Gunpowder and God

Four centuries after the ultimate terror plot, Loraine Fletcher explores an enduring fascination
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The Independent Culture

By the 1580s, priests educated abroad were coming home. The survival of Catholicism in England needed clergy in safe houses to celebrate Mass and hearten parishioners. Passing as tutors or musicians to evade a death penalty, most intended a long-term mission, not the overthrow of Elizabeth's government. Catholics endured fines and executions as long as her wannabe heir promised tolerance; once James's succession was secure, his attitude changed, a group of Catholic men would wait no longer, and the rest has caused a lot of bonfires and books.

Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot (Phoenix, £9.99), reissued from 1996, remembers the Jesuits, especially John Gerard and Henry Garnet, who tried to dissuade Catesby, Fawkes and co, and thought they had succeeded. Once their cover blew, the government judged them guilty, and though Gerard escaped, Garnet was hanged. Fraser honours the Catholic gentry, especially the women, who kept the faith alive by hiding priests.

All later accounts show influence from Fraser's racing narrative, but Alice Hogge's God's Secret Agents (HarperCollins, £20/£18 inc. p&p from 0870 079 8897) is fuller on some minor figures. In 1592 Anne Bellamy, from a priest-harbouring Catholic family, was interrogated and raped by Richard Topcliffe, Elizabeth's psychopathic Catholic-hunter. Pregnant, she traded the location of the poet-priest Robert Southwell for her freedom, her parents' lives and a husband. Fraser disposes of her with the headmistressy philippic: "an exception to the honourable record of her sex". Agnostics may sympathise more with casualties like Bellamy than with Southwell, whose life was a preparation to "go down into the sun-scorched arena" of martyrdom; his wish was granted at Tyburn. Hogge tells the stories of the martyrs.

In his handsome Gunpowder: the Players Behind the Plot (The National Archives, £18.99/£17.99), James Travers reproduces portraits, woodcuts and letters, including orange-juice letters that had to be warmed before reading. Exquisite handwritings suggest the efficiency of the state terror network; crossings out and second thoughts give horrible immediacy. The country was seething with spies.

Short on admin and security skills, the Plotters were well informed about the amount of gunpowder needed. Their 36 barrels were ample to blow up the Houses of Parliament and burn Westminster. It was easy to come by, and Clive Ponting, in Gunpowder (Chatto, £16.99/£15.99), has written its painful history. It was accidentally discovered by the Chinese around 800AD; Oriental armies were soon driving oxen loaded with giant tubs towards their enemies. By the 1300s, Christian countries were developing refinements on cluster bombs and napalm. Written with detachment, Ponting's book records the search for ever more cruel or efficient ways to kill.

Half of James Sharpe's genial Remember, Remember the Fifth of November (Profile, £15.99/£14.99), puts the story in context, the other half traces the history of the celebrations. Bonfires were lit and church bells rung on that first 5 November as the London-based Plotters, knowing that "Mr Fawkes is taken", lit out for their homes in the Midlands. Utterly exhausted, deserted by friends, some were blown up by gunpowder carelessly spread before a fire to dry.

The festival survived by changing with the times. Sharpe concedes its anti-Catholicism through the unpopular reign of James II, with William of Orange's arrival on 5 November 1688 giving another escape from "Popery" to celebrate, and up to the Gordon Riots of 1780. But by the 19th century, he claims, anti-Catholicism in celebrations was marginal. Guido Fawkes, performed in Manchester in 1840, makes Fawkes an unlikely radical sympathiser with the working class. Sharpe gives his blessing to present-day Bonfire Nights, finished as Protestant propaganda, but domesticated as harmless fun in the back garden.

Not so Justin Champion in Gunpowder Plots: a Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Night (by Brenda Buchanan et al; Allen Lane, £14.99/£13.99) who finds in them continuing prejudice from a brutal age where religious persecution and burning witches were divisions of the civil service. All the essays here are sharp and neatly counter-pointed. David Cannadine introduces, Pauline Croft does the story, David Cressy the mutating festivities. Mike Jay's vivid evocation of Lewes's dazzling, volatile Bonfire Nights would make the soberest citizen long to be there tomorrow. Fraser fantasises the counter-history of a successful Plot; Brenda Buchanan ends with a sparky history of firework displays: spectacular, disastrous, often both.

After 400 years, it's still not clear who blew the Plot with a mysterious warning to a Catholic peer to avoid the vicinity of the blue touch-paper. All our authors see parallels between covert Catholics with loyalties to the Pope and the "home-grown terrorist" threat now. It would be hard to miss them. All see the problems of differentiating state from minority terror. Rewriting laws didn't work. Torture couldn't break men such as the carpenter Nicholas "Little John" Owen, who constructed priest-holes and died giving nothing away. But our authors downplay the sad fact that if the losers had won, they would have become the state terrorists.

So they point impressively towards some concept of the lessons of history, but avoid suggesting what these might be. We might accept that history has no lessons and try something new, like pulling helicopters, troops and materials out of Iraq and sending them to Pakistan/Kashmir. At the least, a break with the religious traditions remembered here could hardly make things much worse.

Loraine Fletcher teaches at Reading University; her life of Charlotte Smith is published by Palgrave Macmillan