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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.

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