The Future of History

Friday, 29 August 2014

Gunpowder Treason - a 400 Year Old Lie

96 people died at the Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989.  Even as the full scale of the disaster was becoming apparent, the authorities - police, politicians, the press - were concocting a story about it.  It was all caused by drunken football fans, they said.  Those same fans had picked the pockets of the dead and urinated on the paramedics who were trying to help.

We now know that that story was a pack of lies, although it took more than two decades for the truth to come out.  But what had happened was a political elite, composed of extremists, had cooked up and spun a false yarn designed to demonise a perceived enemy.  That enemy was, (a) football fans, who were seen as hooligans, and (b) the people of Liverpool, who remained obstinately opposed to the socio-economic insanity of Thatcherism.  The disaster provided an excuse for the State to denigrate those who seemed unable to fight back while, at the same time, covering up its own incompetence.

So what has that got to do with the Gunpowder Plot?

Well, we now know the truth about Hillsborough, 25 years ago, and few commentators would have the gall to repeat the lies told by the police and the government back then.  We do not, however, know the truth about the "powder treason", 409 years ago, because historians insist on repeating the lies.

The Radio Times reports that BBC2 has "just given the green light to Gunpowder 5/11: the Greatest Terror Plot".  "It's a total retelling," says the writer, "which uses the interrogation of Fawkes's number three, Thomas Winter, who gave away the whole story."

Okay, before we go any further ...

Fawkes was not the ringleader.  That was Robert Catesby.  Guy Fawkes was essentially a hired hand.  Arguably, Thomas Wintour was Catesby's number three.  But did he give away the whole story?

"We restage the interrogation and get inside the plot, which was huge", continues the writer, Adam Kemp, breathlessly.  Restage the interrogation, hunh?  That'll be interesting.  I can only assume we will mention the fact that Thomas Wintour had been shot in the shoulder when he and his comrades were finally cornered by a local posse.  Whether he would have been capable of composing his ten-page confession in neat handwriting is open to doubt.  But the signature on the confession - a rather bold "Thomas Winter" - wasn't his own.  He spelled his name "Wintour".

Note that Adam Kemp referred to "Thomas Winter".  He's using the name used by the Jacobean government, not the individual whose name it actually was.  Which means that his "total retelling" will, in all probability, be exactly the same version of events as that which was cooked up at the time by government ministers.  It won't be a "total retelling" at all.  Just another re-tread.

He goes on: "They would have got everyone under one roof, the royal family and the entire governing elite and bishops.  There is truly nothing that can come close.  It really was big,"

Yes, it was.  It would have been enormous.  If it had happened.  And yet, truth be told, there never was even the slightest risk that the king and his lords would be blown to smithereens.  Not a chance in hell.

Let's start with the gunpowder.  It was sourced from the Tower of London, where the government (which had the monopoly on gunpowder) kept its supply under the supervision of Sir George Carew.  Carew, a government insider, had just become Baron Carew of Clopton.  He somehow managed to let Clopton House, his estate just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, to the gunpowder plotters.  Nobody seems to have thought that was odd.  But the government resolutely blocked an investigation into how the gunpowder had been removed from the Tower.

How much gunpowder was there?  Good question.  A credible source said one barrel.  Guy Fawkes confessed to secreting twenty barrels in the Parliament building.  Sir Robert Cecil, who knew more about the plot than anybody, wrote of there having been 34 barrels.  The figure eventually settled on was 36 barrels.

So nobody was quite sure how much gunpowder had been involved, and no explanation was ever given for its mysterious disappearance from the government's store.  A large quantity of gunpowder was returned to the Tower a couple of days after Fawkes's arrest and was registered as "decayed".  Its constituent elements had separated.  It would never have blown up anything, let alone the royal family and entire governing elite.  There wouldn't even have been a puff!

