I’ve come late to the whole thing about the BBC series Gunpowder.
First and foremost, it’s good to see any primetime TV at all about the seventeenth century; and second and, umm, foremost, it’s even better to see primetime TV about the seventeenth century getting big audience figures and plenty of reaction from the critics and the public alike, if only because of the amount of unremitting gore on display in a number of scenes. Strange to say, some modern sensibilities seem to have issues with being shown the precise mechanics of hanging, drawing and quartering, or with a naked woman of ‘a certain age’ being pressed to death, whereas said sensibilities seem to have no problem at all with pretty much equivalent portrayals of violence in (say) Game of Thrones – thus suggesting that graphic TV violence is fine if it’s couched as fantasy, rather less fine if it reminds us that our ancestors weren’t necessarily as nice as we would like them to have been. All of this, in turn, has spawned a rather more low key and polite debate (which is how we historians do things…most of the time, at any rate) about just how violent the seventeenth century really was, and in this regard, I particularly enjoyed, and can highly recommend, the perceptive and deeply sensible contributions from Laura Sangha, Rebecca Rideal and Jonathan Healey.
For what it’s worth, I thought that Gunpowder provided about as good a portrayal of the age and the events as one could reasonably expect, especially given that its entire raison d’etre seems to have been the astonishing coincidence that one of the principal stars of Game of Thrones is related to Robert Catesby. For one thing, the portrayals of James I and Robert Cecil, particularly the former, were remarkably nuanced; for another, Catesby’s motivation was convincingly explored. Yes, it played fast and loose with events and chronology, but then, show me a film or TV series that doesn’t (for a few of my further thoughts on this issue, see here). For example, Father John Gerard really did escape from the Tower of London, but in 1597, not 1605, and, oddly, he did so by a much more dramatic means than that shown in Gunpowder – rather like Errol Flynn, he swung down a rope strung across the moat, so maybe it was a case of the programme makers deciding that in this instance, fact was so much stranger than fiction that modern audiences would never buy it. Most egregriously, though, the peace treaty with Spain was moved from 1604 to after the plot had been foiled, allowing the Spanish to play a much more central role in the whole story than they did in reality. The underlying message of this oddly conceived subplot, which seemed to be ‘never trust a foreigner, whichever side you’re on’, left me wondering whether someone had omitted an assistant scriptwriter credit for one N Farage (perhaps under a suitable Spanish pseudonym, like Farrago).
I also came across quite a few troll-ish comments on social media and elsewhere objecting to what some perceived as an underlying political agenda within the script of Gunpowder, especially as the writer happens to be a Catholic who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Or, to put it another way –
Gadzooks, the evil metropolitan liberal elite of the BBC is obviously equating 17th century treatment of Catholics with 21st century treatment of Muslims! Cynthia, where’s my quill, I must write to the Telegraph at once!!
But the inescapable, if perhaps uncomfortable, fact is that Catholics at the time really were treated like that, and to deny it is both to deny History itself, and the right of creatives to present historical stories in their own way to the modern world. (Says a creative who presents historical stories in his own way to the modern world. So, yes, shoot me.) It may well be a subtle comment on our times that, judging by the below-the-line comments on various news websites, the political hero of at least some of those who objected to this supposed coded ‘politically correct’ message in Gunpowder can only be Jacob Rees-Mogg, a devout Roman Catholic who has just named his new son Sixtus, a name the baby shares with the virulently anti-Protestant Pope who sanctioned the despatch of the Spanish Armada. Strange times, strange bedfellows, and so forth.
However, I also came to Gunpowder, and, indeed, the whole history and legacy of the Gunpowder Plot, from a distinctly left-field perspective that probably nobody else who watched it would have shared; something along the lines of ‘yawn, not another glorification of that total non-event’. After all, I’ve published an entire book about the occasion when King James Stuart genuinely came the closest to being assassinated – and that certainly wasn’t at the Palace of Westminster on 5 November 1605. Not convinced? Well, here’s the introduction of my book Blood of Kings: the Stuarts, the Ruthvens, and ‘the Gowrie Conspiracy’, my one venture to date away from my usual comfort zone of naval history – and currently, alas, out of print and only available secondhand.
If, after reading on, you still need convincing about the iniquity and sheer pointlessness of commemorating the ‘Gunpowder Plot’, just think on this. Restoring the public holiday which was once held on the anniversary of the ‘Gowrie House affair’ would mean a party on 5 August, when the weather’s usually really nice, rather than one on 5 November, when it’s usually really rubbish, and when the event itself has in any case been hijacked by the abomination that is Halloween.
