“Please to remember The 5th of November,
The gunpowder treason plot.
I see no reason Why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”
— English nursery rhyme
Consider the NEWS FLASH: an insidious terrorist plot, by reactionary religious fanatics, to destroy the legislature and assassinate the chief executive by means of a powerful explosion is discovered and, thankfully, foiled before it could be carried out. In the wake of this near disaster, thousands are arrested, a suite of new laws is enacted greatly reducing the rights of suspected terrorists and vastly increasing the powers of the police and judicial forces, and governmental properties are fortified and barricaded from the streets.
This may sound as if it were ripped from today’s headlines, but it happened four centuries ago in England during the early reign of King James the First and Sixth. A coterie of zealous English Catholics under the nominal leadership of Guy Fawkes (aka Guido Fawkes) smuggled some 36 barrels of high-grade gunpowder into the cellars below the chambers of Parliament. The plan was to ignite this cache of explosive during the full parliamentary session which was scheduled for the 5th of November 1605. The king and all key members of government would be present.
Because of amateurish bungling by several plotters (one man warned his brother-in-law to stay away from Parliament on the 5th!) the plot was revealed just hours before it was to have been carried out. The reaction was swift and ruthless.
The plotters allegedly intended to destroy the English government in order to re-establish England as a Catholic kingdom. They possibly planned to install a prominent English Catholic nobleman as king; the vague nature of the plans led to many arrests among the Aristocracy. Matters were rather muddied as to who might be involved. Though there were relatively few practicing Catholics among the English peerage, there were large numbers of the nobility who made outward signs of adherence to the Church of England, but who were possibly secretly clinging to the Old Faith. Suspicions, accusations, and mistrust continued to cloud the issue for many years after the plot was exposed.
King James himself was permanently shaken by the event, and he is said to have never felt completely at ease in London ever after. (Of course James, as a Scot, may have had other reasons for this as well!) One timeless result of the Gunpowder Plot may well be The King James Version of The Bible. Needing to standardize the text that would be read in the state-sponsored Churches, and to be sure it was correct for both religious and political purposes, James convoked a commission of England’s most prominent theologians to draft a new and standard English translation of The Bible. Though there are textual difficulties with the resulting scripture, the King James Version is a landmark in the development of the English language and of English literature.
Another possible legacy of the plot is Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Macbeth. Written in 1606 and first performed before the Royal Court, Shakespeare’s shortest drama emphasizes many topics near to the interest of the Scottish King James: witchcraft, treason, the legitimacy of the descendants of Banquo upon the Throne of the Scots, the triumph of the righteous. In the famous porter’s scene – a bit of comic relief in an otherwise blood-soaked play – there are references to the gunpowder plot, albeit somewhat coded. Michael Wood explains in Shakespeare that contemporary audiences would have understood the references: “Here’s a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty” would recall the fact that the condemned Jesuit Henry Garnet had used the alias Farmer, while the next line, “come in time; have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.” would invoke the image of the faithful collecting the blood of a beheaded martyr by dipping cloths into the gore on the scaffold as a sort of talisman; the scene is replete with similar references as Wood relates. In his marvelous Will In The World, Stephen Greenblatt goes into even greater detail on this interpretation.
Macbeth was written to charm and flatter a Scottish King, on an English throne, and to reinforce in the public’s mind his proper legitimacy in a time of great strain and stress for King and Country.
The trials of the plotters were hasty affairs, and the usual rules of evidence and testimony were discarded due to the extremely pressing urgency of the plot against the government. Convictions were needed rapidly. Torture was employed – contrary to English law – and full confessions were obtained. Fawkes and several accused co-conspirators were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and to have their bodies burned. These executions were carried out with maximal cruelty, ensuring the greatest torment and potential deterrent effect. As was the practice in that day, the executions were conducted in public with mobs of jeering spectators hurling abuse and more at the convicts.
After the furor had died down, the 5th of November was declared a day of thanksgiving and celebration, with bonfires and other festivities, including the hanging in effigy of the eponymous Guy Fawkes. The tradition persists to this day, though the reasons for it are probably very far from the minds of the revelers.
In closing, there is a final question that has never been satisfactorily resolved: was there really a vast plot at all? Adam Nicolson in his excellent book about the creation of The King James Bible, God’s Secretaries, (U.S. title) notes that it is possible that an organized and coordinated plot never existed. Alice Hogge, in her book God’s Secret Agents, considers the plot to have been genuine, but that its scope and scale were enormously exaggerated by those who wished to crush any opposition within England.
Flower Mound, Texas
Confusion now hath made his master-piece. — Macbeth II:iii
Several fairly recently published books discuss The Gunpowder Plot. In light of current history, there is renewed interest in the crucial episode in early modern British history. Many of the recent books about William Shakespeare address this topic:
Shakespeare, Michael Wood; Basic Books, 2003: ISBN0465092640
Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt; W. W. Norton and Company, 2004: ISBN 0393050572
Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, Clare Asquith; Public Affairs, 2005: ISBN: 1586483161
Each of these books is well worth the reading. I like Wood’s account as delightfully readable, thorough, and entertaining all the while. Greenblatt goes into far greater depth in textual analysis than does Wood, but he never gets tedious or dry. I heartily recommend both. Asquith, however, is definitely for the specialist. Her thesis is fascinating, but I feel she falls into the trap of perceiving everything as being explained by her radical theory. All the same, a thought-provoking book.
Other worthwhile books include:
God’s Secretaries: The Making Of The King James Bible, Adam Nicolson; Harper Collins, 2003: ISBN: 0060185163
God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot, Alice Hogge; Harper Collins, 2005: ISBN: 0060542276
Both of these books are well written. God’s Secretaries is not the most comprehensive treatment of its subject – there are many weightier tomes on the topic – but it stands out as a thorough, highly readable account of the key points, and places these within the larger political and historical mood of the time.
God’s Secret Agents is a must. It is the first full overview of the people and events in the last half of the 16th Century which led to the pivotal Gun Powder Plot. Hogge draws heavily from material that has only recently been available for research such as secret state papers and transcripts of secret trials. Well worth reading.