BOOKS: Treasonable behaviour

THE GUNPOWDER PLOT: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld pounds 20

The date is 6 November 1604, and Guido Fawkes (as he preferred to be known) has been captured and is being interrogated. The King's men are desperate to extract the names of Fawkes's fleeing accomplices. "Guido," writes the author approvingly, "stoutly maintained his false identity, allowing his com- rades, as he hoped - if only it had been true! - time to get clear of the country."

"If only it had been true!" In this moment of high drama, Antonia Fraser (for it is she) casts aside objectivity and announces that she would prefer the plotters to have escaped. This is a curious opinion. Even when we know that, once captured, they were first tortured and then subjected to a form of execution so cruel that it is scarcely credible, it is hard to feel much sympathy for Guido Fawkes and his band of friends.

The Gunpowder Plot is one of the best-remembered events in English history, and with good reason, for the story is simply astonishing. People with only the scantest awareness of history know that Fawkes wanted to blow up Parliament and that he was apprehended on the night before the deed, with his gunpowder already in place. The better-informed will also be aware that Fawkes was a Catholic and that the King, the Protestant James I and VI, was supposed to die in the explosion. There are some historians who cast doubt even on those few details, but Antonia Fraser is not among them.

She accepts that there was a plot, and that the plotters had filled a room beneath the Lords' chamber with gunpowder sufficient to blow the place "sky high". Their intention, she acknowledges, was to detonate the charge during the state opening, when the King, the Queen, the heir to the throne, the King's chief ministers and the leading peers of the realm would all be present. She does not deny that dozens of them might have died and the consequence would probably have been civil war or pogrom or both. The day would have borne comparison, as a bloody caesura in history, with the massacre of St Batholemew's Eve. Of all this the plotters were well aware. They knew, too, that the innocent would die with those they thought guilty, and what fate they themselves could expect if they were caught. No, if we must play the game of anachronism, let us not waste our sympathy on Fawkes and his friends.

To be fair, this book has other heroes and heroines who rank above the plotters. They are the Catholic gentry who endured the discriminatory laws of England under Elizabeth and James, and who practised their religion faithfully in the face of persecution and danger. Notable among them are the womenfolk, who tended to be the most devoted and brave, and the priests, who ran the gravest risks. England at this time was, as one priest wrote, "a ruthless and unloving land" for Catholics who, though they might be the most loyal of subjects, were classed as "recusants" and could be freely and legally victimised if they failed to attend Protestant worship. For these people the accession of James, a man with a Catholic wife, known to be tolerant and who had given some hints of sympathy, had brought hope of relief.

It was the swift dashing of those hopes which set in motion the Gunpowder Plot. A few - very few - young men lost patience. Just how detached they were from mainstream Catholic opinion became clear when the plot was uncovered and they fled north - not, as Fawkes and Antonia Fraser hoped, to escape abroad, but with the blundering intention of raising the country in rebellion. Scarcely a soul besides close relatives - and precious few of them - came to their aid. Yet the price of their actions was paid by the many, not the few. Innocent people were executed, jailed or ruined, the recusancy laws were tightened and an anti-Catholic hysteria was engendered, so powerful that its distant echoes can still be heard, four centuries later, on each 5 November. Quite a piece of work.

It is an extraordinary and often operatic tale - the plot is exposed thanks to a mysterious anonymous letter; spies and priest-holes have their part to play - but the telling here, though fluent and vivid, is surely incomplete. The Gunpowder Plot does not have, as this book does, a purely English Catholic context. Protestant England, after all, had good reasons to fear the Catholic threat. To take just two: it was not yet 20 years since the defeat of the Armada and it was barely four since a Spanish army had actually landed in Ireland (to be defeated at Kinsale). James himself, moreover, was only two years on the throne. In a Europe where, on the whole, Protestantism was in retreat towards the margins, the condition of England was fragile.

If the Catholic ladies of the Midlands did not constitute a part of the threat to English sovereignty and Protestant worship, Protestants reared in terror of Papist bogeys were not to know it. And if the hot-headed sons of those ladies plotted to blow up the king and Parliament, it should be little surprise that Protestants took it as confirmation of all they learned at their mothers' knees.

G M Trevelyan gave a verdict on the plotters that was generous but did not dally with anachronism: "It is difficult to detect any stain upon their conduct," he wrote, "except the one monstrous illusion that murder is right, which put all their virtues at the devil's service. Courage cold as steel, self-sacrifice un-tainted by jealousy or ambition, readiness when all was lost to endure all, raises the Gunpowder Plot into a story of which the ungarnished facts might well be read by those of every faith, not with shame or anger, but with enlarged admiration and pity for the things which men can do."

Antonia Fraser has the benefit of scholarship not available in Trevelyan's time, but she never matches his Olympian perspective. Her narrative, although it is usually lively and briskly written, suffers as a result.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones