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Faith and Treason: The Story of the…
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Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996)

by Antonia Fraser

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Lady Antonia Fraser’s Faith and Treason compared with Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents.

The Gunpowder Plot was the 9/11 of its day (that day being November 5, 1605). Conspirators packed a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder, the idea being to set it off when the Royal Family and both houses were present for the ceremonial Opening sand wipe out the entire English government at a stroke. Like 9/11, the plot was motivated by religion – all the conspirators were Catholic. Like 9/11, the plot evoked an outburst of patriotism in both its best and worst forms. And like 9/11, there were immediate and subsequent allegations that the whole thing was a Government-sponsored hoax.

Lady Antonia Fraser’s book, Faith and Treason, is a straightforward narrative with Fraser’s usual excellence in bringing the times and the characters to life.

Faith and Treason was written in 1997, well before 9/11, which makes many of the parallels even more unnerving. Although Guy Fawkes is the one who gets the day named after him, it was Thomas Catesby who fills the role of Osama bin Laden, extremely charismatic and able to persuade others that an act of terrorism was religiously justified. Like the 9/11 hijackers, all of the conspirators were young men, and almost all had come to religious fanaticism after a less than devout, even dissolute, earlier life. There were accusations that the conspiracy was actually sponsored by a foreign power – Spain perhaps, or the Papacy – and the government enthusiastically forced the Jesuits into the role of Al Qaeda, even though the Jesuits had publicly disavowed involvement in politics.

Lady Fraser, while emphatically disavowing the “hoax” theory, does point out that the English government was aware of the plot well before its intended date – about October 26. Salisbury deliberately fed information to James I so the King could reasonably believe he had penetrated the plot himself. Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed – with a dark lantern and a slow match – and the other conspirators were quickly hunted down: of the thirteen, four were killed resisting arrest (including Catesby), one died in prison awaiting trial, and the remaining eight were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Ironically, Guy Fawkes broke his neck at the hanging stage; the others were disemboweled alive. Sir Everard Digby reportedly made the physiologically unlikely comment “Thou liest!” when the executioner held his heart aloft at the end of the “drawing” and made the traditional cry “Behold the heart of a traitor!”. (Perhaps the executioner was anatomically challenged and Sir Everard meant not “Thou liest! I’m not a traitor!” but “Thou liest!” That’s my spleen.”)

The death of Catesby is what gave armament to the hoax theorists, who speculated that he was an agent provocateur who had recruited the others to give the government an excuse to further persecute Catholics, and who was then shot “attempting to flee” in order to insure his silence. There certainly are a few interesting details; the government claimed the original plot was a “mine” beneath Parliament but no trace of a mine was ever found; even though access to Parliament was fairly easy in those more trusting days, it’s not clear how somebody could have smuggled that much in with notice; the amount of gunpowder involved is unclear, varying from one to five tons; and when the gunpowder was returned to a powder magazine, the receipt noted it was “decayed”. Nevertheless, even though Fraser is a Catholic, and shows some sympathy to the conspirators, she is emphatic that it was not a hoax – “It was a violent conspiracy involving Catholic fanatics”.

If there’s a tragic hero to the story, it’s not Catesby or Fawkes or any of the other conspirators, but Father Henry Garnet, SJ. It was not, strictly speaking, illegal to be a Catholic priest in England, but it was illegal for one to enter the country or to celebrate Mass and Garnet met both of these qualifications. Garnet did know of the plot, but his knowledge was under the seal of the confessional. His attempts to prevent it may have seem less than vigorous, but since he was spending most of his time hiding in various “priest holes” he perhaps can be excused. Garnet was not captured until after the plotters had been executed; although any plotter who was asked denied that Father Garnet or any other priest had been involved, they were not available for cross examination. The prosecution made much of the Jesuit doctrine of “equivocation”; the idea that a someone could avoid self incrimination by answering a question in a misleading fashion – for example, if asked “Are you a priest?” you could answer “No”, meaning secretly “No, I am not a priest of Apollo”. Garnet was convicted after what was essentially a “show trial”; at least, his defense may have impressed King James I or others high in the government, because he was left hanging for fifteen minutes and was thus dead or insensible by the drawing and quartering stage.