So – nice barbeque in the summer, or disappointing fireworks when it’s really cold and wet?
People of Britain, the choice is yours.
[Warning: reading what follows means that this post will take much longer to read than my usual fare. Those prone to deploying the comment ‘TLDR’ – ‘too long, didn’t read’ – may either want to take a break and pour themselves a tea/coffee/gin/beer/absinthe, or else bale out at this point.]
Westminster, Tuesday, 5 November, 1605.
The King would not die this day.
James the First, King of England, should have been resplendent upon his throne in the House of Lords, addressing both houses of his Parliament. His queen, Anne of Denmark, should have been present at his side, as should the heir to the throne, the eleven year old Henry, Prince of Wales. In front of them should have been all the Lords and all the Commons. At that precise moment, if all had gone according to plan, every single one of them would have been blown to pieces by thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, secreted in the cellar beneath their feet.
As it was, probably the most audacious terrorist plot in history came to nothing. The powder had been discovered the evening before, during a supposedly routine search of the cellars. The man entrusted with setting it off was safely in custody. He claimed to be named John Johnson, but under interrogation he turned out to be a hard-bitten Yorkshire Catholic and Spanish army veteran called Guido Fawkes. His fellow plotters were being rounded up, their dreams of a Catholic coup d’etat shattered. Their pathetically small main force ended up in the Midlands, disheartened, hopelessly outnumbered, and easily defeated in a brief firefight with a sheriff’s posse. In truth, this ‘Gunpowder Plot’ had never involved much risk to the King and his Parliament. The conspiracy had been infiltrated and monitored early on. The government had been in control of events, and the exposure of the plot gave it the perfect justification for implementing a new security crackdown on English Catholics – all English Catholics, including the moderate and loyal majority, who were just as horrified as their Protestant neighbours at the actions of a tiny, isolated group of youthful fanatics. The great explosion that should have liberated and empowered Catholic England had somehow become a damp squib that almost brought about its destruction.
At the time, virtually nothing of this was known to the MPs who gathered briefly in the Commons chamber on the morning of 5 November in an atmosphere of horror and stunned disbelief, before dispersing in confusion back to their lodgings or the nearest taverns. The shock had only barely begun to dissipate by the following Saturday, the ninth, when the king belatedly came down to the rambling old Palace of Westminster to address his Parliament on the subject of the plot. Not even the crown and his glorious red robes of state could transform the thirty-nine year old James Stuart into an entirely convincing figure of a monarch, and for the many who remembered his innately majestic predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, the contrast was particularly marked. His large, sad eyes, exaggerated cheekbones and greying beard made James look much older than his years. His gait was awkward and stumbling, and those who had seen him eat and drink commented unfavourably on his coarse habits. He was known to be a coward, dreading the presence of cold steel and regularly wearing padded doublets to protect him against assassination attempts. James spoke with a broad Doric accent that embarrassed many of his adopted English countrymen. Yet those who judged the king by appearances alone seriously underestimated their man. Beneath the somewhat shambolic exterior, James Stuart was formidably intelligent, a brilliant debater, an astute political operator, and, when he needed to be, a ruthless and brutally decisive head of state. Ruling the vast, wild and fractious Scotland of the sixteenth century was a Herculean task, but on the whole James had made a success of it. He had certainly made a far better fist of the job than his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, who was driven out by her own people after making a series of catastrophic blunders, ending up as Elizabeth I’s prisoner for twenty years before being beheaded as a threat to English state security. James’s attempts to secure his mother’s release, and his protests at her execution, had all been somewhat less than whole-hearted and convincing: proof to some of his duplicity, to others of his good political sense.
The speech that King James delivered from the throne on Saturday 9 November was very different to the one that he had originally planned to give on the fifth, and it came from a perspective very different to that of his audience, the serried ranks of stunned and relieved peers and MPs, shuffling uncomfortably in their places. Their lives had been miraculously preserved just this once. But as he addressed them from the throne, King James made it abundantly clear that this was not the first time that divine intervention had saved him from a violent and untimely death. It was not even the first time that God had saved his life on a Tuesday, the fifth of the month.
