Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot


In England, November 5 is Guy Fawkes Day, when fireworks displays commemorate the shocking moment in 1605 when government authorities uncovered a secret plan to blow up the House of Parliament—and King James I along with it. A group of English Catholics, seeking to unseat the king and reintroduce Catholicism as the state religion, daringly placed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the Palace of Westminster. Their aim was to ignite the gunpowder at the opening of the Parliamentary session. Though ...

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Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot

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In England, November 5 is Guy Fawkes Day, when fireworks displays commemorate the shocking moment in 1605 when government authorities uncovered a secret plan to blow up the House of Parliament—and King James I along with it. A group of English Catholics, seeking to unseat the king and reintroduce Catholicism as the state religion, daringly placed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the Palace of Westminster. Their aim was to ignite the gunpowder at the opening of the Parliamentary session. Though the charismatic Catholic, Robert Catesby, was the group's leader, it was the devout Guy Fawkes who emerged as its most famous member, as he was the one who was captured and who revealed under torture the names of his fellow plotters. In the aftermath of their arrests, conditions grew worse for English Catholics, as legal penalties against them were stiffened and public sentiment became rabidly intolerant.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Library Journal
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
Kirkus Reviews
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.

From Barnes & Noble
On November 5, 1605, the British government discovered a secret plan to blow up the House of Parliament--and King James I along with it. Hatched by a group of zealous English Catholics intent on reinstating Catholicism as the state religion, this deadly plot came to light when authorities captured one of the gang members, a devout man named Guy Fawkes. Under torture, Fawkes revealed the names of his fellow conspirators. In this book, historian Fraser examines the events leading up to that fateful night, untangling an intricate web of religion, politics, and personalities and demonstrating how this long-ago event is a reflection of a religion-inspired terrorism that still haunts our own age. B&W & color illus.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385471909
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1997
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 522,004
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2003

    Excellent, but leaves too many unanswered questions

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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