[A note comparing the Gunpowder Plot to the 2001 attacks on the US appears in four parts.]
13 Politics or morals?
Guy Fawkes there raised the issue of motive. These insurrectionists had a political object – regime change – but their motive was religious – the vindication of their idea or brand of religion. Like Brutus, they wanted to think that they were pure. They may in some part have persuaded Trevelyan. He said this of the treasonous conspirators.
But unlike their clerical chiefs, they were pure from self-interest and love of power. It is difficult to detect any stain upon their conduct, except the one monstrous illusion that murder is right, which put all their virtues at the devil’s service. Courage cold as steel, self-sacrifice untainted by jealousy or ambition, readiness when all was lost to endure all, raises the Gunpowder Plot into a story of which the ungarnished facts might well be read by those of every faith, not with shame or anger, but with enlarged admiration and pity for the things which men can do.
This is very slippery ground. On what basis would we refuse this accolade or at least epitaph to the minions of Osama bin Laden who drove their aircraft into the twin towers with courage cold as steel? We may be reminded of the suggestion that the invasions and wars of Napoleon were somehow less evil than those of Hitler. If you are being bayoneted or raped, your misery will not be lessened by the answer of your assailant to the question: ‘Why are you here?’
These conspirators were bent on killing people. That is evil. That the conspirators purported to do so in the name of God can only make it more evil. As can the fact that they applied all their best qualities to achieve their purpose. As indicated above, on at least two grounds, a person killing for God is worse than one killing for lucre. First, his zeal makes him more venomous; it gives him strength, and some colour of right. Secondly, and putting blasphemy to one side, it is obvious that by his crime against others, he exposes other members of his faith to retribution.
Even after he had ascended the scaffold, Father Garnet said, before making his final sign of the cross in this life: ‘I beseech all men that Catholics shall not fare the worse for my sake and I exhort all Catholics to take care not to mix themselves with seditious or traitorous designs against the king.’ No, Trevelyan should have stuck with his proposition that the conspirators put all their virtues at the service of the devil.
But this issue raises the question of how we judge insurrections, whether or not we apply the label ‘terrorists’ to those leading the insurrection. (What is the difference between George Washington & Co and the IRA, except that the first lot clearly won and the jury is still out on the second?) The rude truth may be that we assess an insurrection in the same way that we assess a business. It is good if it succeeds. If not, it is bad. This was clearly seen by one of the leaders of what Americans call the American Revolution. When the Declaration of Independence was finally signed, Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Well, Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we will assuredly hang separately.’ (As ever, John Adams was different: ‘Power and artillery are the most efficacious, sure and infallible conciliatory measures we can adopt.’) If you succeed, you are a patriot, a hero and a liberator, a father of the nation. If you fail, you get topped for treason.
As Antonia Fraser remarked in her book The Gunpowder Plot, ‘terrorism does not exist in a vacuum.’
I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in any spirit of recklessness or because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people.
It was not Robert Catesby who said that, but Nelson Mandela when in the dock at the Rivoni trial in 1964. This sometime terrorist is now widely revered as being as close to a secular saint as we can get. Possibly our only hero who might match Mandela is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yet, he was plainly involved in a plot to kill Hitler. Do we see our two secular saints as terrorists?
So, as ever the kinks in our timber preclude us from formulating wide and fast maxims about any right to resort to violence. Indeed, even the word ‘right’ is fraught there. The brute historical fact looks to be that some forms of evil or oppression leave us no reasonable alternative but to resort to a form of action which would otherwise be plainly wrong. But none of us wants to trust anyone else to make that decision for us.
There is one other great reminder in the story of the Gunpowder Plot (that as a kid I celebrated every 5 November with crackers and potatoes in the fire on the night that all dogs loathed – Bonfire Night.) We say that we allow freedom of religion and that we claim to be tolerant. Put that bluff or bluster aside. It is obviously wrong and unfair to brand all those who profess a faith with the blame for wrongs done by fanatics who claim to be of that faith but whose actions show that they reject its teaching for their own motives. It is like branding people because of the crimes, real or imagined, of their ancestors. Typing people because of their faith or race is like holding them liable for the failures of others – they are two sides of our original sin. We need to reach the insight that escaped Napoleon – you do not win people over by killing them or insulting them. And that’s before you look at the moral question about how you should treat your neighbour.
