As the country prepares to celebrate Guy Fawkes night, Christopher Haigh looks at the origins of the Gunpowder Plot and its effect on history.
The fighting has stopped in Northern Ireland, but can the two traditions live in peace and trust? Can so much fear and misunderstanding be overcome? - and how quickly? Sectarian loyalties have been maintained by conflicting histories, by myths and symbols which stereotype and divide. On the one hand, Drogheda, Wolfe Tone, the Famine, the Black and Tans, and the B-Specials; oppression, suffering, and fruitless heroism. On the other hand, the massacres of 1641, King Billy, Fenian plotters, and "No Surrender"; popish scheming, Protestant virtue, and eternal vigilance. And every year, so no-one shall forget, the Orange marches, the Apprentice boys,and the fearsome drums. There may be no more killing-together, but how can there be living-together?
Thankfully, symbols do not last forever and mythic histories lose their power. Through late-October British children seek their "Penny for the Guy?" and on November 5 families stand round bonfires while teenagers throw bangers at one-another. How many know, and how many care, what is commemorated?
Alan Haynes and his publisher think we should be told, in a short but sober account entitled The Gunpowder Plot. It has no new evidence, no new argument; Haynes simply recounts the story of the plotters, which may indeed have been forgotten. November 5 has certainly changed its guise: it is now a communal "Bonfire Night", rather than the divisive day of "the Popish Powder Treason". Perhaps we should be glad for such collective amnesia. An annual assertion of Protestant nationhood and Catholic exclusion has become (save for the casualties of fire and fireworks) a harmless bit of fun.
But (as David Cressy has shown) November 5 1605 was immediately adopted and fostered as a symbol of the danger England faced and the favour God showed. There were official thanksgivings each year "for the happy deliverance of the king and the three estates of the realm, from the most traitorous and bloody intended massacre by gunpowder". There were sermons on the anniversary: in 1606 Lancelot Andrewes greeted "this day of ours, this 5th of November, a day of God's making; that which was done upon it was the Lord's doing". There were yearly bonfires and bell-ringings, and in the almanacs "The Papists' Conspiracy" was a red-letter day. 1605 came to rank with 1588 as a proof that papists could not be trusted but the God of England could. In 1657 Samuel Clarke wrote England's Remembrancer, Containing a True and Full Narrative of those Two Never to be Forgotten Deliverances; The One the Spanish Invasion in Eighty-Eight, the Other from the Hellish Powder Plot, November 5 1605. It was republished three times.
November 5 was not a neutral national festival: it was a potent weapon in the armoury of anti-popery. In 1641-2 there were new sermons and tracts on Gunpowder Plot, linking it with Catholic massacres in Ireland and alleged conspiracies in England. During the Popish Plot scare in 1678-9, November 5 was celebrated with pope-burning processions, and the official 1606 account of the trial of the conspirators was republished - as it was again in 1850, during another outburst of "No Popery" agitation over the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy. And during my Methodist childhood in Birkenhead, the Plot was still evidence that, deep down and in the last analysis, Catholics were unreliable. Guy Fawkes had a lot to answer for.
Catholic historians have had two responses to the Gunpowder Plot: "We wuz framed" and "We wuz right". For John Gerard SJ in the 1890s (via Hillaire Belloc) and Francis Edwards SJ still, the Plot was a state contrivance, fabricated or furthered by Robert Cecil to justify the persecution of Catholics and the destruction of political rivals. Gerard's careful analysis of the plotters' confessions certainly showed the evidence was doctored, and it seems likely that the plot was known and its dramatic discovery staged. Cecil sought a propaganda advantage from the conspiracy, but coincidences, inconsistencies in the evidence, and flights of historical fancy will not make him its author. It was argued that there was no gunpowder in the plot - until in 1980 the account was found for the transfer of 1,800 lbs of powder from the Parliament House to the Tower on November 7 1605. The work cost 10s 6d.
But were the plotters of 1605 justified? Since 1559 conscientious Catholics had been excluded from office-holding. Since 1581 Catholics who refused to attend the services of the Church of England faced ruinous fines of Pounds 20 a month (when a skilled craftsman might make Pounds 5 in a year) - and the law counted 13 lunar months to the penal year. Since 1585 it had been treason for a priest ordained abroad to work in England, and treason too for a layperson to aid such a priest. In Elizabeth's reign about 189 Catholics had been executed for their religion, many of them convicted of non-existent schemings to overthrow the queen. There were horrors indeed, though they were intermittent and localised: 31 were hanged in the second half of 1588, victims of the Armada scare; but 33 were executed in all of Elizabeth's last decade. For the few who were fined the burdens were great, but by collusion and inefficiency the vast majority escaped.
It was expected that things would be easier when King James came to England. He was son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, had refused to persecute Catholics in Scotland, and may have promised not to do so in England. But James was caught between the entreaties of his Catholic subjects and the demands of his Protestant Parliament.
In July 1603 he assured Catholic representatives there would be no persecution of the loyal, but to secure parliamentary taxes and an Anglo-Scottish union he reneged the next year. On February 22 1604 a proclamation gave priests two weeks to leave the kingdom, and a few days later Robert Catesby began to assemble his plot. By November 4 1605 he had barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords, a ship ready in the Thames, relays of horses from London to the west Midlands, and a band of gentlemen ready to seize Princess Elizabeth and make her queen. And then, in the middle of the night, Guy Fawkes was caught: it was all over bar the shooting (in Staffordshire), the torture, and the hangings.
But we must distinguish Catholics and Catholics. There were those who accepted their minority status, sought toleration by petition, and opposed violent courses. The Catholic petitioners to Elizabeth in 1585 and James in 1603-4 had pledged loyalty to the Crown in return for limited toleration, and blamed exiles and conspirators who had given excuses for repression. There was a plan to buy out the recusancy fines, so that the government could afford to drop them: early in 1605, Catholic leaders were assessing how much could be raised. The end of the Elizabethan wars promised ease for the Catholics, as Spain shifted from plans for conquest to pressure for toleration - and France joined in. As James I took the lead in international ecumenical initiatives, Rome forbade plotting against him and English Jesuits passed on the instruction. But the Gunpowder Plotters went on.
Catesby and his cronies were not frustrated petitioners whose peaceful ways had failed. They came from a coterie of Midlands families whose political activities had marked them out for crippling fines. Some had been soldiers of fortune or of Spain, some were recent converts or lukewarm Catholics. Catesby, Tresham, the Wright brothers, and others had joined the motley malcontents who had rebelled with Essex in 1601, aiming to extract by force the political favour they lacked. In 1602 Thomas Winter had been sent to Spain by Catesby and Tresham to encourage an invasion - and in 1603 Fawkes had gone on a similar mission. The Gunpowder men did not (like William Watson in 1603 or Christopher Bagshaw in 1605) plan to use force to gain toleration. They planned the wholesale slaughter of the Protestant regime, and the institution of a Catholic state. They would be the masters.
The Catholic "men of violence" of 1605 came from the lunatic fringe of their community, out of touch with those who wanted peace at almost any price. From his cell in the Tower, Sir Everard Digby wrote in distress to his wife, horrified that other Catholics thought the plot sinful and misguided.
Later, the Jesuit Oswald Tesimond, who heard of the plot in confession, wrote an account of it for friends in Italy, which began: "I trust that anyone who reads the following account will see quite clearly that it was the damnable mistake of only a few individuals. Furthermore, it must be blamed only on those who have already paid the price. In no sense should it be ascribed to any other particular persons, and still less to the Catholic community". Just so.
Christopher Haigh teaches Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. His latest book is English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors (Oxford University Press).