A Tall Stranger in Hoxton

John Bossy

  • The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser
    Weidenfeld, 347 pp, £20.00, August 1996, ISBN 0 297 81348 X

In the spring of 1604, the English were adjusting to the arrival of King James from Scotland, attending to the doings of his first Parliament, and awaiting the arrival of envoys from the King of Spain to negotiate an end to twenty years of war. Peace, even with the Scots, was in the air. This did not please everybody, and some of the people it did not please were Catholics, who thought that the Spaniards had let them down by failing to make formal toleration for them a condition of the peace. They also had a grudge against James, who was supposed, before his accession, to have promised to remove their disabilities, and was now, they thought, about to put the Elizabethan code against them back into force.

One of the Catholics, a rich gentleman from the Midlands and charismatic energumen called Robert Catesby, called a meeting on 20 May at the Duck and Drake, off the Strand, the lodgings of his cousin and the disciple, Thomas Wintour. Three other men were invited: Jack Wright, a swordsman friend of Catesby’s; Thomas Percy, Wright’s brother-in-law and man of business to his kinsman, the magnate and Councillor the Earl of Northumberland; and Guido Fawkes, a phlegmatic and reliable soldier brought over from Catholic service in the Netherlands by Wintour. They all agreed to the famous scheme for a coup put up by Catesby, which entailed blowing up the entire political establishment at the next opening of Parliament, as well as an armed raid in the Midlands to get hold of James’s young daughter Elizabeth (later the Winter Queen of Bohemia), and set her up as the figurehead of a new regime with, perhaps, the Earl of Northumberland as Protector. Having settled that, they swore an oath of secrecy, and received communion at a Mass said by the Jesuit John Gerard, who was in the next room: they presumably understood this as turning their undertaking into a religious vow and conjoining them in sacred solidarity.

The first part of the scheme went with absurd facility. The conspirators rented some lodgings which were structurally part of the Parliament buildings, where they installed Fawkes. Later, they hired a convenient storeroom in part of the arched and pillared ground-floor ‘cellar’, or ex-kitchen, under the House of Lords, to which they made an entry from the lodgings. There, in and after March 1605 (the opening of Parliament had been delayed), they deposited 36 barrels of gunpowder bought cheap in a glutted market by a wealthy young friend of Catesby’s, later recruited into the plot; it was brought across by boat to Parliament Stairs from Catesby’s house over the river at Lambeth, but not, as one might imagine, rolled by Fawkes up Parliament Place to the storeroom, since it seems to have come over in bags. The only problem which arose was that, due to the delay in reassembling Parliament, the gunpowder ‘decayed’ and Fawkes had to go and buy some more. Neither delivery caused any remark.

The action in the Midlands was equally simple; sensibly, Catesby improvised it shortly before the bomb was due to go off. He recruited a few more rich landowners, including his first cousin and old pal Francis Tresham, who had just come into the inheritance of the recusant builder and en-closer Sir Thomas Tresham, and two young innocents called Ambrose Rookwood and Everard Digby. Rookwood and Digby were told to hire convenient houses, and Digby to organise a hunting party for everybody at Dunchurch, only eight miles away from Princess Elizabeth. This he obediently did on 4 November.

According to tradition, the scheme had already been blown by a murky anonymous letter received ten days before by a more or less Catholic peer, Lord Monteagle, another friend of Catesby’s and a brother-in-law of Tresham. It warned him not to go to the opening of Parliament. Monteagle passed the letter on to the authorities; Fawkes was arrested by a party searching the Palace of Westminster; the hunting party was itself hunted down across the West Midlands; the barrels were handed over to the Ordnance Office, which said that the powder in them had decayed, yet again.

Antonia Fraser’s word for the scheme is ‘terrorism’, and she makes no bones about using it, though she implies in her dedication that some of her Catholic friends and relations would feel differently. She has no time for mythical accretions: either for the official tale about the mine which was supposed to have been dug from the rented house to the foundations of the Chamber, which proved too thick to penetrate; or for the theory that it was a sham plot got up by Sir Robert Cecil, recently made Lord Salisbury. The Colditz-like story of the tunnel was apparently introduced to add some excitement to an otherwise everyday narrative, and to provide a reason why the conspirators should have hung about for nine months. It can be instantly rejected on two grounds. First, the place they hired was not on the ground floor of the house in Parliament Place. Second, it is plain that the principal conspirators did not intend to commit themselves to anything that might be called work, which they left to Fawkes and a couple of other inferiors. The only snippet of information about the mine which has any plausibility involves a servant retrieving the sweaty shirt of John Gerard, after he had come up from his stint in the tunnel.

