Books: Snap, crackle and pop

Four hundred years of speculation surrounds the Fifth of November conspiracy. Amanda Foreman welcomes a masterly investigation; The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser Weidenfeld, pounds 20

History, wrote WH Auden, "may say Alas but cannot help or pardon..." This pessimistic meditation resonates throughout Antonia Fraser's landmark book on the Gunpowder Plot. There is no comfort, she says, in the "heavy and doleful tragedy" of 1605, no lesson except to remember that the sole pardon we can give to crimes of the past is true understanding.

The Gunpowder Plot has been the subject of controversy for almost 400 years. Was the outcome a success or noble failure? Were the 13 conspirators martyrs or terrorists? Was it treason or the justified act of a persecuted minority? Fraser argues that the answer to all these questions, is: both.

However, she is no crypto-sympathiser of rebel insurgents who kill or maim innocent people. If Guy Fawkes had succeeded in igniting the 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the Houses of Parliament, hundreds of people would have died and hundreds more been injured. The Fifth of November was the Opening of Parliament, the day when the entire political, religious and legal establishment of England and Wales would be gathered under one roof. The plotters knew that the Catholic peers in the House would also die in the blast. Robert Catesby, the instigator and leader of the plot, justified this act of terror with an explanation which has since been echoed by every terrorist and revolutionary around the world. They had to do it because, "the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy."

British Catholics were not only a weak minority but were becoming weaker. Since their heyday under Queen Mary they had seen their rights and freedoms reduced until many felt they were more persecuted than the Jews in Europe. It was punishable by death to be a Catholic priest, illegal to hold a Catholic mass, to educate one's children in a Catholic school, or to move more than five miles from one's residence. A recusant, one who refused to attend Anglican church or to swear the Oath of Supremacy, was barred from all public office and liable to conviction and heavy fines. By 1600, Catholicism had disappeared among the poorer sort and was largely confined to the gentry and aristocracy.

The plotters were almost all sons of Catholic gentry and in their mid- 30s. The quietism of their parents' generation merely roused their disgust; the widespread practice of gifts and bribes to those in power seemed sordid to Catesby rather than practical. His hope that a Catholic monarchy might yet come to pass died when the Scottish Presbyterian James I ascended the throne in 1603. A few agreed with him but the majority were content to wait and see whether his pronouncements on toleration would be followed by deeds. By 1604 they were disappointed. The King accused his Catholic subjects of betrayal since they seemed to grow more numerous under his benevolent rule rather than less. He announced his "detestation" of the papist religion and with these words sparked the first anti-government violence of the Stuart era. Already decided in what he had to do, Catesby had little difficulty in finding partners for his crime.

Guy Fawkes was not the most important conspirator but he was the first to be discovered, skulking in the cellar with matches and oil at the ready. It took three days of torture to break his will. Yet it was not he who betrayed the group but Lord Mounteagle, a relation of one of the conspirators. Some historians have argued that James I's anti-Catholic chief minister, Lord Cecil, knew of the plan and used the plotters for his own purposes. Antonia Fraser examines these arguments, and makes a convincing case that Mounteagle and Cecil together composed the famous anonymous cryptogram which Cecil then showed to the King, supposedly to ask his advice. However, she denies that Cecil's putative involvement makes the conspirators victims; the idea to kill was theirs alone.

The second point to remember is that the explosion did not happen. Whether one sees the conspirators as deluded idealists or cruel fanatics before the event, by the time of the trial they were sad, broken men pleading for their families and friends to be spared. Sir Everard Digby, who had joined the plotters only two weeks before, begged that his wife and children should not be driven into the streets to starve. The prosecutor answered with a quotation from the Bible, "let his wife be a widow, his children vagabonds, let his posterity be destroyed, and in the next generation let his name be quite put out.".

Retribution against Catholics was swift and severe. More offences were created, further disabilities enacted, and ominously, the Crown was given the right to sequester two-thirds of property belonging to recusant families. Instead of destroying Parliament the plotters had destroyed every last bit of good faith between Catholics and Protestants, and bonded the former to over 200 years of legal persecution.

Every few years a work of history appears that succeeds in connecting its subject to the deeper questions troubling modern society. This is one such book. Beautifully written, it is also scholarly, thoughtful, and above all timely.

In her conclusion, Fraser quotes from Nelson Mandela's defence at the Rivoni Trial of 1964. "I did not plan [sabotage] in a spirit of recklessness or because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people." As for Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, and the others, Fraser asks the reader to condemn them, yes, but also to pity them.

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game