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Gunpowder ~ A Historical or Fictional Drama?

Posted in Television Reviews

The famous failed gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament (to kill the King) is remembered each year in the UK on 5 November, but besides parties and fireworks do many really understand why the plot arose and why it failed? The BBC historical drama (showing on Saturday nights) based on the events follows the leader of the plot, Robert (Robin) Catesby and shows the story from his perspective. The fascination behind this production is that Kit Harrington, who is descended from Catesby, plays his ancestor. However, how accurate is the drama historically, and is Catesby seen as a religious fanatic or hero?

First of all, the divide between Catholics and Protestants was already rife, and Elizabeth I encountered many assassination attempts, mainly from her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots and also her cousin the Duke of Norfolk. Both were executed for high treason, so when Elizabeth I died and James I came to the throne, Catholics were still fighting for the right to openly practice their faith. So why did Catesby decide to execute the King? In this dramatization we see Catesby suffer at watching those close to him being executed for, but were the graphic details necessary? Do we need to see someone pressed to death or hanged, drawn, and quartered? In that era it was normal and was the punishment for treason, but that doesn’t mean to say it was right—it was a harsh deterrent and occurred during Elizabeth I’s reign too. That is to say, Catesby should not have been surprised at the severe punishments. In addition harsh fines were imposed for failing to attend church, aimed at making Catholics suffer, and left many in debt or as landowners with no money. Here, we can see why Catesby gets angry and feels he has been unjustly treated and wants revenge when he has to sell the family silverware to pay the fines.

Harrington’s depiction of Catesby makes him appear as what he is doing is just, and that he believes God is on his side when he concocts a plan to blow up Parliament to kill the King, and kidnap Princess Elizabeth to rule through her. Now anyone who is sane can see the flaws in the plan, because to blow up Parliament means many innocents will also die, and that’s hardly the actions of a devout Catholic? Even if he had succeeded in blowing up Parliament and kidnapping Princess Elizabeth, how would they have been able to get her crowned as James I had two sons, who would have been the natural successors to the throne?

The historical dramatization rushes through the story line, where we saw Catesby rescue a priest who has been captured in the Tower of London. It’s hard to believe he managed to slip in disguised and that corridors of the prisons were left unguarded. To me it seemed foolhardy and unlikely that a wanted man would risk going into the Tower himself to break out a prisoner, but I feel the drama needed to make Catesby look like the hero. Perhaps it was an attempt to garner sympathy for his cause? However, still today the plot doesn’t justify the means. Catholics and Protestants would still be divided whoever sat on the throne.

The scenes in the pubs add character to the series as they are the meeting places for the exchange of messages and where pacts were made. Yet, I must pick fault, Catesby was a wanted man (in the drama) so he was hardly going to walk through the front door of a public house with his fellow conspirators in tow. When this scene came on the screen, I shook my head for if anyone is attempting to be clandestine then at least be inconspicuous. There is the odd messenger with letters in code, buildings with priest holes that add authenticity, but even the escape from the Tower was a little too manufactured with a single boat on the river that no guards saw or were able to apprehend. These historical inaccuracies make the drama less believable.

There are no spoilers here as we all know what did happen; the plot failed as Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding the gunpowder, and under torture he revealed some information, which led to the other conspirators being apprehended. There were 13 main conspirators, but each had a number of followers that supported their cause (the right to be Catholic and openly pray and practice their faith) although not necessarily agreed with the murder of the King and other innocents. The drama focuses on the pathos of Catesby too much, even though Father Henry Garnet warns him that murder was not acceptable under any circumstance when he makes a confession. His cousin Anne Vaux also disapproves of his plan, and I’m sure others did too for it was outrageous and death was a certain outcome if discovered. What isn’t mentioned is that Catesby was born a Catholic but married a Protestant, and when his wife died he became a radical Catholic. I can see the aim was for the audience to understand why the conspirators felt they had no choice but to carry out their actions, yet it fails because Catesby is portrayed as selfish, and arrogant and looks as if he has brainwashed his followers.

