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In a narrative that reads like a gripping detective story, Antonia Fraser has untangled the web of religion, politics, and personalities that surrounded that fateful night of November 5. And, in examining the lengths to which individuals will go for their faith, she finds in this long-ago event a reflection of the religion-inspired terrorism that has produced gunpowder plots of our own time.
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.
Posted January 5, 2003
This is a fascinating book. Antonia Fraser has examined all the old evidence afresh, has weighed up the arguments of the pro-plotters (official government-friendly historians) and no-plotters (Catholic recusant historians) before producing a sort of compromise between these opposing views: a supposedly plausible pro-plot version with Catholic sympathies. It's a very well written account, and has marvellous character studies, but unfortunately Fraser's version does stretch the reader's credulity a bit. She does not explain why the English government, in the person of chief minister Robert Cecil, sits on the information and does absolutely nothing when he learns of the plot. She hints that one of the plotters, Francis Tresham, may have been a government spy, and therefore that Cecil knew of the plot from the start, but she doesn't carry this idea through to any of its logical conclusions. Furthermore, she hasn't explored the possibility that plot leader Robin Catesby was setting up the Jesuit priests by telling them about the planned explosion under the seal of the confessional. Nor does she question why the barrels of gunpowder supposedly found under the House of Lords contained powder that had decayed and wouldn't have exploded anyway. Nor does she explain why 36 desperate armed men fail to kill a single member of the government's forces sent after them. Because of these, and similar, holes in Fraser's pro-plot version, I finished the book a convinced no-plotter. What Antonia Fraser does achieve though, is a wonderfully vivid picture of English recusant life, with its stately homes riddled with priest-holes, and the brave aristocratic women who sheltered the hunted priests. She also draws a very sympathetic portrait of Fr Henry Garnet, the head of the Jesuits English mission, who bravely defends his faith to the last. I was very surprised to find out afterwards that Garnet hasn't yet been canonised. But then, the British government would probably still see this as a deliberate affront from the Vatican. Ah, politics.
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