties and refreshments served by Women’s Institutes, or domestic bonfire parties for the nuclear family. Guy’s identity has been forgotten, the fires of religious animosity have gone stone cold. Sharpe writes of all this with affection, though he worries that in the twenty-first century this now harmless and very British celebration of light in winter darkness will be overwhelmed by American Halloween, and a precious and complex strand in national life will fizzle out, like a damp squib.

To some extent, Sharpe’s book retraces ground mapped out by other historians, such as Ronald Hutton and David Cressy. But he writes in greater detail, and recounts some interesting work in the archives. This research is far from comprehensive, however, and can be hit and miss. Several of the Guy Fawkes sermons he quotes were preached in Ireland, a fact he scarcely comments on, but which surely makes them a special case, for the Catholic population that made up a majority there can hardly have relished the commemoration of Gunpowder Treason, in any of its forms. In his discussion of the evolution of a consensual academic history of the plot, he quotes at some length the early-nineteenth-century historian John Lingard, apparently unaware that Lingard was a Catholic priest, controversially seeking to overturn both Protestant demonizations and earlier Catholic denials of the plot. But if his book sometimes reads as if it has been hastily assembled against a publisher’s deadline for the fourth centenary of the plot, there is plenty of interest in his analysis of the changing character of a major popular festival. We must hope he is wrong about the triumph of Halloween.

This Issue

February 9, 2006