In the end the drama attempts to make Catesby look as if he died as a hero, yet I fail to see anything heroic in leaving a child orphaned and who would be tarred with being the son of a traitor. If anything it shows murder is not the answer to get what you desire, and hoping a confession to a priest will admonish you of any wrongdoing is plain irresponsible. However, I see people doing this daily—they say and do bad things intentionally and think going to confession each week makes it okay. It’s not and religion shouldn’t be about getting what you want at any cost, and they praying for forgiveness. Some may see this as a group dedicated to their cause, but one must question any blood shed in battle over religion is hardly the act of one who is devoutly religious.

The plan wasn’t impulsive, but was costly and took months to prepare which isn’t wholly explored in the drama, therefore, it is hard to sympathize with those whom wish to do harm to others who are following the law of the land. When confronted with the likelihood that innocents would die, the conspirators saw that as God’s will and they were collateral damage. Again, I can’t see that is the behavior or thoughts of someone who is genuinely religious. Although I binge watched the episodes back to back (three in all), the plotters eventually looked foolish in the dramatization, not only in their actions but in their beliefs. Ego and arrogance played a large part and not only a thirst for revenge. Ultimately their actions made the lives of Catholics much harder, so they failed in their cause and possibly ruined the lives of many other Catholics afterwards who were bound to be under suspicion after the plot was foiled.The lesson here is plotting to murder doesn’t work out and others will suffer!

Others have complained that some scenes were too graphic (lots of blood and guts), and too biased towards the Catholic persecution, so it’s no surprise the writer is a Catholic. Ronan Bennett is a left wing writer who had ties to the IRA and clearly his beliefs in violence for a cause are depicted through some of his scenes. One would ask if that is a fair and balanced portrayal of events? If the Catholics had stopped trying to kill the King perhaps he would have left them alone?

Robert Cecil, acted as spymaster to protect the monarch appears to be the hero, but in the drama is poorly portrayed by Mark Gattiss who doesn’t suit the role and comes off as sleazy and trying to favor the court. I always imagined Cecil to be less flamboyant and one who watches in the sidelines rather than attract attention in order to be successful, besides Cecil was short and Gattis is over 6 feet. I’m a fan of Peter Mullan, but he is Scottish playing an English priest, and it doesn’t seem to work either. Maybe they were looking for names rather than the right characters when they were casting, and while names can help, people are always drawn to dramas based on real events so there really was no need. You only have to look at someone the flops Jennifer Lawrence has been in—a name doesn’t guarantee viewers or success.

Guy Fawkes gets a raw deal in history being remembered as the main plotter, but it was he who managed to hang himself (jumping off the ladder early) and spared further torture of the disemboweling and dismembering. For the record, here are the actual conspirators and how they died (most were friends or related to Catesby either through marriage or the parental lineages):

  • Robert Catesby (leader) died from a gunshot wound in Holbeche House, 8 November 1605. Exhumed and decapitated to serve as a deterrent to treason.
  • Thomas Percy (organizer) died from a gunshot wound at Holbeche House on 8 November 1605. Exhumed and decapitated, along with Catesby his head was displayed at Parliament.
  • Guy Fawkes was captured, tortured, tried, hung, and dismembered 31 January 1606.
  • Thomas Wintour, cousin of Catesby. Captured at Holbeche House, tried, hanged drawn, and quartered 31 January 1606.
  • Robert Wintour, cousin of Catesby. Escaped Holbeche House, and went into hiding. Captured after being informed upon. Hanged, drawn, and quartered 30 January 1606 for treason.
  • John Grant hanged, drawn, and quartered 30 January 1606 for treason.
  • Ambrose Rookwood, hanged, drawn and quartered 31 January 1606 for treason.
  • Robert Keyes, hanged, drawn and quartered 31 January 1606 for treason.
  • Everard Digby, a cousin of Anne Vaux (cousin of Tresham) Hanged, drawn, and quartered 30 January 1606 for treason.
  • Thomas Bates, a servant of Catesby. Hanged, drawn, and quartered 30 January 1606 for treason.
  • Christopher Wright (brother-in-law to Percy) died from a gunshot wound at Holbeche House on 8 November 1605.
  • John Wright (brother-in-law to Percy) died from a gunshot wound at Holbeche House on 8 November 1605.
  • Francis Tresham, a cousin of Catesby died in prison awaiting trial on 23 December 1605.

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