Sunday, 7 November 2010

‘They shall receive a terrible blow this parliament’ (Lessons from history 7: The gunpowder plot)

On the night of 4th November, 405 years ago last Thursday, a servant of the English king, James I, searching the store rooms below the Houses of Parliament, found a man who called himself John Johnson and 36 barrels of Gunpowder. The man, who was actually called Guy Fawkes, was executed, along with his fellow conspirators, on 30th January 1606 for plotting to assassinate the king by blowing up parliament.

The Gunpowder Plot, as we now know it, has been popularised by ‘Bonfire Night’ a night were we burn an effigy of Fawkes on a bonfire. It was also the inspiration for the graphic Novel, later turned into a film, called V for Vendetta, which is a fantastic film and you should all watch it. The film portrays Fawkes as a hero of freedom and free speech, attempting to commit treason in the name of the people and paying the ultimate price for failure. However history is very rarely so clear cut or idealistic; Fawkes was not some hero of freedom, fighting for justice and righteousness.

By 1605, the Church of England, having been established in the middle of the previous century, was well established as the principle religion of England; Catholicism having been repeatedly persecuted by Henry, Edward and Elizabeth, with only a brief reprise under Queen Mary. With the end of the Tudor dynasty however, it had been hoped that the Stewarts, descended in part from Mary Tudor, might be a little more lenient on Catholics in England. Indeed in James I’s early reign it was; he prefered to deport renegade Catholics, rather than behead them. However with growing fears of papal attempts to regain influence in England, and a preference to strengthen ties with the very protestant Scotland, of which James was also king, his position against Catholics became arguable more strict that his predecessor. This was made worse by the influence of Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State, who was very Anti-Catholic.

Guy Fawkes, and his fellow conspirators; he was not even the ring leader, just the man caught red handed, were Catholics seeking greater freedom to practice their religion and indeed seeking the return of Catholicism to being the official religion of England. They were not only seeking freedom from oppression, but dominance of their own view. They were not V for Vendetta’s heroes of freedom and justice, but then Catholicism isn’t such a universal theme on which to sell a hero, so we might just let that slide.

On the face of it the plot was simple enough; blow up the House of Lords on the State Opening of Parliament, killing the king and many leading political figures, decapitating the English leadership and paving the way for a more sympathetic government to be installed in their place. It’s very doubtful that it would have worked had they not been found; given that most people had a stronger allegiance to King and Country that to Rome and Catholicism probably means that things would only have gotten tougher for English Catholics.

Unfortunately among those set to be blow up were a number of Catholic Members of Parliament. One in particular, William Parker; Baron Monteagle, was the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators. Monteagle received an anonymous letter in late October, warning him to stay away from the State Opening of Parliament, warning that ‘they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament’. Inevitable Monteagle reported the letter to Salisbury, who, having already has some suspicions of a treason plot planned for the opening on Parliament, ordered a thorough search of the House. In the search Fawkes was found with the gun powder and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it?

There have always been some doubts over the story and many through history have asked if it was all a setup. These questions do have grounding in some facts which seem to be a little suspicious. For one the conspirators were allowed to rent a cellar under Parliament suspiciously easily, especially given that they were Catholics. Likewise they were able to obtain an incredibly large amount of Gunpowder; a commodity monopolised by the Government.

There have been some, even professional historians who have claimed that it was all a set up by Salisbury. What better way to ensure the ongoing persecution of Catholics than to catch them in the act of committing treason and murder on a massive scale? It’s unlikely that Fawkes and his fellows were Martyrs for the cause of Protestantism, but it’s argued that they were effectively duped into thinking they were pulling off a coup, when really they were all part of the plan.

Appealing though this story of intrigue and subtle manipulation is, the evidence simply does not add up. Gunpowder may be a Government monopoly, but the Black Market existed then as it does now. Smuggling was rife and determined men could easily have obtained enough Gunpowder for the plot. The cellars under Parliament were often rented out to members of the public and the conspirators used fake names, so there was no way to know that they were Catholics. None of the confessions even begin to suggest a conspiracy and neither does the plotters actions after being caught. While we should never rule out such a possibility, it seems unlikely that Salisbury planned it all from the beginning.

That is not to say that all is how it seems however. Such a large amount of Gunpowder might well have attracted attention and Salisbury’s spies no doubt watched the houses close to parliament. No doubt Salisbury suspected something and the Monteagle letter simple confirmed his suspicions. However the letter was delivered on 26th October, well before the opening of Parliament. Why then were the cellars not searched before the night of 4th November?

It seems clear that the most reasonable explanation lies somewhere between the extremes (as is so often the case in history). Salisbury had an idea that something was being planned at the Opening of Parliament, but decided to wait until the eve of the Ceremony because he was chasing publicity. The closer the plotters got to kill the king, the greater the backlash against Catholics. Salisbury manipulated events to make sure that he could make the most of the plot that he had pretty well under control. As a result the king turned even more strongly against the Catholics, just as he wanted.

And as an even more ludicrous PR exercise, 5th November became a national day of celebration and anti-Catholicism, Guy Fawkes is the national enemy who tried to kill the king and we are all encouraged to ‘remember, remember the 5th of November; gunpowder, treason and plot. I know of no reason, why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’

No comments:

Post a Comment