“Remember, remember, the fifth of November: gunpowder, treason and plot.”

The season of blog posts by some of our Master’s students is upon us once more. In this post, Mathilde Arrosa and Juliette Naudin take a look at the Gunpowder Plot in contemporaneous publications, focusing especially on J. H. Gent’s 1612 A True and Perfect Relation of that most horrid & hellish conspiracy of the gunpowder treason.

 

Fig. 1 Remember, remember the fifth of November https://www.flickr.com/photos/woolamaloo_gazette/4078960006.

 

Most people will know these words and other tokens of popular culture: the Anonymous mask, the 5th of November, and so on. All relate to, and are products linked with the Gunpowder Plot. But one does not have to go far to see the number of historical inaccuracies contained within the modern representations of the plot. Especially with modern productions, such as the historical drama television Gunpowder miniseries produced by Kit Harington, one can see a narrative drawn up. However, this type of storytelling was also present in the material contemporary to the event itself. But how have the narratives of the time shaped the way we tell, perceive, and remember the Gunpowder Plot? It was done primarily with the construction of an anti-Catholic narrative. In addition, this storytelling was incomplete. Eventually, these two major aspects have crystallised, leading to new modern perspectives and questions on the topic.

In A True and Perfect Relation of that most horrid & hellish conspiracy of the gunpowder treason (1612) J.H Gent forms an anti-Catholic narrative, using different strategies: through portraying the plotters and Catholics as malevolent, describing the plot as an egregious event, but also, depicting Protestants as protected by God.

 

Fig. 2 The Gunpowder Plot Galop, 1866.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cover_-_The_Gunpowder_Plot_Galop_(1866)_-_BL.jpg.

One of Gent’s goals was to create a negative image of the Catholics. He does so explicitly by describing Papists and plotters with unfavourable words such as: “some practices of the Papists to make new stirs”[1] and “They lived bloodily in superstition, they practised divellishly in all manner of impiety”[2] for the plotters. There are more instances of this behaviour in the book, but these examples clearly depict Catholics as burdensome as well as vile. Because only dissenting words are used, there is no room left for any sympathy, mediation, or nuance.
Gent also explicitly describes the plot negatively several times in his book. Here too, no place is left for sympathy: “that most monstrous & before unheard of mischief, the Plot of the Gunpowder-Treason.[3] and “This Horrid Treason”[4]. As the plot and the Catholics are described resentfully, even people who were not involved in the said plot (for Protestants tended to see all Catholics linked together, as part of some secret association) are associated with those negative images. In a way, because both the plot and the plotters are described as so, in opposition, Protestants are implicitly shown as victims. The Catholics and their plots are so wicked that Protestants can only be victims against their villainy. However, they are not helpless either, they have God on their side.
Naturally, Gent presents the idea that God watches over the Protestants and therefore they are protected. “The Lord is our Keeper, the Lord is our Defence at our right Hand. Which God of his Infinite Mercy still stretch out to our Protection, and continue us in Peace and Quietnesse”.[5] By weakening the validity of Catholics who are not protected directly by God, Protestants and their faith are strengthened and superior. By focusing on these different aspects Gent emphasises Protestants while Catholics are weakened.

This primary source also conveys a false telling of events. Indeed, Gent mentions both the Main and Gunpowder Plot, but even then, there seems to be a focus on the latter. Additionally, the account of what preceded and led to these events is diminished.

The Main Plot is mentioned and explained; however, this description is much lighter and less negative than the way the Gunpowder Plot is described: “by his declaring his constant resolution for the maintenance of the Religion here Established; a conspiracy was entred […] their design being to surprize the King and Prince Henry, and securing of them, […] there by violence to obtain their own pardons, a Tolleration of Religion, and a removal of some Councellours, &c. And to conceal this Treason the better, Watson devised Oaths of secresie”[6]. In this description much more moderate words, and in lesser quantities, are used. This implies a focus on the Gunpowder Plot, though they were violent attempts before.

But it is not only the descriptions of both plots that are either watered-down or exaggerated, it is also the events preceding both plots. “[Elizabeth] dying, the Papists of England were in great hopes that her Successour King James of Scotland, […] would not only remit and surcease those rigours they had before suffered, but would also grant them free Exercise and Toleration of their Religion, [that was in vain] when they perceived to be frustrated and disappointed, at that Kings very first coming in and assumption to this Crown”[7]. Here the past century of persecutions against Catholics are reduced to their frustration towards James, resulting in a violent outburst.

