Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Today being November 5th brings to my mind the thought that in recent years I have read two very readable accounts of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

One is Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot (1996) and the other Alice Hogge's God's Secret Agents (2005), which concentrates on the Jesuit Mission in England - an initiative that was disastrously compromised by the 1605 Plot. Both books are available in paperback and are instructive and revealing.


God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests  and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot

Both are written with human sympathy and understanding, and bring out the complexities of late Elizabethan and Jacobean politics. Both are page-turners, with drama and tension, even when one obviously knows the eventual outcome. Both bring out the hopes and fears of the people of the time.

Alice Hogge's book, written after the 2001 attacks on the US and the beginning of the "War on Terror" seeks to put the period in the context of modern understanding. That may widen the book's appeal to the general reading public, but it seems a little unnecessary to this reader.

Antonia Fraser's book is, to my mind, marred by very poor editing. Thus she manages to suggest that Tower Bridge (built 1886-1894) existed in the reign of James I. She says Wisbech is in Lincolnshire, when in reality it was then, is now (and ever shall be) in Cambridgeshire. Pope Clement VIII is said to have reigned for seventeen years: he actually ruled from 1592 to 1605. Louis IX of France (1226-1270) is confused with Louis XI (1461-1483). Elizabeth I's reign of forty four and a half years is described as the longest since the fifty six years of Henry III, thereby omitting the fifty and a half years of Edward III - particularly bad for someone who edited a series of biographies of English monarchs..

That is not to say that her book is full or errors, but it does raise that doubt in the mind of the reader with even a few basic facts at his or her disposal. It suggests sloppy finishing, which is a pity when the bulk of the book is of quality. One does expect better from an established historical author with resources at her disposal.

What Antonia Fraser does bring out very well are the family and social ties which bound together the conspirators, and their base in the western midlands of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and surrounding areas. Robert Catesby lived at Chastleton in the Cotsolds, though the house that the National Trust administer there was built on the site some years after his time. One of Catesby's siblings was born here in Oxford when his parents lived in the recusant-inclined Gloucester Hall (now Worcester Collge) and the birth recorded in the registers of St Thomas' church and noting that the baptism was carried out by a Popish priest - that was in the 1570s..

What emerges is that Robert Catesby, the brains behind the plot was a highly motivated leader with the ability to attract and hold followers. An idealist of sorts, perhaps a fanatic, certainly ruthless, probably purblind. He may well have been Mad, Bad and Dangerous ( or Mad, Trad and Dangerous) to know, but clearly was a man of presence and with the knack of selling his ideas to others. That said the plot was, for all its dramatic nature, wildly impractible and unrealistic. Extremism leads to a blinkered vision of reality. How would the Princess Elizabeth have reacted to being put on the throne by those who had just blown up her father and eldest brother, along with the political elite? The effect of success for the plotters would have been probably to render the country well-nigh ungovernable, or collapse into civil conflict.

Catesby was that dangerous mix of the capable and the impractical. The tragedy was that his ultimate victims included those not involved such as the Jesuits Fr Garnet and St Nicholas Owen (born in Oxford), who were caught in the aftermath.

What is perhaps surprising is that after the Plot there appears to have been little overt persecution by comparison with that in the period after 1577 - far fewer priests suffered martyrdom in these years and by the reign of Charles I there was an uneasy modus vivendi in places. The harm that had been done was however clear - Catholics could be now represented as a potential threat to the settled order of political life whenever an opponant wished - those who saw no reason why Gunpowder, Treason and Plot should ere be forgot.

1 comment:

Stephanie A. Mann said...

I also found it interesting that both Hogge and Fraser related the early 17th century Gunpowder Plot to modern terrorist activities. As you say, Hogge went a bit too far in trying to be relevant.