Here and there – Some terrorists from God: I

[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]

1  The scene

They are all male.  They may not be young, but they are of a fighting age.  They are certainly of an age to plot.  Their community is proud of them.  They are deeply religious, too deeply.  They are in truth fanatics – religious fanatics.  The old word was ‘zealots.’  Their religious zeal is their tragic flaw.  They are so zealous that they are ready to kill and die for the cause of their faith.  The mainstream members and clerics of their faith say that their zeal and readiness to kill are contrary to the express tenets of their faith, but the zealots have more faith in their own zeal than in the teaching and discipline of their elders.  Their faith has a high place for martyrs and if they die in defence of their faith, they will do so in the firm belief that paradise awaits them.  Their clerics are not involved, at least directly, with their plans and plots, but they are there to give general guidance to the zealots, such that some others believe that the clerics are behind all actions undertaken in the name of their faith.

The zealots want to attack a ruling power that they believe is insulting to their religion, and cruel to those who practise it.  At least some of their clerics condemn the regime.  In truth, the zealots wish to bring down the whole order.  For that purpose they are ready to kill or wound men, women, and children who are on any view innocent – ‘innocent’ at least in the sense that they have done nothing to deserve to die.  The zealots do not acknowledge that acting out of hate rarely ends well.  They are tunnel visioned.

To start their campaign they want to strike terror into the regime by a strike that is so daring and so vengeful that it will give the zealots a complete propaganda victory and provoke division and despair in their enemy.  They are ultimately driven back to the maxim that was the first refuge of the fascist and of lawless, godless and cruel dictators like Stalin and Hitler – the ends justify the means.  In short, they are terrorists – exemplary terrorists – the worst and most frightening kinds of terrorists.  They commit their acts of terror in the name of and on behalf of God.  Their claim is nothing less than that they act in the service of God.

Are we speaking of Muslims who attacked the twin towers in New York in 2001?  Yes.  Are we speaking also of the Catholics who attempted to blow up the English House of Parliament in 1605?  Yes.  And the comparison is instructive.

2  The background

The movement known to history as the Reformation involved a schism in the religion called Christianity.  The Catholic Church was no longer the one church.  Kant would later say that wars between different versions of the one faith were far worse than wars between those of different faiths.  Heresy is lethal.  The Reformation caused untold evil and misery for centuries – something that tends to be forgotten by those who want to teach or preach about the place of the Reformation in the ‘values’ of western civilisation.

The split in Germany was mainly about religion.  It led to the Thirty Years War that laid waste to so much of Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century.  The split in England was mainly about politics.  It led to vicious persecution and recrimination on both sides.  It also led to a foreign invasion, the Spanish Armada.  England’s defeat of Spain left the Protestants in control, and it left the Catholics subject to persecution and suspicion.

On the death of Henry VIII, Queen Mary had taken the Church of England back to Rome and she had burnt Protestants as heretics.  On her death, Queen Elizabeth took the Church back to the Protestants and executed Catholics.  Her schismatic death toll was far smaller than that of her half-sister (a point made in the trial we are coming to).

But the loathing that many English felt for Rome led to a split among Protestants.  The people we know as Puritans wanted to put the Church of England further away from Rome.  The purity of their consciences, and their God-driven sanctimony, would help to lead England into the agony of its Civil War.  Before the English tired of the lot of them, the Puritans would reach their frightful apotheosis in the bloodbath conducted by their champion in Ireland – Oliver Cromwell.

The Society of Jesus was formed by a former captain in the Spanish army.  It was to be part of the Church militant.  The level of its ambition is evident from its calling itself after Jesus, something that gave offence to many.  Membership was open to those wishing to serve as soldiers of God and for the defence and propagation of the faith.  The Society came to the fore in opposing the Protestants, and in the movement known as the Counter Reformation.  It started in Spain, the nation that invaded England in order to bring it back to the Catholic faith.  Protestants would therefore not trust the Jesuits, as they were called, and Jesuits had been banned from England and they would come to be expelled from France and other countries.  The Jesuits enjoyed an aura of secrecy that the Masons would copy.  They also exuded intellectual self-satisfaction.

