Sunday, 22 April 2012
The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser
On the 5th November 1605 a group of Catholic plotters attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament with the aim of killing both King James and the government in whole, enabling them to mount a Catholic resistance and gain control of the country. One of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, was caught in possession of gunpowder in the cellar and the plot was foiled. This much every school child in Britain knows but Fraser goes beyond that, looking at the causes of the plot, how it was discovered and the consequences on the minority Catholic community for years afterwards.
Antonia Fraser is my favourite historian and reading The Gunpowder Plot, I was reminded why. Even though her books are very scholarly and impressively researched, they are written for the non-expert and have the right balance between academics and lively writing. Fraser writes history as a narrative, showing why events happened and the motivations of each historical figure. This makes it very easy to get caught up in the 'story' and reading a Fraser book never feels like a chore.
Whilst reading The Gunpowder Plot, I realised that I didn't know as much about it as I thought I did. For example, Guy Fawkes has got the lion's share of the blame throughout history (we still burn effigies of him on Bonfire Night) but he was really only a minor player. The real mastermind, Robert Catesby, was killed in a musket fight trying to escape the authorities and faded into obscurity.
I was also unaware of the situation facing Catholics in the early 1600s and how that was exacerbated by King James I. After the vehemently Anglican rule of Elizabeth I and the confusion about who would succeed her, James made all sorts of slippery tongued pronouncements about freedom of worship leading Catholics to feel betrayed when this turned out to be just talk. To me as a modern Brit it's hard to understand why Anglicans felt the need to suppress Catholicism but at the time they were not allowed to receive Mass, make confession, have the last rites or get married in a Catholic way. Failure to turn up at your local Anglican church on Sunday would lead to large fines that would be impossible to pay off. Fraser explains why some turned to violence without condoning it.
I also appreciated the links Fraser made throughout with modern terrorism. Although the word terrorism didn't yet exist in 1605, the Gunpowder Plot if it had been successful would have been clearly a terrorist act and Fraser puts it in context with other terrorist attacks and shows that throughout history the causes have been similar. Anyone who thinks terrorism solely comes from Muslim extremists should read this book.
The only criticism I have to make is that parts of this book were too detailed. The plot contained a large number of men by the time of its execution and Fraser tells us about all of them and the links between them and their families. I was able to follow what was going on but felt like we didn't really need to know everything about some of the more minor players, and that this distracted from the more exciting parts of the book.
Verdict: Impressively researched, well written history of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1996
Score: 4 out of 5
Antonia Fraser has written lots of histories but the following are my favourites. I read all of them pre-blogging:
1. Mary Queen of Scots - Biography of Mary showing why she acted the way she did and investigating whether she really was plotting against Elizabeth I
2. Marie Antoinette: The Journey - This is the book the Kirsten Dunst film was based upon and does a great job at showing Marie as a young Austrian princess, unfamiliar with the rules of the French court.
3. The Six Wives of Henry VIII - Shows each wife as a person independent of her marriage to Henry, giving details of their lives before becoming Queen.