God’s Secret Agents is Alice Hogge’s first book. Although subtitled “Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot”, the Gunpowder Plot plays a very minor part in the story. Instead, it’s an engaging discussion of the politics, secular and religious, of Elizabethan and early Stuart times. A procession of priests, including the poets and intellectuals Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, entered England to do missionary work and administer to the spiritual needs of the remaining English Catholics. Their stories, and those of many of the laity that aided or harbored them are all tragic and a little repetitious; there’s only so many ways you can describe an execution.

One the interesting characters is Nicholas Owen, a skilled carpenter who devised many of the “priest holes” in Catholic homes. Owen’s strategy was to build no two “hides” alike; to build double “hides” such that if searchers discovered the outer one, they would stop looking and miss the second; and to outfit the “hides” with a drinking tube so water and broth could be fed to the concealed priests. Owen eventually died under torture (the official story was that he committed suicide) without revealing the location of any of his “hides”; he was canonized in 1970. Every now and then a previously unknown hide, usually attributed to Owen, is discovered when some old manor house is remodeled.

Since this book is copyright 2005, Hogge does not hesitate to draw the obvious parallels between the Gunpowder Plot and 9/11; she’s completely silent on the question of a hoax, taking it for granted that the plot was as advertised.

One interesting observation here is the prevalence of wishful thinking by people who should have known better. Catholics almost invariably thought that there were a lot more of them than there actually were, probably because most people they associated with were also Catholics. Unfortunately they also spread that belief overseas, so that Spain and the Vatican frequently thought that Catholics were a majority in England and all it would take would be a token landing by Spanish troops and the populace would enthusiastically revert to the Old Religion. Catholic diplomats traveling in England would quickly disabuse themselves of this view, but it kept springing up. As the Spanish found out when they attempted a landing in Ireland, they didn’t get enthusiastic support from the people even if there actually was a Catholic majority.

This explains the poorly thought-out nature of the Gunpowder Plot. Blowing up Parliament was the easy part; the plotters only had a vague idea of what to do next. There were various arm-waving plans to kidnap Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth of Bohemia) or Prince Charles (later Charles I), put them on the throne and “force” them to be Catholic, but the basic idea was that the English people were just waiting for some excuse to all be Catholic again.

I found one other little item that appeals to my sense of the weird. Don Juan de Tassis was one of the Spanish diplomats sent to England to negotiate and snoop around a little. “Tassis” is a Hispanicized form of “Taxis”, part of the Hapsburg noble family of Thurn und Taxis. The Princess von Thurn und Taxis was a patron of poet Ranier Maria Rilke, who wrote the Duino Elegies at her castle at Duino on the Adriatic. Later, Thomas Pynchon used the development of the Hapsburg postal system by the Thurn und Taxis family as the centerpiece of a vast international conspiracy in the novel The Crying of Lot 49. The fictional aerospace company Yoyodyne also figured in the novel, and later turned up as the den of the alien Lectroids in the cult movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. If you freeze-frame shots from various Star Trek films and TV shows, you can sometimes see equipment labeled with “YSP”, for Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems, the major manufacturer of Federation starships. While writing this review, another coffee shop costumer came, looked at the book, and asked “Why would God need secret agents?”, inadvertently echoing Kirk’s question from Star Trek: The Final Frontier: “What does God need with a starship?” The study of history is full of little surprises like that.

I can’t really say which book is better – Hogge for the big picture, Fraser for details and character studies.

Remember, Remember, Eleventh September,
For Hijacking, Terror, and Plot…
( )
1 vote setnahkt | Jan 1, 2018 |
A thoroughly researched, comprehensive account of the characters, causes, events & consequences of the infamous Gunpowder Plot - Antonia Fraser's work is impeccable & this is a History text of the era that will be a standard for many years to come. ( )
  tommi180744 | Jul 22, 2016 |
This is a well-researched and, better, a well-written history of events from 1605, when a group of Catholic conspirators assayed to blow up the Houses of Parliament with the family of the King in attendance. Ms. Fraser accurately calls these conspirators terrorists" for their attempted deeds, but she also clearly pulls to the light the existing sources that show who besides Guy Fawkes was involved and their motivations, thanks in large part to the severe oppression of the Catholic faith during the reign of Elizabeth and James I of England. So much of the religious freedom that many take for granted in the US is guaranteed in part because of fanatic oppression of other religious faiths (pogroms against the Jews in France, the Inquisition, and the religious upheavals during the Tudor period).

