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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk