Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although the 'Gunpowder Plot' of 1605 to blow up Parliament as it was being opened by James I was foiled, the holiday it spawned, Guy Fawkes Day, is still marked each November 5. With political-religious terrorism now a hazard of everyday life, Fraser's searching look at the failed conspiracy of Robert Catesby (the actual planner) and Guy Fawkes could not be more timely. The narrative, however, is slowed by analysis as she examines whether the 'facts' obtained by torture and showy trials were genuine. Despite the graphic picture of anti-Catholic excesses, which the violence was intended to undo, and the agonizing punishment meted out to innocent and guilty alike, the pace is plodding. Biographer Fraser is at her best in limning lives: 'Little John' Owen, the steadfast lay brother skilled at constructing hiding places for priests; Father Henry Garnet, a martyred divine of extraordinary intellect and courage; his patroness, the faithful, often-imprisoned Anne Vaux; and especially young Sir Everard Digby, a gallant courtier who, though drawn into the conspiracy at the last moment, was the first to mount the scaffold. Traditionally, the executioner cut out the condemned person's heart before the body ceased twitching, to claim, while eager crowds watched: 'Here is the heart of a traitor.' However anatomically impossible, Digby's 'spirited riposte,' supposedly, was 'Thou Liest.' Coming off far less favorably are the king, who retracted his promises of religious toleration; Sir Edward Coke, the country's leading judge, here a juridical monster; and Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, the bigoted power behind the throne occupied only a few years earlier by the great Elizabeth.
On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes entered English history as the ultimate villain, the man responsible for trying to blow up Parliament, king and all. What led him to such a desperate act? Was he truly the mastermind behind the plot, or just a player unfortunate enough to go down in infamy for this display of terrorism? In her latest book, Fraser demonstrates that a mix of personalities tossed with the oil-and-water blend of religion and politics is too often deadly. She untangles the events leading to the Gunpowder Plot and guides the reader through the trial, which proved that when pitted against politics, religion usually comes in second. As in her previous books, Fraser delivers her narrative with flare and a wry sense of humor. -- Tobi Liedes-Bell, Washakie County Library System, Wyoming
Early 17th century England's complexities and dangers are rendered both comprehensible and relevant in the skilled prose of a veteran mystery novelist (A Splash of Red, 1981, etc.) and popular historian (The Wives of Henry VIII, 1992, etc.).
Guy Fawkes Day, on November 5, is England's annual commemoration of the failed 1605 plot by a small group of English Catholics to blow up the House of Parliament with King James I present, in an attempt to bring back Catholicism as the state religion. Fraser's account of this dramatic incident is distinguished by her perspective on the larger issue of treason and on the vexed question of faith and patriotism. "The end of the sixteenth century," Fraser notes, "was an uneasy time in England. Harvests were bad, prices were high. As the Queen grew old, men everywhere were filled with foreboding about the future." Individual plotters (including "Little John," the near-dwarf who created hiding spaces for Catholic priests, the charming Guy Fawkes, and Robert Catesby, the plot's charismatic leader) and the society in which they moved take on the depth and dimension of real life. In addition, Fraser's thoughtful narrative probes the serious issues raised by the event. Her self-appointed task is above all "to explain . . . why there was a Gunpowder plot in the first place." Foremost among the striking aspects of English society Fraser illuminates is the Elizabethan distrust of Roman Catholics, who were suspected of disloyalty and were sometimes tortured and imprisoned for their beliefs. And she sets her discussion of the Gunpowder Plot against the background of modern problems of religious terrorism, describing the plotters as the equivalents of modern-day terrorists whose violence stems from their perceived weakness and desperation.
Fraser's book, a solidly researched and gripping account of religious battles and persecution, forces the reader to reflect on both the gruesome results and complex origins of terrorism.