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a miniseries created by ronan bennett,
kit harrington, and daniel west
bbc one

Though its preeminence has been challenged in recent years, the Gunpowder Plot remains the most famous terrorist conspiracy in England’s history. A group of English Catholics, disillusioned by years of punitive fines and brutal public executions of Catholic priests, conspired to destroy England’s king and government at a stroke by exploding gunpowder beneath the House of Lords during the ceremonial opening of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster on Tuesday, November 5, 1605. The plot was discovered by chance at the last moment, when a search of the premises was undertaken during the night. One “John Johnson” (also known as Guido or Guy Fawkes) was found in the cellars, waiting to light the fuse on the mine. With their plan frustrated and exposed, the other plotters fled north to a string of Catholic gentry houses located in the Midlands. They were eventually cornered at Holbeach House in the West Midlands, where several were killed and the rest captured after a short but fierce firefight. The survivors were duly convicted and executed.

These events are all grippingly related in Gunpowder, a three-part BBC miniseries praised by some for its historical accuracy, damned by others for inaccuracy, criticized by many for its gory depictions of torture and public execution, and suspect to a few because of a dimly sensed “anti-British” agenda. Its creator is Ronan Bennett, a republican (in the Irish sense) from Northern Ireland whose political views are avowedly radical and left-wing, and who was some decades ago tried and acquitted on terrorist charges. His background and concerns, together with his doctorate in early modern history, arguably made him the ideal writer for this series.

Medical dramas, action thrillers, and horror films routinely depict far more gruesome acts than the ones in Gunpowder, and usually without attracting anything like the criticism that it has received. In this case, the violence shown is far from gratuitous, especially the savage killings early in the first episode, during which a Catholic priest is hanged, drawn, and quartered, and a Catholic lady is subjected to the infamous peine forte et dure—slowly crushed to death by an unbearable weight for refusing to enter a plea in response to a criminal charge. These scenes accurately convey the life of Catholics in England around 1600—clandestine Masses celebrated by hunted priests, raids and searches by royal officers, fines and imprisonment, and, in extremis, torture and execution.

Perhaps some of the disquiet that has been voiced about these grim scenes arises precisely because they depict what was in fact a reality. There is still enough of the “us” and “them” of Elizabethan England around for “us” to be made uncomfortable by the fact that “we” did such things to “them.” Similarly, it can still be hard for Catholics to face up to what our long-dead coreligionists were doing. The comforting idea that the whole thing was a put-up job fixed by government spies and agents provocateurs did not emerge quite as quickly as the conspiracy theories that sprouted after 9/11, but emerge it did, and for the same reason: “Surely people like ‘us’ don’t do things like that.” After four hundred years, we should all be able to face the truth. The plotters were indeed plotting what really was a terrorist atrocity. They were doing so in response to what really was brutal religious persecution.

Gunpowder, then, opens with an effective representation of the motives that induced a small group of Catholics to plan the destruction of the very institution which was responsible for their sufferings. And many of those who would have been killed by the blast were directly responsible: As members of the Lords or Commons, many had personally lobbied and voted for the penal laws and clamored for their enforcement. It would not have been hard for Robert Catesby and his companions to convince themselves of the moral case for direct action. It was perhaps only a little harder to reconcile themselves to the deaths of the Catholic Lords who would also have been blown to pieces: “fellow travelers,” “collateral damage,” and so forth. That would not have been the last time a terrorist cell slaughtered members of the community in whose name it claimed to act.

Accuracy is a relatively trivial virtue. All it requires is care and attention. Truth, however, is more than the sum total of accurate details. Another widely praised recent BBC series, for example, was often accurate in its details, but got nowhere near the truth in its portrayal of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. To criticize a historical dramatization merely for inaccuracies in detail is to miss the point, to misunderstand the nature of the truth that drama seeks to communicate. To take one example from Gunpowder, the brutal execution of Dorothy Dibdale by peine forte et dure is strictly inaccurate. The peine forte et dure was not a method of execution; it was a form of torture, designed to induce the victim to enter a plea in response to a criminal charge. It was indeed inflicted upon the Catholic recusant Margaret Clitherow at York in 1586, resulting in her death. But that may have been the only time it was ever used against a woman, and it was in any case extremely rare. In historical terms, then, Gunpowder got this wrong. But to criticize the series on such grounds would indeed be to miss the point. Such things were done, to Catholics, for such reasons, in such a way. The action helps set the scene for the larger story, and it does so powerfully and unforgettably.

The one major criticism of Gunpowder on historical grounds has to be the interweaving of the plot with high matters of foreign policy. For the story is dramatically altered by being made a factor in the Anglo-Spanish negotiations that put an end to nearly twenty years of war. This makes great drama. The plotters approach Spain for assistance, but Spain’s counterpart to England’s chief minister Robert Cecil (played with sinister panache by Mark Gatiss) does not want fanatics imperiling his grand strategy. The constable of Castile wants to harbor Spanish fleets in English ports in pursuit of his top strategic priority, regaining control of the war-torn Netherlands. Playing a clever hand, he ends up throwing the plotters to the wolves, saving Cecil’s political credit and career in return for safe harborage. It’s a magnificent plot twist, a classic case of the big shots trampling on the little guys in the course of the great game.