The other, Catholic, story was launched by the quasi-papist gossip-writer Bishop Godfrey Goodman, who claimed that Thomas Percy was a secret agent. One of the things in favour of this is that Catesby, Wintour, Tresham, Wright and Lord Monteagle had all been involved in the Earl of Essex’s abortive armed coup of 1601, for which they had, at a price, been pardoned. They were therefore in a delicate position, and might in principle have been used by Cecil to work something up if that is what he wanted; but there is no respectable evidence that he had any connection with them. There is the letter to Lord Monteagle, late though that was; but, as Antonia Fraser says, both it and the story about it are fishy in the extreme. Her solution is not quite the usual one, that it was written by Francis Tresham, who had got cold feet; Fraser thinks it was cooked up by Monteagle himself after Tresham had warned him verbally. Her principal reason for supposing this is that Monteagle came out of the affair very well, and Tresham very badly: he died of natural causes in the Tower. I have a couple of difficulties with this suggestion. One is that Monteagle, who was always knocking about with Catesby, may have known about the scheme anyway, which would let out Tresham. The other is that the news of the anonymous letter was passed on to Catesby by Monteagle’s servant, Thomas Ward, who was supposed to have received it from a tall stranger in the street outside Monteagle’s house in Hoxton. Either he did this with Monteagle’s consent, or on his instructions; or not. Suppose the first: at the same time as he is exposing the plot to Salisbury, he tells Catesby, in order, presumably, to persuade him to call it off. But Salisbury’s interest, once informed, was to keep the plot going until he could catch the conspirators in the act; and but for Catesby’s unpredictable determination to go on with it, they would surely have given up. I cannot think that either Salisbury or James would have been at all pleased with Monteagle if that is what he had done; instead of covering himself with glory, he might have found himself in the Tower with the others. Suppose, as Antonia Fraser does, the second alternative. Ward passes the word on his own initiative, because he has friends among the plotters. Would Monteagle, for the reasons stated, not have been furious? What were the relations between Monteagle and Ward afterwards? I think the letter is still rather a mystery. The underlying question about it is whether or not Salisbury knew anything about the plot until Monteagle came to him. Fraser’s quite brave conclusion is that he did not, and I know no decent reason for contradicting it.

One of her conclusions that I am not so sure about is her – traditional – view of what the motives for the conspiracy were: she takes it to be a reaction to the fact or threat of renewed persecution of Catholics, particularly after the encouraging noises James had made in their direction before his accession. It is true that some hostile gestures had been made by King, Council and Parliament since then; but the condition of lay Catholics in 1604-5 was very tolerable. Most of the plotters and their friends were very well-off and had constant access to priests and their ministrations: the enormous houses we are shown in illustrations to the book are testimony to the comfort in which they lived. What they were concerned with rather was their honour, and this touches something deeper in the constitution of the Catholic body than I think Fraser recognises. She says that the English, meaning the Elizabethan Catholic world was ‘essentially loyal despite harassment, peace-loving despite suffering and, where persecution was concerned, submissive to the will of God’. This is not wrong, but there is a bit more to it than that.

Thirty years earlier, the frightful Earl of Oxford, during the mercifully short period when he claimed to be one of them, had complained that the Catholics ‘like good Ave Mary coxcombs were content to lay down their heads until they were taken off, and therefore ... wished that for every one they lost they might lose a thousand, till they learned to be wiser’. Oxford himself had been there before the missionary priests arrived, since when quite a few others, like Francis Throckmorton, had been of Oxford’s opinion. Unlike Oxford, these were pious Catholics, and took the overthrow of a Protestant regime to be a work of piety. Hence the communion of the plotters. In their case, we ought to consider their position inside a community whose religious feelings had come to be dominated by Jesuit activism. The community was now divided between pro and anti-Jesuits, but all the conspirators were in the Jesuit camp, and Catesby and some others very centrally in it: they hobnobbed continually with Henry Garnet and Gerard, and other eminences of the Jesuit mission. What were they, rich, often talented, instinctively activist young or youngish men to do? The priests did their bit by working at the missionary coal-face, if necessary by martyrdom. The women, as Antonia Fraser acutely explains, did theirs by giving the priests companionship and dedicated assistance – Mary Ward, the celebrated would-be founder of a female version of the Jesuits, was a niece of two of the plotters. What were the men to do but reach for their swords, on which they had first engraved the passion of Christ; or, ungentlemanly as it was, for their gunpowder? Fawkes could put the match to it.