"The tongue of man never delivered, the ear of man never heard, the heart of man never conceived, or the malice of hellish or earthly devil never practised.." Such were the words used at the trial of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators to describe the plot to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament.
This was the first terrorist conspiracy against a state. The intended explosion was of a kind that had then only happened in accidents at gunpowder dumps. It seemed an abomination that the plotters had stooped to attempt the deliberate decimation of a crowd that included people innocent of any part in the relevant conflict. James himself remarked that "no king or prince of honour will ever abase himself so much."
We are no longer shocked; we are used to news of terrorism. Nor does the target of this terrorism easily arouse our horror: the Gunpowder Plot was a response to religious persecution that seems moderate if we compare it to Cromwell's burning alive of Irish Catholics, or the massacres of French Protestants, or the Spanish Inquisition, or Europe's endless pogroms. Around 1600, the English persecution of Catholics amounted mostly to discrimination and to legal suppression of the practice of the faith. There were loopholes and grey areas, and there was a Catholic nobility, many of whose members sat in Parliament. With various ups and downs, this state of affairs lasted until Catholic Emancipation in 1827. The Elizabethan-Jacobean oppression of Catholicism was hardly such as to provoke widespread insurrection.
So there is something farcical and anomalous in the conspirators' decision to resort to violence. Though Antonia Fraser's narrative may not arouse in us much pity or terror, her style is graceful and she is well-versed in the period. And at the beginning her account does hold us in suspense. In 1601, James I arrived England as the heir to the childless Queen Elizabeth. Fraser draws us into the uncertainty felt by the English; with them, we wonder what his policy will be towards the repressed Papists. As king of Scotland, James was a Presbyterian, yet his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been strongly Catholic; his wife, Anne of Denmark, was a Catholic too.
The first signs were auspicious; on his ascent to the English throne, James offered all kinds of tolerance. But he swiftly betrayed these promises and heightened the persecution. Then some young hotheads from noble Catholic families, led by Robin Catesby, hatched their plot.
Others lobbied for money from Spain to fund a Catholic uprising that would be synchronized with a Spanish invasion. But soon after, the crafty James I made peace with the king of Spain. What is more, Isabella, the regent of the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium, more or less), refused to let her territory be used as a nearby land base for any invasion of England. In England itself, the leading Catholics in Parliament and the Jesuits expressed their disapproval of violent resistance. The Catholic clergy was divided between "appellants", who wanted to open tough negotiations with the Crown, and the Jesuits, who wanted to remain aloof in passive resistance. The conspirators were alone in their fury. So it is in a melancholy fools' paradise that the rest of the story is acted out.
The scheme to blow up Parlia-ment at its opening was planned with care. But the Catholic peer Lord Monteagle, due to attend on the day of doom, was passed an anonymous letter which told him about the conspiracy and warned him to stay away. Monteagle, ambitious for court favour, informed the king's security man, the Earl of Salisbury. Salisbury launched a surveillance that would be a credit to any modern spy service. So as to catch the greatest number of conspirators with the maximum of evidence, he waited until the second before the fuse was lit to blow the whistle. And so it was that quite a minor player, Guy Fawkes, was caught in the act.
At the trial, the Crown's strategy was to forge a link between the Jesuits and the futile attempt to secure support from Spain, on the one hand, and the conspiracy on the other; there had been no such link. The prosecutors mounted a political show trial, to frighten Catholic England; thanks to the ruthless sophistry of Salisbury and the attorney-general, Sir Edward Coke, the plan worked.
But it is the story of one of the actors, the English Jesuit superior Father Garnet, which makes Fraser's book worth reading. A certain Father Tesimond, a Jesuit colleague of Garnet's, had the misfortune of hearing the confession of the lead conspirator, Robin Catesby. Catesby was trying the old trick of obtaining absolution for the murder plot in advance. Father Tesimond carried the burden of knowledge with such fear that he included it in his own confession to Father Garnet. The tension was such that they decided to go outside for a walk in a garden, to finish the confession. They both strongly condemned the plot, but believed that if they were implicated by their foreknowledge, they could still claim the protection of the seal of the confessional.
After the plot was foiled, the story of the confession got out and Garnet was among those arrested. Salisbury interrogated the priest and guessed that in Garnet's evasive answers he was using "equivocation", the Catholic technique of avoiding telling the truth without literally lying. Salisbury, perversely fascinated with the Catholic intellect, set about to discredit not only equivocation but also the principle of the seal of the confessional, both of which infuriated him. The Protestant earl turned the three conditions of a complete confession-confession, contrition, and satisfaction-against Garnet by declaring that Catesby's original confession to Tesimond had been insincere because Catesby could not have been contrite about a sin he still intended to commit. Salisbury argued that this invalid confession in turn invalidated Tesimond's confession to Garnet and that the priests could not claim the protection of the seal. For good measure, he added that the priests had been out strolling when they ought to have been kneeling.
Garnet went to his death with dignity. Trembling from starvation and sleep deprivation, he was dragged on a wicker sledge to the gibbet. Some people in the crowd shouted that he should save himself by recanting or converting. But he refused and briefly explained himself. They answered by reviving an old calumny that he had cohabited with a prominent Catholic woman. He denied that as well, with calm argument, and then mounted the scaffold. The ladder was pulled away and he hanged. It was then that chastened and awed spectators pulled him downward to kill him fast and save him the agony of being drawn and quartered alive, his genitals cut off and thrust into his face. When his heart was held up with the words, "Behold the heart of a traitor," there was silence instead of the usual cheer, and no-one shouted "God save the King."
Though the clouds gather early around a lost cause in Fraser's book, we are given an expert view of the underground Catholic "recusant" community, with especially moving profiles of the women who hid and protected priests, and also of "Little John", a crippled master-carpenter who built famous impenetrable hiding-places for priests in the great Catholic houses. Fraser admires the Catholic underdogs and she's particularly good on the doctrinal difficulties faced by recusant England and on the uneasy Roman Catholic positions on violence and opposition to the state. But in the end, the tragedy of the Gunpowder Plot came out of the unquiet heart of Robin Catesby, not from Catholic England as a whole. One can't help but wish that such an accomplished and prolific biographer as Fraser had instead written a biography of the Jesuit Henry Garnet.
Hugh Graham is a Toronto writer and screenwriter.