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/Non-fiction: The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser Camilla Send a noteboard - 05/11/2009 12:28:21 PM
Since today is the 5th of November, I thought it fitting to bring up this book. My impression is that the exhortation to "remember, remember", while remembered in itself, is rarely followed. I must confess myself guilty to the same sin up until last year, when I read this wonderful book. I thought Guy Fawkes was celebrated on November 5th. Mea Culpa.

In short, it was James I/VI (of England/Scotland respectively) they wanted to kill when they tried to blow up parliament during the opening in 1605. And Guy Fawkes' subsequent role as the symbol of all this is perhaps not entirely deserved.

The men behind The Gunpowder Treason (or Plot) were Catholics. They grew up in an England where being a Catholic was anything but easy. Elizabeth I was (had to be) a hardcore protestant -- the pope had never consented to the divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and so could not recognise Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Boleyn) as legitimate. In addition, Pope Pius V excommunicated her in 1570, thus liberating all English Catholics from any loyalty to her as majesty. Bad plan.

The result was that life got even more difficult for English Catholics, who were regarded with suspicion as potential traitors to the Crown. It became illegal to hold Catholic Mass, Priests were punished as Traitors (hanged, drawn and quartered -- not at all pleasant), and one had to pay quite stiff fines (followed by imprisonment) if one refused protestant communion. In addition, Catholics had no opportunity to study or advance at Court, as that meant having to swear a loyalty oath which acknowledged the Queen as the hightest authorty, including spiritually (as the head of the Church).

Several of the plotters had relatives who had been executed as traitors (it quite dreadful ways), and parents who had spent time in prison.

When the Queen died and was followed by James VI of Scotland, English Catholics were hopeful. While himself a protestant, he was, after all, the son of Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots), who was counted as a martyr because Elizabeth I had had her head cut off), and his wife was a Catholic. There was talk of Freedom of Religion, and James encouraged this belief, while not committing to it, as long as his succession was still in doubt -- he needed all the support he could get. Once the throne was his, however, he also had to contend with Puritan pressure, and when the expectations were not met, the Catholics reacted with grave disappointment. There were two plots already in 1603 (Bye and Main).

Perhaps as a reaction, James denied increased toleration of Catholic practice, and encouraged the Anglican bishops, in fact leading to worse conditions for Catholics than under Elizabeth (in part because many of them had now come out of hiding).

There were five men in the hard core planning the Plot against Parliament (Fawkes was one of them), 13 in the final stages. They were led by Robert Catesby.

Antonia Fraser's book is rather wonderful in its treatment of the backstory. When I read her Mary, Queen of Scots, I remember being wonderously entertained by her details of plots and intrigues, but I got fed up with her constant emphasis on her as "feminine" and her "womanly strength". There is very little of that sort of thing here. Perhaps because all the main actors are men. There is a short excursion into the role of Catholic women in helping the Priests and the plotters, but it never goes overboard.

And her treatment of the plotters, and the Plot (or, rather, Plots) is simply fun to read. She shows them, not as sinister masterminds, but a mix of people who were desperate without necessarily entirely competent. Some more than others, of course. There is the plan to kidnap princess Elizabeth, and a failed attempt to dry wet gunpowder around an open fire that went horribly wrong.

And then there is the question of how the Plot was exposed. Fraser has what I consider a very good explanation, but you will have to read it yourselves. I will tell you that the question hinges on who sent a letter to Lord Monteagle, which he in turn handed over to Lord Salisbury (protestant sinister adviser to the King, himself with quite a few fingers in pies), instigating the search of the cellars that produced Fawkes and his gunpowder. The letter:

My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this Parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country [county] where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.
-quoted by Fraser, p. 180

I recommend the book. It should of course be read today, ideally; but one cannot have it all.
structured procrastinator
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/Non-fiction: The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser - 05/11/2009 12:28:21 PM 5119 Views
<3 Antonia Fraser. - 05/11/2009 12:46:42 PM 1462 Views
Re: <3 Antonia Fraser. - 05/11/2009 01:20:04 PM 1321 Views
I see what you mean. - 05/11/2009 01:32:09 PM 1413 Views
Re: I see what you mean. - 05/11/2009 01:36:53 PM 1337 Views
Good point - 05/11/2009 01:41:57 PM 1311 Views
Re: Good point - 05/11/2009 01:47:43 PM 1332 Views
Thank you for the review. - 05/11/2009 02:54:07 PM 1348 Views
Re: Thank you for the review. - 05/11/2009 02:56:03 PM 1587 Views
Cool! - 05/11/2009 03:14:46 PM 1331 Views
Re: Cool! - 05/11/2009 03:24:40 PM 1330 Views
You have piqued my interest. *NM* - 08/11/2009 04:28:26 AM 685 Views
I am glad. *NM* - 08/11/2009 11:18:02 AM 683 Views
So, SFF related to this... - 08/11/2009 11:33:16 AM 1265 Views
Is it good? - 08/11/2009 11:37:14 AM 1406 Views
1610, remember? - 25/11/2009 03:07:09 PM 1334 Views
I will pick it up if I come across it. - 25/11/2009 03:18:33 PM 1454 Views

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