But it did not happen. The Anglo-Spanish treaty was signed in August 1604, a year before the Gunpowder Plot, and the Spanish withdrew their demand for toleration of Catholics in return for those all-important harborage rights. Good drama but bad history, and ultimately not really necessary, though it does enable the BBC to maintain its legendary “balance” by showing the constable presiding at the burning of two heretics (rather implausibly, as far as I could see, indoors!). The politicians are all seen to be as bad as each other, and the Catholics likewise as no better than the Protestants, so the cozy self-congratulation of the modern viewing audience can be appropriately flattered.

Nevertheless, in its portrayal of an uncertain and insecure regime (more contemporary parallels here) at a delicate moment of political transition, in a troubled world made more dangerous by heightened religious and ideological tensions, Gunpowder attains dramatic truth. It bends history to suit its dramatic purpose, but it does not present us with simplistic role reversals of well-known historical personages, in the manner of that other recent BBC historical miniseries.

Considered as television, then, Gunpowder is a success, though not an unmixed one. The two main characters, Robert Catesby (a dashing portrayal by Kit Harington) and Robert Cecil, are convincingly drawn, a welcome change from the cartoonish goodies and baddies of the series that must not be named (though there is a touch of the stage villain in Gatiss’s Cecil). The Jesuit priest Henry Garnet (Peter Mullan, an excellent match for the surviving descriptions of the man) is a realistic version of someone who found himself, uncomfortably and against his will, on the margins of the plot, refusing to take part but restrained by the secrecy of the confessional from doing anything to forestall it. (Maybe the screenplay missed a trick here. Garnet’s subsequent show trial set out the clash between reason of state and rights of conscience in a way that could have added real tragic weight.) Garnet’s friend Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler), who was undoubtedly in love with him, is also well written and well cast. Bennett laudably refrains from taking up the probably false claims put about in government propaganda that the two were in a sexual relationship. Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen) as a close-shaven Vin Diesel look-alike is a thoroughly entertaining but not entirely credible action figure.

The political tragedy of the Gunpowder Plot was that it made things worse, far worse, for the Catholics of England than they ever need have been. The death of Elizabeth and the succession of James VI and I had offered the chance of a fresh start. The ill-judged excommunication and “deposition” of Queen Elizabeth I by Pope Pius V in 1570 had fatally compromised the position of English Catholics. Even though most of them paid no heed to that piece of political posturing, it was henceforth always possible for the English regime, dominated by William Cecil, to represent Catholics as necessarily and intrinsically traitors, at least potentially so. And the regular succession of Catholic plots against Elizabeth (some real enough, some mere entrapment, almost all of them penetrated with childish ease by government spies) lent substance to that claim. As long as Elizabeth was on the throne and the papacy made no formal withdrawal of the sentence of deposition, there was no real prospect of change.

But the accession of James changed everything. In seeking to negotiate an easy path to the English throne, he had allowed hints or maybe even promises of more generous treatment to be made to Catholics and to Rome in his name. His mother had been a Catholic, and his wife was a convert to Catholicism. He himself was not prey to the visceral hatred of “popery” that was already such a marked feature of English political culture. He was temperamentally anything but inclined toward religious persecution and was also deeply committed to peace. Peaceful relations with Spain and France were always likely to improve the position of England’s Catholics. England’s Catholics in turn had nothing to fear and everything to hope for. Their allegiance to James was not compromised by embarrassing papal bulls, so they could welcome his accession wholeheartedly. When peace with Spain was made, their hopes rose further. The Spanish failed to get toleration for Catholics included in the peace treaty, but they would continue to lobby for it. And peace itself reduced the pressure on the English treasury, to which the fines levied on Catholics had become unfortunately useful.

Two things derailed progress toward a better outcome for Catholics. Firstly, the English regime, still dominated by Robert Cecil, heir to his father’s political hegemony, remained locked into the Elizabethan mind-set. Because the political class, represented in Parliament, resolutely refused to shoulder its share of the costs of government, the revenues available from squeezing Catholics could not be sacrificed, and Catholic hopes of relief were rapidly shown to be delusional. This in its turn helped provoke the disillusionment and despair amid which the Gunpowder Plot took shape. Secondly, the plot itself not only vindicated Cecil’s hard-line views on the “Catholic problem” but also confirmed his equation of popery with sedition. That equation could now be presented not as a side effect of Elizabethan politics, but as part of the natural order. The government took full advantage of the plot. England’s Catholics were thus doomed to two generations of persecution and to two centuries of political discrimination.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and author of The Making of Martin Luther.