[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]
4 Two plots compared
The first thing to notice is that there was something like a state of war between two Christian sects in 1605. We know that some Muslim clerics have issued fatwas, but none of those clerics had the standing or authority of a pope, and none of those fatwas was a direct attack on the sovereign government of a nation. No fatwa that I am aware of gave spiritual licence to the murder of a head of state – on spiritual grounds.
Although the terrorists were seeking to topple a regime, their motivation was to serve their faith throughout. From the time that the pope excommunicated and in effect deposed Queen Elizabeth, there was at least the risk that Catholics might think that any attack on the English Crown had the implicit blessing of their Church. In the meanwhile, Spain had made war on England in the name of God. France was harbouring the training of Jesuit opponents of the English Crown at Douai. The Jesuits would provide what we know as the Fifth Column.
The forces behind those in the Gunpowder Plot therefore look to have been stronger and more highly backed than those in the attacks of 2001. And their aim was correspondingly much higher. They were after all intent on more than the death of the king. They planned the annihilation of the entire parliament, and the top of the judiciary, and the incitement of a religious civil war that would have given new and awful meaning to Milton’s phrase ‘all hell broke loose.’
The object of the Catholic conspirators was to spread fear and alarm, and had they succeeded in at least their first objective, it is hard to imagine that fear and alarm not exceeding that which grabbed the United States after the attack on the twin towers. The effects of the foreign wars commenced by the U S after that attack are still being felt.
5 The reaction – and torture
The attacks in the U S in 2001 led to calls for torture. There is in my view little doubt that the U S engaged in torture, and that its allies looked the other way. Torture was not permitted under the common law of England, but the king claimed the prerogative to use it at least in the case of Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was the first to be taken, and his captors felt that they needed to torture him to identify the others.
It is hard to imagine a different course being taken in England in 1605. But it is as like as not that those calling for torture in 1605 or 2001 were not recalling the role that torture played in the miscarriage of justice that led to the cruel death of the founder of their faith. (The man called Jesus was found guilty of a religious offence (blasphemy) by the local authority and then executed by the imperial authority for an alleged breach of the secular criminal law (treason) for which there was no evidence at all. The imperial authority committed the ultimate crime of handing the indigenous accused over to the mob.)
There was, however, other conduct in England that savours of hysteria. Many in the parliament wanted to give the conspirators a ‘more sharp death.’ A bill was put forward in parliament for that purpose. The bill was defeated, but as a fine American biographer of Sir Edward Coke (pronounced ‘Cook’) says:
Yet its very proposal gave indication of the ferocity with which the plotters were looked on – indication also of the time-honored propensity of legislators to proclaim their loyalty and save their skins by flaying alive the nearest vulnerable neighbour.
Yes, we do see that – and we did see some of it in the U S after 2001 – but these legislators were doubtless impressed by the fact that the conspirators had been trying to blow them to kingdom come – every last one of them.
6 The confessional
During the investigation and the trials following the Gunpowder Plot another issue arose that we now meet in a different context. One of the conspirators, Catesby, confessed to a priest (Tesimond) during confession. Catesby did not spell the plot out, but he made it clear that he and others would ignore the plea of the pope to leave matters to Providence. The priest Tesimond in turn confessed this incident, again in confession, he said, to another priest, Father Henry Garnet, S J. Both priests were horrified, but they felt precluded by the teaching of their church from notifying the government. All they could do was to seek to prevent the crime by counselling against it.
Father Garnet was the leader of the Jesuits in England. He was known as the English Provincial. Putting to one side that he was said to be ‘a genial, easy-tempered man who loved his wine second only to his religion’, Garnet was always likely be a prime target of the Crown. They were after the Jesuits as a body.
7 The trial
The prosecution was led by the Attorney General Sir Edward Coke. He would go on to the bench and be a doughty defender of the common law, by standing right up in the face of James I for example, and he would be as a light unto the nations. But as a prosecutor he could be like a dog with rabies. (His conduct with Garnet was for our time appalling; with Ralegh, he was revolting.)
For Coke the phrase ‘English Catholic’ was close to being a contradiction in terms. One of the conspirators had previously written that for Coke merely being a Catholic was sufficient to qualify a man as a traitor – a man is not English who gives his first allegiance elsewhere. (Before you dismiss that notion as just ugly prejudice, you might recall that it would be very much that kind of that issue that led – fairly or otherwise – to the end of the Stuarts. James II never got the point.)
Coke did not charge Garnet with not reporting evidence of treason – called then misprision of felony. Coke charged the Jesuit with being a party to the plot – indeed, its mastermind. And Coke performed with venom and frightful colour. He said that the whole conspiracy had been dominated by the priests. ‘I will name it the Jesuits’ treason, as belonging to them.’ Their doctrines of ‘King-killing’ and ‘Queen-killing’ were vital. Garnet had had his finger in every treason since 1586. It was the Jesuits who plotted to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. (All the worst fears of the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor were now fulfilled.) Coke said that this Jesuit doctor was a doctor of – ‘Dissimulation, Deposing of princes, Disposing of kingdoms, Daunting and Deterring of subjects, and Destruction.’ For good measure, the man from Cambridge added: ‘And I never knew any priest of Cambridge to be arraigned in court.’
When Coke read transcriptions of eavesdropped entrapment conversations, he adopted the practice of the time and edited out those parts that were favourable to the accused. As G M Trevelyan coolly observed, this was ‘an age when the rules of evidence were the rules of probability interpreted by prejudice.’
Coke was not being forensic. His denunciations were not even Protestant. This exercise was wholly political, and the whole trial bears an unhealthy likeness to the proceedings before Senator McCarthy. It is said that the Earl of Salisbury (formerly the all-powerful Sir Robert Cecil) later conceded that the object of Garnet’s trial had not been so much to convict the Jesuit as ‘to make a public and visible anatomy of Popish doctrine and practice.’ There is the risk of such contamination in all treason trials; it is inevitable in a show trial. Show trials are just graphic political statements on behalf of the government. They are propaganda.
Coke did refer the jury to canon law which he argued allowed Garnet to report on ‘a future thing to be done, not then already executed.’ He also attacked the Jesuits on their practice or technique of ‘equivocation’ in responding evasively to questions touching them in the profession of their faith. (Shakespeare would pick up on this in Macbeth, which came out shortly after and which was heavily influenced by these events.) Coke also alleged that at common law a person was bound to ‘discover’ (reveal) a treason against the king as soon as it came to his knowledge – even if it came to a priest during confession. In that, Coke was on stronger ground.
The jury only took fifteen minutes. (You might think that that was quick, but the practice in treason trials then was to do them in a day. You may not smile if you consider the contemporary alternative.) The sentence was the appalling one for treason, but a sympathetic crowd moved by this man’s spiritual demeanour ensured that he was as good as dead when he came off the scaffold to be disembowelled. (Another source says that by express command of the king, Garnet remained hanging from the gallows until he was ‘quite dead.’ This would be one of the grounds of dispute later between Protestants and Catholics, some of whom believed his death was attended later by a miracle. And the official version does smack of propaganda.)