Popery and Sedition

By Rex, Richard | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January 2018 | Go to article overview

Popery and Sedition


Rex, Richard, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Gunpowder

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 "antiBritish" 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. …

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