Issue 202 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature Article: Gunpowder, treason and plot

A review of The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 20)

Paul McGarr

`Remember, remember the 5th of November. Gunpowder, treason and plot.'

Generations of children have sung versions of the rhyme and collected `penny for the Guy', before burning the `Guy' on a bonfire and letting off fireworks.

The outlines of the real history behind the annual ritual are well known. Guy Fawkes was arrested on the eve of 5 November 1605 in the cellar of the House of Lords. He and his fellow conspirators had stuffed the cellar with gunpowder which Fawkes was to set alight the next day. The aim was to blow up the king, James I, and assembled courtiers and lords, at the state opening of parliament.

But few people know much more than these bare facts, in part because there are few accessible books on the Gunpowder Plot. That ought, then, to be a reason to welcome the new book by Antonia Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605.

Certainly there seems to be an audience for the story behind the well known facts Fraser's book has been in the bestseller lists since its release. It has also attracted favourable reviews in the literary pages of the heavyweight press. Yet Fraser's book is a huge disappointment, and an example of the worst kind of historical writing.

To be fair, Fraser meticulously charts the key lines of the tale, in so far as the main figures are concerned. There is, too, a certain use in her detailed examination of the various moves by the leading conspirators, their betrayal, trials and executions. But there are also major flaws in Fraser's whole approach. To understand these it is worth outlining the story and its significance.

There is an old joke that Guy Fawkes is the only man to enter parliament with good intentions. In the light of today's Westminster the joke hits home. But Fawkes and his co-conspirators were no radical or anarchistic rebels trying to overthrow authority. Rather they represented a thoroughly reactionary force which wanted to turn society backwards.

The Gunpowder Plot was sparked by a religious battle. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were Catholics, the king and his regime Protestant. At the time religion was the dominant ideology in society and almost all splits and arguments, even where motivated by class and economic tensions, took the form of religious arguments.

In earlier centuries Europe had been a feudal society. The nobility, with a king often claiming to rule by divine right, presided over a society in which land was the key form of wealth. The mass of people were peasants working the land.

They were compelled by force or the threat of it to work for the lords, and hand over taxes and produce to, them.

The Catholic Church centred in Rome spread across the whole of Europe and was a key part of this feudal order. It provided the ideas which justified and cemented the social order, and was a major feudal landowner in its own right.

But within this feudal system towns, growing on the back of trade and new industries, began slowly to grow. With this came new classes merchants, artisans and the like which sat uneasily within the old order.

Over time, the tensions which the divisions between the old order and these new classes led to provoked the great religious split known as the Reformation, beginning in the 16th century with figures like Martin Luther in Germany. A great religious division opened up across Europe between Protestant and Catholic.

There were many complex currents in this divide, but in general Protestantism was associated with the new social forces, such as the merchants in the towns.

Its strongest bases were in the major northern European cities built on trade, in Germany and what are today Belgium and Holland. On the other hand, the Catholic Church was firmly identified with the old order and regimes such as the powerful and reactionary Spanish Empire.

The religious split, and the social tensions it reflected, lay behind a series of bloody wars and upheavals across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries from France's Wars of Religion to the central European Thirty Years War.

England was a peculiar case. In the 16th century Henry VIII had declared himself as head of the church in England in opposition to the Pope in Rome. The split was immediately triggered by his wanting a divorce, but much more than the issue of Henry's famous wives was involved. Henry confiscated the vast wealth owned by monasteries and other religious establishments whose loyalty was to Rome. But though the English rulers broke from Rome and were part of the general Protestant split across Europe, the religous situation in England ended up by the late 16th century in a uneasy compromise.

The church was Protestant and there were harsh anti-Catholic laws, but the regime and church were slightly more accommodating to Catholicism than many of the continental Protestant regimes. And the English regime was also hostile to many of the more radical tendencies of Protestantism.