Reliable witnesses saw the real ringleaders - Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy - emerging from Sir Robert Cecil's house in the early hours of the morning, just days before the plot was discovered.  That's like the perpetrators of the 7/7 London bombings being spotted sneaking out of 10 Downing Street a few days before they detonated their rucksacks on crowded tubes and buses (except, of course, that the gunpowder plotters explosives were "decayed" and weren't going to blow up).  Thomas Percy himself was a government insider, in the king's service at the time.  His job was to make sure that the plot proceeded and to implicate his kinsman, the Earl of Northumberland, whom Sir Robert Cecil has sworn to destroy.

Catesby, on the other hand, spent much of the year leading up to the plot's discovery trying to trick Father Henry Garnet into condoning the plot.  The government repeatedly delayed the opening of Parliament so that Catesby would have more time to incriminate Garnet.  Catesby was aided in his attempts to entrap Garnet by William Parker, Lord Monteagle.  Monteagle was eventually credited with exposing the plot and rewarded handsomely - every mention of him in the plotters' confessions was redacted.  Both Catesby and Percy, who had engineered the plot, were killed, rather than taken alive, on the instructions of Sir Robert Cecil.

The simple fact is that the Gunpowder Plot never really was.  True, some of its members were ardent Catholics who joined what they believed would be a blow for freedom.  But the main players were government stooges (William Shakespeare - who was alarmingly close to the events - made this clear in his plays, Macbeth and Coriolanus).  In other words, the Gunpowder Plot was pretty much the same as every other plot of its time.  These supposed "plots" were "discovered" on a more-or-less annual basis, and they all followed the same pattern - a good example being the Babington Plot of 1586.  A Catholic patsy was lured into a fake conspiracy by government agents, who then "discovered" the plot which they themselves had manufactured.  There was massive publicity, and the Protestant extremists at the heart of the government got to enact the policies which they'd been hankering to put into place: the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots - a Catholic contender for the English throne - or the execution of Father Henry Garnet, Superior of the Jesuits in England.

The constant repetition of the government's lies about the Gunpowder Plot is an offense to history.  It amounts to a 400-year propaganda campaign, and it speaks volumes that British historians would rather regurgitate the falsehoods about Catholic militancy than investigate the truth about Protestant duplicity.

The Gunpowder Plot is more than just an iconic incident-that-didn't-happen.  It led to the English Civil War; John Pym and John Milton were obsessed with it.  Like so many others in those paranoid times, they had swallowed the lies spouted by the likes of Sir Robert Cecil (for his own personal gain).  So successful were the propagandists in broadcasting the cooked-up story of the Gunpowder Plot, it fuelled the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the fanatics for decades.  Arguably, it continues to fuel our irrational fears of some nefarious, fanatical "enemy within" which is "out to get us" because it "hates our freedom".  That sort of nonsense has been doing the rounds since the Gunpowder Plot, and it's precisely why the plot was invented.  Fear is a useful tool of government.

Historians repeat the Gunpowder Plot lie for a simple reason.  Englishness has always been difficult to define.  It's easier to explain what being "English" means in terms of what it is not - Catholic, Jewish, Irish, Scottish, French, etc. - than in terms of what it is.  That is why the English lay claim to a "tolerance" and a sense of "fair play" which they so seldom exhibit.  If they were honest with themselves, they'd have to say that the simplest way to be "English" is to hate, fear and abuse anyone who isn't.  But that problem created its own national myth, embroidered by generations of Whig historians anxious to justify every atrocity and outrage of our past as a necessary part of our Manifest Destiny.  The State had to persecute Catholics because the Catholics wanted to blow up the State (even though they never did; never actually came close).  To be English is to be Protestant.  The Catholics were, ipso facto, the enemy - like those football supporters who died at Hillsborough.  They were "not on our side", so they could be slandered.

It really is time to put the lie of the Gunpowder Plot to bed.  And I doubt very much indeed that the BBC's Gunpowder 5/11: the Greatest Terror Plot will even try to do that.  No.  Just going by the title alone, it seems most likely that it'll be yet another repetition of the old, old lie, designed to excuse the most vicious persecution of English citizens who happened to be Catholic. 

Such a slavish acceptance and repetition of past propaganda isn't history, though.  It's telling fairy tales for political purposes.

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