Ms. Fraser goes into detail about this oppression in the first part of this book, describing how no Catholic during the reign of Elizabeth I could hold office, be appointed to an office, or a judgeship, or worship in the Church. Jesuit priests (and presumably other priests) were hidden in homes of the wealthier land holders in specially-designed rooms (and designing those rooms was a piece of engineering marvel), but all Catholics had to pay a religious "fine" for failing to renounce their faith.

While there are often times that a sentence contains several characters and what they do, and the following sentence only references on "he" in the proceeding sentence (a trait I've found with most historical pieces), the thought that has gone into writing this excellent book makes that one critique minimal." ( )
1 vote threadnsong | Jun 18, 2016 |
Brilliantly written and highly readable account of this most famous historical event. The author covers in detail the religious and political back story, as well as the growth, discovery and exposure of the plot, its aftermath and subsequent historiography. She offers a balanced view, coming to the conclusion that the genuine plot - and there is no doubt there was a genuine plot led by individual Catholic fanatics such as Robert Catesby, its leader, and Guy Fawkes - was used by the Government to discredit and repress all Catholics. In their sights in particular were Jesuits such as Father Henry Garnet, who was particularly ill-used here and blamed as the inspirer of the atrocity, whereas he had actually done his best to dissuade the plotters from going ahead, but had felt unable to break the confidence of the confessional to pass on his knowledge. Other interesting figures included the diminutive and disabled Nicholas Owen, who was tortured to death but still did not reveal his ingeniously devised priest holes, some of which are so cleverly designed they were not discovered for centuries and some may still be awaiting exposure. The key role of many Catholic gentlewomen in protecting recusant priests and maintaining oases of Catholic faith across the countryside is also well described. The torture and treatment of the conspirators, guilty or innocent, was clearly atrocious by modern standards, but typical for its time and also similar to treatment meted out in other countries to real or perceived traitors. All in all, this is an excellent read. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Jul 31, 2015 |
I wanted to like this book, I really really did. But after months of renewing it from my local library, I finally had to return it less than half way complete. Just far too detailed to get into. Very expertly documented, but that's not the best way for a mass media audience. If I find a more readable story of the Gunpowder plot I will try to remember to edit this review to include that. ( )
  fulner | Nov 24, 2014 |
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History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon -

W H Auden, 'Spain', 1937
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For Edward, who would have defended them; Lucy, who would have hidden them; Paloma, who would have succoured them in exile.
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On 21 March 1603 Father William Weston, a Catholic priest imprisoned in the Tower of London, was aware that "a strange silence" had descended on the whole city.
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Gunpowder was too moist and too old so quality was inconsistent. It didn't explode as expected and the conspirators paid dearly for it.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385471904, Paperback)

Our term "guy," slang for any man, comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, the alleged ringleader of the bungled plot to blow up King James I and the subject of Bonfire Night, the odd English holiday celebrated on November 5 by burning the execrable Guy in effigy. This and other facts tumble from the pages of this fascinating account of the Gunpowder Plot, written by the distinguished novelist and historian Antonia Fraser. Fraser delves into English religious history to show the harsh persecution of Roman Catholics under Jacobean rule and how James I disappointed those Catholics who hoped for a more liberal reign.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:21 -0400)

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"In England, November 5 is Guy Fawkes Day, when fireworks displays commemorate the shocking moment in 1605 when government authorities uncovered a secret plan to blow up the House of Parliament - and King James I along with it. A group of English Catholics, seeking to unseat the king and reintroduce Catholicism as the state religion, daringly placed in position thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the Palace of Westminster. Their aim was to ignite the gunpowder at the opening of the parliamentary session. Though the charismatic Catholic Robert Catesby was the group's leader, it was the devout Guy Fawkes who emerged as its most famous member, as he was the one who was captured and who revealed under torture the names of his fellow plotters. In the aftermath of their arrests, conditions grew worse for English Catholics, as legal penalties against them were stiffened and public sentiment became rabidly intolerant." "In a narrative that reads like a gripping detective story. Antonia Fraser has untangled the web of religion, politics, and personalities that surrounded that fateful night of November 5. And in examining the lengths to which individuals will go for their faith, she finds in this long-ago event a reflection of the religion-inspired terrorism that has produced gunpowder plots of our own time."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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