And while these persecutions are reduced to the sole quiescence of James, other aspects of the political and social contexts also tend to be diminished, some even made invisible.

Fig. 3 The Execution of the Conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, 1606 https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw81947/The-Execution-of-the-Conspirators-in-the-Gunpowder-Plot-Guy-Fawkes

“And their memory shall be cursed throughout all Generations.[8]

 

To understand the reasons that have led to the Gunpowder Plot, some would tell us to examine Elizabeth’s reign. But this tense climate had started building up way before: with Henry VIII when he was declared as the Supreme Head of Church, effectively breaking with Rome. This would lead to a series of religious identity crises in England, where anti-Catholic sentiments would develop and crystallise during the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I, becoming part of the national identity and ideology.

In her essay Gunpowder, Treason and Scots, Jenny Wormald argues that for the gunpowder plot: “we still lack a coherent historical explanation”. She continues: “The historical image of the Gunpowder Plot is thus dominated by fireworks, Catholic defensiveness […] it is dominated in a different way by the scholarship […]. But there remains a problem. […] We still need answers to the two most basic questions, why was there a Gunpowder Plot, and what did the plotters really want?”[9]. In fact, to understand that dichotomy in representations and narratives, the context and the plotters and their motivations have to be understood.

It cannot be denied that James needed to be accepted by Catholics to secure his throne. But even more than just reaching for English Catholics support, James sought support of the European Catholic powers while trying to instil enough tolerance as to keep Catholics satisfied without alienating the Protestant political power of England. To clearly understand the frustration of the plotters, it is essential to understand who they were; desperate men who spend many years before the plot, even before James’ succession, to seek solutions, eventually asking help from Spain in the hope of securing peace for English Catholics. Facing the harsh reality that no one, even Spain would come to help them, they were the only possible actors to ensure the end of these persecutions.

As Jenny Wormald points out: “There was far more to the Gunpowder Plot than a mere reaction to James I’s disappointing of Catholic hopes; it was a complex brew of international intrigue and national passion, and much work remains to be done before it can be fully understood.”[10] After more than 400 years, it is still worth the shot to look out for this event that is so well known and so little understood.

 

Fig. 4 The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw133798/The-Gunpowder-Plot-Conspirators

Due to the nature of some historical sources, there is bound to be some sort of degradation over time, whether physical (manuscripts torn or incomplete) or more ideological (the purpose of the text being over, under interpreted, or completely deformed). But that is not entirely the case with the Gunpowder Plot. There seemed, in historical documents, to be ideological deformations which worsened over time. These incomplete or biased stories were unsteady grounds with which historians had to base their research on, rendering a clear rendition of the plot even uncertain today. Though modern representations of a historical event might offer an alluring insight, and it is with careful steps one must tread when researching any topic. 

“I see no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”

 

Bibliography

Gent, J. A true and perfect relation of that most horrid & ; hellish conspiracy of the gunpowder treason. Dis-covered the 5th of November, anno Dom. 1605. Collected out of the best and most authentique writers, and now re-published. For further information, and to remember the people of England of Gods vvonderfull mercies and deliverances vouchsafed them, for his great name, and for his churches sake, in the defence and maintenance of the Protestant religion, established in these na-tions. With the names of those traytors that suffered for that bloody plot. London: Fr. Coles, 1612.

Wormald, Jenny. “Gunpowder, Treason, and Scots.” Journal of British Studies 24, no. 2 (April 1985): 141–68. https://www.jstor.org/stable/175701

 

[1] Ibid, Gent, 15.

[2] Jenny Wormald, “Gunpowder, Treason, and Scots,” Journal of British Studies 24, no. 2 (April 1985):  144-145.

[3] Ibid, Wormald, 162.

[4] Ibid, Gent, 16.

[5] Ibid, Gent, 4.

[6] Ibid, Gent, 4.

[7] Ibid, Gent, 3.

[8] Ibid, Gent, 5.

[9] J.H Gent, A True and Perfect Relation of that most horrid & hellish conspiracy of the gunpowder treason (London: Fr. Coles, 1612), 8.

[10] Ibid, Gent, 15.



Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2023, July 11). “Remember, remember, the fifth of November: gunpowder, treason and plot.”. Britaix 17-18 - Seminar on the early-modern anglophone world (Aix-Marseille University, LERMA, UR 853) . Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/m58k

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