Therefore, the king’s speech from the throne did not just focus on the Gunpowder plot alone. Instead, James deliberately compared the horrifying new plot to two previous attempts on his life. Some of his distinguished but nervous English listeners might well have been a little bemused by the king’s suggestion that he had almost died ‘before my birth, and while I was in my mother’s belly’, when a gun had been held to his pregnant mother’s stomach. Some of them might have been a little sceptical of the king’s claim that he had also been the subject of an assassination plot five years earlier, in Perth, for that event was surrounded by mystery, and there had been not a few dark mutterings implying that James Stuart was really the instigator that day, not the victim. But on 9 November 1605, King James had no difficulty in drawing together what he regarded as the different threats to his life, calling the events of 1600 and the Gunpowder Plot ‘these two great and fearful doomsdays’. He even hinted that although Guy Fawkes’s conspiracy was on a greater scale, he, the king, had actually been in more direct personal danger five years before, on Tuesday, 5 August 1600, and that the consequences for England if he had died that day would have been as incalculable as if he had been blown up in Parliament:
I should have been baptized in blood, and in my destruction, not only the kingdom wherein I then was, but you also by your future interest, should have tasted of my ruin. Yet it pleased God to deliver me, as it were, from the very brink of death, from the point of the dagger…But in this [plot], which did so lately fall out, and which was a destruction prepared not for me alone, but for you all that are here present, and wherein no rank, age, nor sex should have been spared; this was not a crying sin of blood … it may well be called a roaring, nay a thundering sin of fire and brimstone, from the which God has so miraculously delivered us all …
Those members of his audience who knew anything at all of the king’s life story before he succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne would have known that the two previous threats to which he alluded were directly connected, and in a very real sense connected by blood. For King James’s ‘crying sin of blood’ was hereditary. The man whom he held responsible for almost terminating his life in the womb was Patrick, Lord Ruthven, who already stood condemned by history as a brutal, malevolent warlock. The men allegedly responsible for attempting to kill King James at Perth on 5 August 1600 were John Ruthven, third Earl of Gowrie, and Alexander Ruthven, his brother and heir. They were the grandsons of the same Patrick, Lord Ruthven. If James’s own version of events is to be believed, the Ruthven family came far closer to killing him than Guy Fawkes and the rest of the Gunpowder Plotters ever did – not once, but several times.
Regardless of what might or might not have happened when he was still unborn, at Gowrie House in Perth in 1600 King James Stuart was in very real danger of death three times in one day, during a barely explicable passage of events which culminated in the violent deaths under the king’s eyes of the Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander.
Firstly, the king was alone for some time in a locked turret chamber with at least one man, perhaps two, who had ample opportunity to kill him, and perhaps had motives to do so, too. This was the moment to which James alluded in his speech to Parliament: the moment when ‘the point of the dagger’ had supposedly been at his breast. One man left that locked room as a corpse, but to the surprise of many it had been the younger, taller, and fitter, Alexander Ruthven, not the older, smaller, and weaker, King James Stuart.
Secondly, the Earl of Gowrie and his retinue charged towards that same turret chamber, stepping over Alexander Ruthven’s dead body in the process, to launch a furious attack on the small party of courtiers defending James. This was a vicious and closely contested sword fight that could easily have gone either way, and one can only speculate about what a Gowrie maddened by the sight of his dead brother would have done to James had he laid hands on him.
Then there was the third and perhaps the most dangerous time of all, the several hours during which the Perth mob, enraged by the deaths of their beloved earl and his brother, surrounded Gowrie House, threatening to batter down its gates and bring up gunpowder to get at King James. Regardless of what the Ruthven brothers might or might not have planned to do that day, the enraged townspeople were far nearer to James in time and space than the gunpowder plotters ever came. The Westminster gunpowder was discovered the night before the planned state opening, and the plot was certainly compromised long before that. As he sat on his throne on 9 November 1605, looking out over his happily reprieved parliamentarians, King James the First was safe. He would have been equally safe if he had gone to Parliament on the fifth. It had been certain for several days, if not for much longer, that he would be safe. His ministers and spies had seen to that. There was no such predictability, and no such comfortable pre-emptive timescale, about the potentially explosive reactions of the Perth mob. That remained true even if one took the alternative view of what had happened at Gowrie House, as many Scots and Englishmen had, almost from the very day itself: the view that saw King James ordering and deliberately engineering the deaths in his own presence of the Earl of Gowrie and his brother. If Fawkes had succeeded in lighting his fuse, there might have been more than a few good Scots Presbyterians who would have rejoiced in the success of this Papist plot, as bringing down God’s vengeance on the tyrant, hypocrite and murderer, James Stuart, for slaughtering the innocent Ruthven brothers.
