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HBO’s ‘Gunpowder’ reveals the anti-Catholic persecution behind the Guy Fawkes plot


HBO | Youtube

Matthew Becklo - published on 01/06/18

“Such things were done, to Catholics, for such reasons, in such a way.” Note: SPOILERS AHEAD

“Remember, remember, the 5th of November…”

In the 2005 dystopian thriller V for Vendetta, the anarchist “V” recites this line in remembrance of the failed “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up Parliament and kill King James I of England in 1605. The mask that “V” wears – that of Guy Fawkes, the plotter tasked with lighting the fuse – was later adopted by the hacktivist network “Anonymous,” and has become a ubiquitous symbol of resistance to tyranny.

But that verse isn’t an anarchist’s ode to the Gunpowder Plot; it’s an English ode to the foiling of the plot and the saving of the king. The English would chant these lines as they burned effigies of Fawkes at November 5 “Bonfire Night” celebrations. And other lines from the original verse suggest that the heart of the celebration was a perceived victory, not primarily over Fawkes and his sedition, but over Catholics and their religion: “A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, a penn’orth of cheese to choke him / A pint of beer to wash it down, and a jolly good fire to burn him.”

Gunpowder, a riveting three-part BBC miniseries acquired by HBO, tells the story of Robert Catesby (played by Kit Harington of Game of Thrones), the true mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot. (Harington, a distant relative of Catesby, also co-produces.) But the story of Catesby’s collusion with Fawkes and other Catholics to kill the king reveals a deeper story of anti-Catholic persecution in early 117th-century England.

The show opens with a heart-pounding 20-minute scene in the Warwickshire home of the Lady Dorothy Dibdale. There, three Jesuits – the grizzled Father Henry Garnet and two younger priests – are celebrating a candle-lit Mass in secret with Catesby, Dibdale, and Anne (played by Liv Tyler). When Sir William Wade leads a brigade of the King’s men up to the house, these Catholics rush into what appears to be a well-rehearsed ritual: evidence of the Mass is tucked away, the priests disappear into a chest and a “priest hole” in the wall, and Lady Dibdale stands ready for interrogation. Catesby, known for his “skill with a sword,” tries to restrain himself as Wade leads a long, suspenseful search for hidden priests. When a younger priest gives up his hiding spot to save the other two, he is whisked away; Lady Dibdale, who takes responsibility for the hidden priest, follows behind.  What follows is a stark, grisly scene of public torture and execution. Lady Dibdale is stripped and forced to undergo peine forte et dure torture, which eventually kills her. The priest, refusing to give up Garnet, is decapitated, his severed head dipped in burning oil and raised up for the jeering crowd, where Catesby and Anne watch helplessly.

Is this grim case study in anti-Catholic persecution historically accurate? One professor of history from the University of Cambridge notes that while Gunpowder does have some minor inaccuracies, it’s a largely truthful portrayal of the oppression of Catholics in England at the time: “Such things were done, to Catholics, for such reasons, in such a way.” In unveiling this backstory, Gunpowder nods in the direction of the plotters, who were naturally desperate to see things change.

And yet the question remains: was Catesby’s plot justified? Given that the producer, Ronan Bennett, grew up an activist republican in Northern Ireland, you might expect a simplistic “yes” to follow. But the show ends up taking a more complex stance on this question. As Catesby meets with Spanish leaders, pairs up with Fawkes in Flanders, and returns to England to recruit other Catholics to his cause, the alternative of nonviolence repeatedly presents itself through Father Garnet and Ann, who warn Catesby against committing “murder.” What’s more, Catesby and Fawkes are both portrayed as men whose personal pasts may play into their resentment and anger more than they care to admit.

What’s especially fascinating about Gunpowder is that, even as the Catholic characters disagree about the rightness of the Gunpowder Plot, they are portrayed as being of one mind regarding their Catholic identity. The English leaders, who spit out “papist” and “popery” like four-letter words, see that identity as revolving around allegiance to the pope; but for the Catholics, it revolves around someone else. In the opening scene, Catesby gazes at a portrait of Christ and prays: “My great King. My good Shepherd. My everlasting salvation.” Before her execution, Wade demands that Lady Dibdale confess to treason, to which she responds: “No, sir. I die for the love of my Savior, Jesus Christ.” And in the closing scenes, Garnet lays his life down for his friend, declaring that he means to die “a true and perfect follower of Christ.”

For these characters, their identity as members of the Catholic Church seems to come down to their faith in its founder, who entrusted to it the keys to the kingdom.

In its gruesome portrayal of English persecution of Catholics and the plotters’ desperate reaction, Gunpowder is a welcome reminder of how far the world has come. But at the same time, the show conveys an important truth that transcends any particular historical situation: that the Church’s “obedience to a higher lord” is not something to which many kings of this world take kindly.

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