An idle if mordant observer in London who had a sane view of the place of God may have thought at this time that the Puritans and the Jesuits deserved each other.  On any view, they were supremely well equipped to get up each other’s noses – and so to wreak havoc on the rest of us.  (And the worldly triumph of the Puritans in America would be testimony to the proposition that men who are assured that they are to inherit heaven usually find ways of presently taking possession of the earth.)

The cornerstone of the English reformation was the Act of Supremacy of 1559.  In 1570, the pope published a document (a bull) in which he excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and absolved her subjects from paying allegiance to her.  The bull declared ‘Elizabeth to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown’.  English sovereignty is in the news now, but it is hard to imagine a more open violation of it than this act of the Holy See – short of invasion.

The King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor disagreed with the pope.  They believed that the English would react against Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular.  They were dead right.  But a dissident English cardinal, the founder of the Douai seminary in France, wrote of the ‘filthy lust’ of ‘an incestuous bastard, begotten and borne of an infamous courtesan.’  In Douai, the missionaries were imbued with a sense of martyrdom – it was glorious to die trying to wrest England from the grip of heresy.  The English government became alarmed at the numbers fleeing overseas and legislated against it.  Douai would have been a much softer spot for what we now call radicalisation than those of the caliphate.  The Oxford History of England says:

The via dolorosa that led from Douai to Tyburn [the Golgotha of London] could not have been trod by men who were not profoundly imbued with the spiritual character of their worth….under the guise of saving souls, the priests were really acting as executors of the bull.

In 1580, the papal secretary told English Jesuits that ‘whosoever sends her [Elizabeth] out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin but gains merit.’  This was not a time for calmness.  Their pope had impaled the Catholics of England on a hopeless conflict of interest and ensured that religion would remain at the forefront of English politics.  English Catholics would pay a dreadful price over many generations.

3 Disaffected Catholics and the plot

The accession of James I on the death of Elizabeth led to hopes that things might get better for Catholics.  They did not.  James I had a personal interest in keeping the peace – his father, the unlamented Lord Darnley, had been taken out by an explosion that made a revolting form of assassination – even by Scottish standards.  For that matter, the mother of James I was a Catholic queen who was beheaded for trying to kill the Protestant queen that James succeeded.  These were fraught times.

A group of Catholic gentry, who were described by one observer as ‘gentlemen hunger-starved for innovation,’ came up with a scheme of ‘devastating insurrection’.  They sought to vindicate their faith and the adherents of their faith.  They planned to overthrow the government by blowing up Parliament with the royal family in it, and leading an uprising from the Midlands after kidnapping a young member of the royal family.  They wanted to start a civil war.  Each conspirator resolved to die rather than be taken; there was more than a whiff of suicide in the venture from the start.  They had collected more than enough gun-powder under the parliament to achieve that result, but the plot was uncovered.

There were thirteen in the plot.  They were led by a man called Catesby, but the best known now is Guy Fawkes.  (His continuance in his appointed role after he was on notice that they had been discovered is very hard to distinguish from suicide; it at least looks like a faith-driven embrace of death.)  Those terrorists, for that is what they plainly were, that were not killed in the pursuit were executed.  For the most part, they did not repent.  Indeed, one observer reported that during the trial, the ‘defendants were taking tobacco as if hanging were no trouble to them.’  Some cracked and asked for mercy at the end.  Not so, Catesby – his sword was engraved with the passion and death of Christ.

Immediately after the plot was revealed, the Catholic clergy denounced it as ‘intolerable, uncharitable, scandalous and desperate.’  It was clearly against Catholic doctrine for ‘private subjects, by private authority, to take arms against their lawful king’, even if he was a tyrant.  Private violent attempts could never be justified.  Catholics must not support them in any way.


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