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.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

A recent e-mail from a Catholic friend which referred to "poor old Guy Fawkes" has prompted me to post this on the anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.

Whilst Fawkes, a fellow Yorkshireman indeed, was not the instigator, who was Robert Catesby , nor really a prime figure in the conspiracy, after reading Lady Antonia Fraser's very comprehensive account (even if some of the copyediting of background passages leaves much to be desired) in The Gunpowder Plot , and also Alice Hogg's God's Secret Agents, about the Jesuit mission of Fr Garnett, Fr Gerard and others, I do feel the conspirators were mad, bad and dangerous to know.

That their plot is still remembered is a tribute to its mental, if not, physical impact on the English. It did vast harm to chances of any political settlement that would have given more toleration to catholics, and led to the deaths of those such as Fr Garnett and St Nicholas Owen who were not involved in it. Indeed it is interesting that active persecution was not intensified - apart from a few priest martyrs, such as Bl.George Napier here in Oxford,pressure was less than it had been in the years preceding Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603 until the approach of the Civil War. With the Queen consort, Anne of Denmark, a secret Catholic herself, a covert court Catholicism existed as well, of course, as the development of Arminian High Churchmanship with Bishops Andrewes and Montagu, and later the future Archbishop Laud.

A programme I have twice seen on television sought to reconstruct the mechanics of the plot, and indeed to create the explosion that would have ensued had the Plot succeeded. If this was accurate the plotters would have eliminated virtually all the political elite, and rendered the country well-nigh ungovernable. Early seventeenth century English society was hierarchical, and governed by networks of patronage and connection that depended upon effective management from the top. Taking out in one catastrophic blow the King, his immediate male heir, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the leaders of the Commons would have made normal processes of government virtually impossible. Chaos,and a vicious anti-Catholic reaction, would no doubt have ensued 

Catesby appears to have not thought much about this. He and a few gentlemen would seize the King's daughter Princess Elizabeth from her home in the Midlands and put her on the throne as a puppet. What as she grew up might have thought of her father and brother's murderers does not seem to have occurred to them, nor that they were displacing the next legitimate male heir, who did, of course, eventually become King Charles I. 

A monochrome engraving of eight men, in 17th-century dress.  All have beards, and appear to be engaged in discussion
The Gunpowder Plotters
Eight of the thirteen plotters are depicted in this contemporary engraving

Image: Wikipedia 

Mad, bad and dangerous to know seems a reasonable summary of the Gunpowder Plotters from any angle.

Here in Oxford, where Catesby's parent once lived in what is now Worcester College and where one ogf his siblings was born, there is a very particular, material, link with the conspiracy - in the Ashmolean is what is traditionally said to have been the lantern Fawkes had with him when he was arrested:

Originally the lamp, which is 34.5 cm high and made of sheet iron, had a horn window, and could also be closed completely to hide the light. Given to the University in 1641 by Robert Heywood, son of a Justice of the Peace who had been present at the arrest of Guy Fawkes in the cellars of Parliament House, when the Gunpowder Plot was foiled on 5th November 1605. 
It was transferred from the Bodleian to the Ashmolean in 1887, and can now be seen in the Ark to Ashmolean Gallery.


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