We have a problem with religion that the ancients did not. The religions of Greece and Rome look daffy to us. It is hard for us to think of the Greeks or Romans taking them seriously. But many of them did, especially if it suited them, like when the people of Athens decided that they had had enough of Socrates. But one result of having so many all too human gods was that the people were very tolerant of other religions. That stopped being the case with absolute religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each of them said that there was only one God. And it was theirs. The problem then is one of simple arithmetic. People are agreed that there can only be one answer. But there are at least three different answers on offer. The insight of Kant that I referred to was as follows.
If someone declares himself for this church [one that passes itself off as the only universal one] yet deviates from its faith in something essential (something made out to be so), especially if he propagates his errant belief, he is called a heretic and, like a rebel, is held more punishable than an external foe and is expelled from the church…..and given over to all the gods of hell.
Kant also observed that the claim of each church to be the only universal church is ultimately ‘based on faith in a particular revelation which, since it is historical, can never be demanded of everyone.’ We might induce people to act on faith; we cannot compel them to do so. Those remarks go to the heart of what we have been looking at. So much of the suffering of this world has been caused by ruptures within religions that put themselves above all others.
We have been looking at manifestations of two of those ruptures. The schism that we call the Reformation started a domino reaction that has been at least as lethal for mankind as the schism in Islam between Sunni and Shia. As people on both sides could and did predict, the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath set back the course of religious peace in England in ways that can still be seen. The reaction of the Protestant Crown left ample room for Catholic reaction and rejection, especially when disabilities were multiplied and decent people were asked to take responsibility for the actions of outright criminals who thought that they could fix their whole world with one big bang. We might be reminded of the Treaty of Versailles. The moral offence of Germany was great. But the savagery of the reaction, as Keynes surely predicted, ensured that there would be another and worse war.
The division and hatred would be worse in Ireland. The crimes of the English against the Irish were originally founded on a contempt for the Irish race. A vicious sectarian shade was now added to that hostility. At Drogheda, Cromwell, the great Puritan, engaged in what we would now call ethnic cleansing in the name of Christ. As Christopher Hill remarked, ‘religious hostility reinforced cultural contempt.’ ‘Cultural’ there is the polite word for ‘racial.’ Professor Hill, no enemy of Cromwell, went on to compare the attitude of English people to the Irish with that of the Nazis to the Slavs, and that of the Boers to black Africans, and said that ‘in each case the contempt rationalised a desire to exploit’. The agony would go on for centuries.
So would blind prejudice. In 1897, a Jesuit priest with the same name as one who fled when the Gunpowder Plot was exposed, Father John Gerard, published a book What Was Gunpowder Plot? He said Salisbury made the whole lot up. Off hand, it is hard to see how such a tract might achieve anything at all.
Those of us who look on glumly while mankind suffers from these two great schisms may just have to take refuge in the remark of a friend of Ben Johnson who gloried under the name of Lord Zouche:
Two religions cannot stand together.
Well, on one view, we may have been discussing four religions.
There may, then, be something to be said for teaching people about Western civilisation. We saw that John Mortimer said that our Western civilisation is, after all, the product of a religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth. That is, if I may say so, rather large. Among other things, the splitting of Christianity has been about as much a blessing for us as the splitting of the atom – or the splitting of Islam. Perhaps because I am a lawyer, I see the common law, including the rule of law, as fundamental to what I see as civilisation. That may just be my prejudice. The impact of religion on the common law has not been large – and part of the great teaching and legacy of the common law is that that’s the way it ought to be. The alternative, frankly, is bloody dangerous.
[I apologise to those who like footnotes. I don’t. I like writing and reading and think that footnotes are bad for both. They have clearly ruined our jurisprudence. Any necessary references may be found below.]
Black, J B, The Reign of Elizabeth, Oxford History of England, 1959, 166-194, esp. 172
Bowen, C D, The Lion and the Throne, The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, Little Brown & Co, 1957, 252, 261, 267 and 270
Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot, Terror and Faith in 1605, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996, passim, but esp. 183, 235, 255, 258, and 295
Hill, C, God’s Englishman, Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, Folio Society, 2013, 99
Johnson, P, A History of the American People, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, 125, 130
Kant, I, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, 6:109; Religion and Rational Theology, A Wood and G Di Giovanni, C U P, 1996, 141
Lovell, J, Notable Historical Trials, Folio Society, 1999, Volume 1, 482-514, esp. 494, 505, 510
Neale, J E, Elizabeth I, Folio Society, 2005, 243
Ranke, History of England, Oxford, 1875, Volume 1, 403-417, esp. 408,411
State Trials, London, 1816 (Printed T C Hansard), Volume 2, 217-358 (trial of Garnet)
Trevelyan, G M, England Under the Stuarts, Folio Society, 1996, 80, 81, 84