The Future of History

Monday, 4 November 2013

Remember, Remember

There are three kinds of history.

The first is popular history.  This is what people can just about remember - the easily-digested, overly-simplistic view of history which was so beautifully spoofed by Sellar and Yeatman in their hilarious "Memorable History of England", 1066 And All That.

According to the popular account, a fiendish proto-terrorist named Guy Fawkes had planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday, 5 November 1605, but was caught at the last minute.  He was found lurking in an underground cellar, poised to light the fuse.  His motive?  Well, he was a Catholic.

The problem with popular history is that it is almost invariably wrong.  Fortunately - for those who are interested - there is also real history.  Usually written by academics (some of whom enjoy a sort of celebrity status), real history is considerably more detailed, and often more interesting, than the Disney-esque popular version.

Real history teaches us, for example, that Guy Fawkes was not the key player in the Gunpowder Plot.  The ringleader was Robert Catesby, originally of Lapworth in Warwickshire.  Catesby had recruited several diehard Catholics with his proposal to blow up the Houses of Parliament (along with King James and Henry, Prince of Wales, and most of the government) as an act of revenge.  Numerous swingeing anti-Catholic laws had been passed by the Parliaments of Elizabeth I.  When she died in 1603, it was fervently hoped - and widely believed - that her successor, King James VI of Scotland, would be more tolerant.  James, however, demanded more anti-Catholic legislation, and so Catesby and his secretive band resolved to destroy him and to set up his young daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, as a puppet monarch.

There was no underground cellar.  Fawkes was caught, at a little after midnight on Tuesday, 5 November 1605, in a ground floor vault.  As a professional soldier, he had been chosen to guard the vault and to light the fuse when the time came.  But even though it is his image (or a fanciful idea thereof - he actually had reddish-brown hair) which smiles inscrutably at us from a million "Anonymous" masks, he was a fairly minor player in the great conspiracy.

Still, real history has its problems, in that it too often repeats what was previously said.  And there is a third kind of history.  I think of it as "secret" history.

If popular history tells us what everyone thinks happened, and real history tells us what did happen, then the secret history explores what was actually going on.

So, did a small band of Catholic fanatics plan to blow up the Parliament building during the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605?  The answer is, yes and no.

Yes, in that several of the conspirators do seem to have willingly joined the plot with the aim of putting a violent end to the State's violence against them and their co-religionists.  We cannot explain the involvement of individuals such as John Grant of Snitterfield, near Stratford-upon-Avon, and his brothers-in-law, Robert and Thomas Wintour of Huddington in Worcestershire, unless we are prepared to accept that they really did plan to blow up the ultra-Protestant bigots of King James's Parliament.

And no, in that no explosion would have happened.  We do not know how much gunpowder had been stockpiled under the Peers' Chamber (the authorities came up with differing accounts), but we do know that the gunpowder which was returned from the Parliament Building to the Tower of London on 7 November was registered as "decayed".  Basically, its chemical ingredients had separated - a natural process, and one which meant that no amount of encouragement would have caused that gunpowder to go bang.

Besides which, the man responsible for the government's monopoly of gunpowder, and the supply kept in the Tower of London, was Sir George Carew, who had recently become Baron Carew of Clopton.  His new seat - Clopton House, one mile from Stratford-upon-Avon - was promptly let to one of the gunpowder plotters, the very man indeed who had been asked by Robert Catesby to acquire a large amount of gunpowder.  Doesn't that sound a bit odd?

What about the fact that William Parker, who had recently become the 4th Baron Mounteagle, had offered his services as a reformed Catholic to King James, and was then engaged on the king's Parliamentary business ... as well as spending time with Robert Catesby, trying to get the Jesuit Superior of the Province of England to condone mass murder.  Father Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior, was the ultimate victim of the foiled plot.  In fact, he could be described as the intended target - if the entire plot is looked at, not as a Catholic conspiracy, but as a government-backed false flag operation or 'black op' designed to compromise and damage the Jesuit mission in England.

And further to enrich Robert Cecil, the man who really ran the government.  He was a close friend of Sir George Carew's, and he made sure that all embarrassing references to William Parker, Lord Mounteagle, in the plotter's confessions were removed (Mounteagle was also handsomely rewarded for his dubious activities).  Cecil was also said - by reliable witnesses - to have allowed both Robert Catesby (the plot's supposed mastermind) and Thomas Percy (the plotter who invariably got things moving) into his house in the wee small hours via a back entrance.  The clear implication, and it is a credible one, being that Catesby and Percy, those twin pillars of the "powder treason", were Cecil's agents.

In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I explore Will Shakespeare's connections with the plot and the plotters, indicating that Shakespeare (as his own writings prove) was more aware than most of what had really been going on.  The devious Robert Cecil had recruited several lapsed Catholics or Catholic patsies - Catesby, Percy and Mounteagle being just three - and used them to entrap others, including the superior of the underground Jesuit mission.

There never would have been an explosion, because the plot was always going to be "exposed" in the nick of time.  Cecil and his agents had been aware of the plot (and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, had been actively directing the key plotters) for many months.  The whole thing was a set-up.

When Parliament finally reconvened, after the gunpowder scare, if passed an Act demanding the regular annual celebration of the king's deliverance from his enemies' malice on 5 November.  The Bonfire Night festivities - which are celebrated at this time every year - are, in fact, part of a 400-year old propaganda coup.  We are meant to celebrate the failure of a few jihadists to destroy parliamentary democracy, monarchical rule and the Church of England.  But as the plot was, in reality, more of a State intelligence operation than a terrorist conspiracy, what we are really commemorating is a cruel and cynical ploy to justify the horrendous persecution of Catholics.

That's what I mean by secret history.  You might think that you're celebrating Guy Fawkes' failed attempt to blow up Parliament.  You might be slightly better informed, and realise that there were several people involved, and that a surprising number of individuals (including priests) were brutally executed as a result of the "plot".

But if you read Who Killed William Shakespeare? you're more likely to realise that we were had.  The Gunpowder Plot was propaganda, pure and simple.  It was violent, bloody, and its effects were awful (if you happened to be Catholic).  But there was no threat at all to the king and his lords.

So what, you might ask, are we really celebrating when we remember, remember (as we were told to by the very Parliament which passed the merciless anti-Catholic laws) the "gunpowder treason and plot"?  A conspiracy that never really existed?  The public butchering of priests?

Guy Fawkes was a brave man, whether you approve of his beliefs or not.  And the men who set him up, betrayed him, tortured him and then executed him were among the worst liars this country has ever produced.

Enjoy the bonfires and the fireworks.  And if you must burn anyone in effigy, please make it Robert Cecil - the real villain of the piece.

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