All the religious conflicts across Europe were thoroughly entwined with more down to earth matters. So for much of the later 16th century Protestant England was at war with Catholic Spain. Behind religion were straightforward commercial interests. Spain, and Portugal which it had annexed, had vast and lucrative empires which they plundered and jealously guarded, especially in the `New World' of the Americas whose gold and silver flowed back to Spain.

Britain was one of the growing powers desperate to break into the colonies and markets controlled by the Spanish and Portuguese. As part of the conflict England's rulers sustained a semi-official gang of naval bandits headed by characters like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh who pirated and plundered Spanish ships and colonies. The attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in 1588 was part of the same conflict, as were repeated Spanish attempts to aid revolts in the English colony of Ireland.

Another key conflict was also going on at the time. What is today Holland was then ruled by Spain. In the late 16th century a long and complicated revolt erupted against the Spanish rulers. The revolt culminated in the establishment of the Dutch republic, headed by the Protestant merchant classes of the great Dutch trading and financial centres. The Dutch Republic was the first of a new type of regime, based on the new social forces and classes that were everywhere undermining the old order. In the Dutch conflict England, to a degree, lined up with the rebels while reactionary forces across Europe backed Catholic Spain. It was in this clash that Guy Fawkes first came to prominence. Fawkes, who was born in York, became a Catholic and travelled across the North Sea to fight for the Spanish cause. This military record brought him to the attention of the conspirators who in 1605 hatched the Gunpowder Plot.

The immediate background to the plot was the accession of a new king in England.

Elizabeth I died in 1603 and was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who became the self styled James I `King of Great Britain'. The uneasy religious compromise over which Elizabeth's regime had presided was soon to be tested. A tendency of more radical Protestants, labelled Puritans, pushed James for a shift in religious policy.

The social forces behind the increasingly pushy Puritans were sections of the middling land owning gentry and the merchant classes. Their pressure for religious changes was one expression of their growing resentment at the domination of society by the old order. Lower down in society too many ordinary people were beginning to identify with more radical versions of Protestantism.

Faced with the Puritan demands James called a special conference, out of which came the famous authorised version of the Bible, which was to be a cornerstone of English religious life for centuries. But he rebuffed the Puritan calls for more radical change.

When James came to the throne he made some noises which had encouraged Catholics to hope for reform in their favour. In part this was quite deliberate diplomatic manoeuvring by James, whose claim to the throne was not uncontested. Hopes among Catholics were also raised by the fact that James was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and that his wife, Anne of Denmark, was a practising Catholic (though only in private).

But whatever James's personal inclinations, hopes for toleration of Catholicism were soon disappointed. Though the king resisted many of the Puritan demands, he was under sufficient pressure to ensure he could not be seen to give any concessions to the Catholics.

Puritan influence was strong in the parliament James had summoned in 1604 and James wanted parliamentary cooperation for raising money for his soaring expenditure. Many wealthy merchants whose financial role in propping up the regime was not lost on James were also influenced by Puritan ideas. So in an attempt to assuage Puritan pressure he enacted even harsher penal laws against Catholics. This crackdown, and the disappointment of hopes for reform, sparked the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of wealthy and embittered Catholics sought to blow James up.

Their aim was to strike a blow at the heart of the regime and spark a rising of Catholics, perhaps aided by Spanish intervention. Such hopes were fantasies, even had the plot succeeded. Catholics were a minority and, as Fraser shows, most wanted nothing to do with any rising. Moreover England and Spain were about to conclude a peace treaty.

The English government knew about the plot in advance, but it seems that for maximum public effect, they allowed it to proceed and did not act until the very eve of the planned explosion. Then some of the conspirators, including the key figure Robert Catesby were simply executed as they were seized. Others, including Fawkes, underwent prolonged and brutal torture and were then savagely executed in public.

The king and his fellow rulers ordered that their seemingly narrow escape from the Gunpowder Plot should be annually and publicly commemorated with bonfires.

