"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.