By GARETH EDWARDS
WHEN Fr. John Gerard. Si..
threw his challenge "What was the Gunpowder Plot?" into the historical arena in 1896 he quoted sixteen seven teenth-century Protestant authors. several of them contemporary with the conspiracy who suspected that it was a frame-up.
Among the most striking of these testimonies was the reported admission of Robert Cecil's son that his father had himself claimed the credit for the conspiracy.
There were other Protestant authors Fr. Gerard could have cited : Sir Peter Pett, for instance, who referred sarcastically to " the Parliament's belief ° in the affair.
Most of these expressions of Opinion were little more than hearsay. hut they are evidence of a firmly-rooted tradition which survived vigorously enough. As late as 1800 a contributor to "The Gentleman's Magazine" remarked that "this plot is now pretty well understood not to have been hatched by the Papists but by an inveterate foe of the Catholicks of that day, the famous minister of James"
CHAMPION OF TOLERAMON
ONE aspect of the plot, however, was apparently lost from view for about 150 years after 1605 : the persecution which drove Catesby and his accomplices to their desperate course. It was not until the question of Catholic Emancipation thrust itself into English minds that full consciousness of persecution returned. with Burke as the champion of toleration.
"All the three religions prevalent in these islands." Burke wrote in 1795, "ought to be countenanced. protected and cherished". The waves of refugee priests from France after the September Massacres were met by Englishmen burning to make amends for intolerance. and Burke himself wrote the appeal to the English public on behalf of " their suffering brethren, the Christians of France".
For the next 37 years the noblest minds of England fought for toleration. "I cannot understand", exclaimed Canning in an 1825 debate, "why all the subjects of the same kingdom, all the inhabi tants of the same soil . . those who live in the same country. mingle in the daily offices of life. and profess a common Christianity. should be excluded from the common benefits of the constitution of their country". He had come to the debate ill. leaning on a stick. and his voice was so weak as to be hardly audible.
ON CATHOLIC BRAVERY
WHATEVER their misgivings about the future, the participators in the Emancipation debates were at least convinced that Catholic loyalty in general was a fact.
Sir Henry Parnell. in an 1815
debate, referred to the loyal behaviour of Catholic bishops in the rebellions of 1715, 1745 and 1798 and the next year, after Napoleon's final defeat, the Earl of Aberdeen acknowledged that " much has been done for our country by Catholic bravery".
By this time, therefore.. the Gunpowder Plot was beginning to seem unreal. How could so docile a people conceive and execute, of their own free volition, such wickedness ? Hume considered the plot "incredible", though he accepted the traditional story.
Charles Lamb felt the same difficulty, observing that the enterprise "supposes such gigantic audacity of daring. combined with such more than infantile stupidity in the motive, that credulity is almost swallowed up in contemplating the singularity of the attempt".
Throughout the Emancipation debates there is an extraordinary absence of references to the conspiracy.
STUDYING THE TRIAL
A BEGINNING towards resolving this contradiction was made by the Protestant lawyer David Jardine in his 1835 study of the Gunpowder Plot trial. He was astonished at the sinister implications of what he discovered. Unattested
accusations had been added to documents and attested evidence had been suppressed.
Lord Monteagle, who had received the anonymous letter giving warning of the plot, received great favours from the Government both before and after the event and. concluded Jardine. "it is not at all improbable that Monteagle himself was privy to the plot . His conclusion was confirmed in 1840 by the discovery of a letter from Monteagle to Catesby twice mentioning " fire and air " and inviting Catesby to Bath. where the conspirators are known to have met.
The reaction of nineteenth century historians to Jardine's discoveries showed how closely in English minds the Gunpowder Plot is linked to the Reformation. Hardly any writers could bring themselves to credit the cool villainy which was now suggested. S. R. Gardiner wrote oT Salisbury's "honesty of intention".
Jardine himself, in his 1857 recension of the story, suppressed the passage quoted above. Hallam considered that to ascribe the plot to "the contrivance and management of Cecil argues great effrontery in those who lead. and great stupidity in those who follow."
AN AGE OF MELODRAMA
POPULAR writers treated the matter slightly differently. Secret knowledge on Salisbury's part was excellent script for an age of melodrama; on the other hand. national credit could be saved and the dramatic effect heightened by
imaginative treatment of the Jesuits.
Thus. in Ainsworth's novel "Guy
Fawkes", Salisbury declares : "Though I have not contrived this plot, I have known of its existence from the first, and I shall now use it as a pretext to crush the whole Catholic party." But the Jesuits "desired the utter subversion of the existing government, temporal as well as ecclesiastical". and Fr. Garnet blesses the implements to be used in digging the mine.
• CATHOLIC historians leo anxious to avoid the appearance of special pleading were meanwhile treating the agent provocateur theory with caution. Charles Butler noted it in the 1819
edition of his " Historical
Memoirs", but took the trouble. in the 1821 edition, to write a chapter io refutation, Jardine s work was carried considerably further by Fr. John Gerard in his three remarkable books on the plot He produced abundant evidence that the two principal documents were forged. that the mine was a government invention. Iind that the government supplied the gunpowder.
He and Fr. Pollen between them did excellent work in freeing Frs. Garnet and Desmond from the charges which Coke had made at
Fr. Garnet's trial. Pollen rightly recalled Fr. Person's remark that "Kings' Attorneys meet speak to the purpose. howsoever it be to the truth".
Mr. Hugh Ross Williamson. in his "The Gunpowder Plot" (1951), made contributions to the story of the greatest importance. He demonstrated by actual comparison of documents a particular instance of forgery, showed that the movements of two of the government's decipherers coincided with Salisbury's need for them. and brought to light a later attempted blackmailing of the government by someone who wanted to inspect the gunpowder accounts.
Fr. Anstruther drew attention in his "Vaux of Harrowden" (1953) to the Privy Council permission to travel abroad given to Francis Tresham on November 2. 1605. The subseepient probable poisoning of Treeham suggests that he unwisely failed to take this broad hint Fr. Anstruther also noticed that the London prisons were emptied shortly before November 5, as if Salisbury was expecting a large new intake of prisoners. It cannot be said that non-Catholic historians in general are yet willing
Yeomen of the Guard are issued with lanterns in preparation for the annual ceremony of searching the vaults prior to the Royal open ing of Parliament.
to accept the frame-up view of the Gunpowder Plot. but there are signs of a gentler attitude towards Jesuits.
NOT THE END
THERE is no reason to believe that we have come to the end of either the discoveries or the reasoning about the plot. The Hatfield manuscripts have not yet been fully calendared. The Monteagle letter to Cateshy has not yet been dated. It is not clear why, if Fathers Garnet and Desmond knew that Monteagle had been a conspirator. they should have kept silent about him. One wonders why, if Tresham knew too much for the Government's peace of mind. his wife and servant were allowed to visit him in the Tower.
Finally. a careful study has still to be made of the witnesses to the various interrogation reports; only those where a number of Commissioners were present can he treated as valid, It seems. indeed, that before historians can gain a real understanding of the conspiracy. they must adopt the point of view. strange to some of them. that of the authorities on whom we rely for our knowledge of the affair, only the Jesuits are creditworthy.