In the aftermath of the plot the government tried to pin the blame on Jesuit priests operating in England, seen as the agents of a foreign power. In fact the Jesuits, not being as rash as the plotters, opposed the whole adventure but that did not prevent the government succeeding in smearing them. Many Jesuits and other priests had to flee into exile, and some, including the leading English Jesuit Father Garnet, were brutally executed after state show trials.

In the years afterwards first James, and then his son Charles I, continued to try and balance between the conflicting social and religious pressures which had surfaced in the run up to the Gunpowder Plot. Not too many years later, in the 1640s, those tensions erupted with renewed force as England plunged into revolution and civil war which swept away the old order.

It is against this background that the problems with Fraser's book are apparent. One weakness is her open sympathy with Catholicism. She identifies throughout with the Catholic `recusants' seeing them as resisters against tyranny and comparing them with the modern `refuseniks' who resisted the Stalinist regime in the USSR. While expressing polite disapproval of their methods, Fraser paints a picture of conspirators like Fawkes and Catesby as essentially honourable and noble people. She is positively gushing in her fawning over the Jesuit priests.

The story of the trial and execution of Father Garnet is told in a way that could have come straight from a Vatican citation for beatification or sainthood.

Puritans, on the other hand, are either casually dismissed without discussion, or occasionally caricatured as fanatics in the mould of today's bigoted `anti-papists' like Ian Paisley.

This is a travesty of any real historical understanding. Whatever the undoubted personal integrity and bravery of various individuals it misses out entirely what the real social and political basis of the religious divide and conflict were.

Protestantism at the time was a force for progress, while Catholicism was a force of reaction. Fraser's saintly Jesuits were the ideological shock troops of the Catholic Church in that conflict. In mid-17th century England, Puritanism, in the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army, was a revolutionary force of world historic significance.

There is nothing wrong with detailing the barbarous practices used by Protestant regimes like James's. But Catholicism at the time needed no lessons from anyone in barbarity. Yet not a word of the horrors committed in the name of the Catholic Church, and the Jesuits, will you find in Fraser's book. No mention of tortures inflicted by institutions like the Inquisition will be found, not to mention the atrocities committed by Catholic regimes with Jesuit backing in conflicts like the Thirty Years War or the Spanish conquests of Central and Latin America.

In Britain at the time of the Gunpowder Plot the reign of Bloody Mary who attempted a kind of Catholic restoration was within living memory. Mary's prescription of how to deal with Protestant `heretics' does not sit easily with Fraser's picture of Catholicism: `As the souls of heretics are hereafter to be eternally burning in hell, there can be nothing more proper than for me to imitate the Divine vengeance by burning them on earth.'

Fraser's account is both ahistorical and a whitewash of the Catholic Church and the Jesuits. Had the plot succeeded in the way the conspirators hoped it would have been a huge victory for reaction, not just in England but with Europe-wide implications.

The full absurdity of Fraser's approach becomes apparent towards the end of her account, where she openly compares Robert Catesby with Nelson Mandela, quoting Mandela's defence of terrorism. The small point of what the two men were fighting for and which social forces they represented is skimmed over. For Fraser the conspirators are at worst `brave misguided men'.

There is a connected and wider problem with Fraser's whole approach to history.

She has a view in which social forces in general and the mass of people whether of the `middling sort' or the `lower orders' have little or no role or significance.

It is a view which sits well with many fashionable `postmodern' views, and with not a few modern politicians. The only historical actors are individuals with their ambitions and beliefs and usually individuals from the wealthy or at least, in today's phrase, the `chattering classes'. That even these individuals are shaped by and act within a broader social framework whose key factors are social forces, and more particularly classes, is entirely missing from Fraser's approach.

Moreover, in a telling phrase, Fraser writes: `Around thirty people made the pilgrimage' before adding as an afterthought, `and then, as ever, there were the servants.' (Lady) Antonia Fraser's world may be divided into the `people' who matter and the passive backcloth of the ever present servants. Real history, including that still to be made, is not.


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