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Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot
by Antonia Fraser.
Doubleday, 347 pages, $27.95.

The Gunpowder Plot was a foiled attempt by a group of English Catholic aristocrats to blow up Parliament on opening day, November 5, 1605, with King James I presiding. The plotters aim was to ignite a domestic rebellion that would require Spanish intervention to relieve Catholic persecution and restore a Catholic to the throne.

Antonia Fraser’s latest popular history is a timely addition to an almost five-hundred-year literary debate, often acrimonious and sectarian, over the events surrounding this conspiracy. John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, for example, was called forth by Charles Kingsley’s review of J. A. Froude’s History of England, in which Kingsley had mentioned Newman in association with the Plot, accusing Newman of equivocating while an Anglican, a vice associated with Catholics in England ever since the aftermath of the “Powder Treason.”

Through a careful appraisal of the surviving primary sources, Fraser aims for judiciousness and on the whole achieves it. She argues that the historical sources cannot support those Catholic partisans who have maintained that the Plot was a complete fabrication from beginning to end on the part of the government to discredit Catholicism. Indeed, she says it is reasonable to expect that some men will act as these men did under such circumstances. Though she calls the plotters “terrorists” and “not good men,” her final judgment is that they were “brave, but misguided.”

Against Protestant partisans, she argues that Lord Salisbury (Robert Cecil) did use the plot to concoct an extravagant propaganda campaign against the Jesuits, who, Fraser maintains, had consistently counseled against rebellion. She is persuasive in piecing together an account of how Cecil, once informed of the plot, set out to stage the subsequent campaign, including the assault on the doctrine of equivocation, which had been used by some scrupulous Catholics as a way to reconcile their faith and their political allegiance.

In the end, Fraser’s book is sympathetic to the English Catholics. Her greatest contribution is a compelling and evocative description of the condition of these Catholics under persecution, and how they survived. These “recusants,” as they were called, were Catholics who refused to attend Protestant services as required by Parliaments Act of Uniformity (“one religion in one country”), and who paid enormous fines and suffered great indignities as a result. Great careers were foreclosed to the sons of recusant families and advantageous marriages to their daughters. At first, the penalty was merely social ostracism; later, under King James, the prohibitions were codified. Catholics were forbidden to practice law, to serve as officers in the army and navy, to be executors of wills to minors, to receive university degrees, and to vote. Parliament even considered a bill to make all Catholics wear red hats.

Upon his accession, the stated policy of King James was to prevent Catholic principles from having any efficacy within England. Given their minority status this meant wholesale executions were unnecessary, but it did mean policies to prevent any increase in Catholic numbers. To hinder the education of a new generation of Catholics, great care was taken that recusants should be unable to contract their own marriages and baptisms outside the bonds of the state. Furthermore, Catholics were forbidden to have Catholic servants and schoolmasters, and every master had to have a license to teach from the state. Through the suppression of Catholic education, the ultimate political goal was the annihilation of the Catholic religion.

The laws with the most severe sanctions were those suppressing the Catholic priesthood: forbidding priests to say Mass, and forbidding communicants to attend it. Laymen were subject to jail and heavy fines and priests to execution, and many priests were martyred as a result—by hanging, drawing (heart and bowels cut out, usually with the subject still conscious), and quartering (limbs cut off), preceded by torture with manacles and the rack if necessary. According to the government, these penalties did not amount to religious persecution, but were justified on grounds of treason.

In response to this necessity, English Catholics created a separate, secret world. Some Catholic men contrived to slip between this world and the world of affairs, making their peace with authority for the sake of family or career as a way of surviving (while their wives and children clung to the old Faith in private), only to return to the faith on their deathbed. Others were openly and simply recusant. It was from among this latter group that the great souls emerged, especially from the aristocratic families, and particularly from among the women, to preserve the Faith.

Catholicism lived on in secret hiding places constructed inside the country estates of great Catholic families—churches within homes. Here Mass was said and priests were hidden from the government. Here secret seminaries and schools were maintained. Precisely because women lacked legal standing in common law, the state found it very difficult to impose fines upon recusant women. This peculiarity meant that Catholic women who were in charge of large households had a key role to play. Priests would reside in these households, under cover of servant, tutor, or relative, but the safety of everyone and everything depended on the courage and prudence of these women.

Two of these great souls were sisters-in-law, Eliza and Anne Vaux. Anne Vaux was the protector and manager of affairs for Father Henry Garnet, Superior of the English Jesuits. After Fr. Garnet was martyred in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Anne Vaux ran a Jesuit School for Catholic Gentlemen at her mansion near Derby. Eliza Vaux, who harbored Fr. John Gerard before his escape to the continent, was later convicted for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Another heroic soul was Nicholas Owen, a lay brother and commoner, an architect, mason, and carpenter who had a gift for the construction of hiding places, some of which are still being found in our day. William Byrd, the great English composer, wrote his masses for three, four, and five voices to be sung in these hidden rooms with space for only a few at Mass. Owen died while being tortured for the second time, never having revealed the whereabouts of any of his “wordless prayers,” as his work was subsequently called. He was canonized in 1970.

Fraser also is interested in evaluating the Plot and the plotters in light of universal precepts. According to her, the plotters justification for violence was necessity in the face of continuous persecution: for “the necessity of Catholics, it needs must be done,” Robin Catesby, the central figure in the plot, is reported to have said. In conversation with Fr. Garnet, Catesby reportedly spoke against the Popes policy of leaving the reconversion of the country to Providence and made the point that “such doctrines of nonresistance took away from Catholics their spirit and energy, leaving them flaccid and poor-spirited.” Catesby questioned “whether any authority on earth could take away from them the right given by nature to defend their own lives from the violence of others.” Upon going to his death, another of the plotters said that it “was better to die than to live in the midst of so much tyranny.”

Fraser would argue that such principles require great prudence in the application. Indeed, her account is generally a cautionary tale for those who expect too much from political reform. The conspirators acted only after having been enraged by King James political betrayal in wooing Catholics with pledges of toleration as one part of his campaign to succeed Elizabeth and later reneging and even increasing the persecution. The Plot, in fact, was put on foot at about the same time a bill was introduced in Parliament to class all Catholics as “outlaws.”

The conspirators badly misjudged the prospects for popular resistance. Most Catholics in England were disinclined to rebellion, even after being deceived by James, and the Spanish had recently sued for a peace of exhaustion. The Vatican’s policy had softened as well with the peace policy of the two most recent Popes.

Even those who know very well not to expect salvation from politics, however, also know that it is essential to Christian life to have a government friendly to the Christian family. St. Augustine, in the end, backs away from the idea that there can be a Christian empire, if for no other reason than that all men will never be Christians. But he knows the importance of having a Christian prince. In this thorny area, it is good to have both the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. At the very least, one must be clear-sighted, and this the conspirators were not. As another reviewer pointed out, their conspiracy never had “a ghost of a chance.” 

Robert Jeffrey is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dalton College in Dalton, Georgia. 

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