The question ‘What if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded?’ has fascinated historians and TV producers for years. Unfortunately, the putative answers heap one fantastic leap of imagination on top of another, ad infinitum. The plot had virtually no realistic chance of success. A group of young zealots took on several of the most experienced statesmen, and one of the most sophisticated intelligence systems, in Europe, in as gross a mismatch of amateurs against professionals as can be imagined. The competence of the Gunpowder Plotters can be gauged by the fact that, when cornered in their last ‘safe house’, they thought it a really good idea to attempt to dry out damp gunpowder in front of an open fire. Leaving that aside, and allowing Guy Fawkes his ‘big bang’, the normal rules for writing ‘alternative history’ simply cease to exist, just as the entire English Parliament would have done. As King James rightly pointed out on 9 November 1605, hammering the point home to his quaking audience, the explosion would have wiped out everyone, every single one of them – the king, the queen, the heir to the throne, all the bishops, all the judges, all the lords, all the commons – in other words, the entire Protestant governing elite of England. In the shock and confusion following such a holocaust, perhaps the Catholics would have risen up en masse, formed a government, and restored England to the Church of Rome. Equally likely, though, is the scenario that sees a horrified, moderate and patriotic Catholic majority pre-empting a Protestant backlash against them by turning violently on the plot’s leaders, Catesby, Fawkes, the Winter brothers, and the rest, thereby avenging the son and grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots, the archetypal Catholic martyr.
There is a far more likely scenario, given the numerical weakness of the Gunpowder plotters, and the overwhelming strength of Protestantism in London in particular. A provisional government of Protestants could have been pieced together hastily from men not at the state opening of Parliament: heirs suddenly and prematurely catapulted into their peerages, those who had been too ill to attend on 5 November, active London merchants making the most of an opportunity to stake a claim to a place in government. That government would hardly have acted in a spirit of reconciliation towards Catholics – a spirit that, to his credit, James I advocated strongly in his speech in the ‘real world’ on 9 November. Perhaps there might have been a religious civil war, with casualties probably far higher than in the civil war that actually took place forty years later – and as it was, that war saw a casualty rate proportionately greater than that suffered by the British Isles in World War One. Alternatively, perhaps there might have been a nationwide massacre of Catholics to set alongside the nearly contemporary religious pogroms in France, Germany and Ireland. In any event, it is difficult to envisage an alternative outcome to a ‘successful’ Gunpowder Plot that does not involve rivers of Catholic blood, and the creation of a militant, avenging Protestant England that would have been, if anything, even more paranoid and intolerant than the reality that existed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.
Oddly, the one thing that a successful Gunpowder Plot would not have done would be to end the rule of the House of Stuart over England. Two of James’s children would not have been at Parliament on 5 November. Princess Elizabeth, aged nine, was at Coombe Abbey in the Midlands. She was the Gunpowder Plotters’ favoured candidate for the role of Catholic puppet monarch, had their plot succeeded. A ‘hunting party’ was to seize her from Coombe, and she was to be hastily installed on the throne, becoming a somewhat premature Queen Elizabeth II. The new young queen would then be married off as quickly as possible to a suitable Catholic prince, a marriage that would guarantee the survival of the newly restored Catholic England. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s younger brother Prince Charles, Duke of York and Albany, aged five, was in the Palace of Richmond. The leading gunpowder plotter Thomas Percy planned to kidnap him, but this project had little support among his co-conspirators, and Charles seems to have been largely overlooked as a potential Catholic king. Perhaps his notoriously poor health led the plotters to feel there was no point in crowning a child who was bound to die sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, the facts remain the same. If Parliament had been blown up, the new government – be it Protestant or Catholic – would have had two Stuart heirs to choose from. If male primogeniture won out, King Charles I would have become King of England and Scotland twenty years before he actually succeeded to those thrones. It is impossible to judge what might have happened in those twenty formative years, but if one accepts the argument for nature over nurture, Charles might still have made catastrophic political mistakes, brought about a civil war, and lost his throne and his head. With or without a successful Gunpowder Plot, British history might well have carried on along very much the same course.
But what if King James VI had died at Gowrie House on 5 August 1600, instead of John, Earl of Gowrie, and his brother? This creates a set of ‘alternative histories’ that are at once more clear-cut, and much more far-reaching, than those that stem from the fantasy of a successful Gunpowder Plot. Presumably James’s elder son, the boy who should have been standing beside him on 5 November 1605, would have succeeded to the throne of Scotland as King Henry I, aged six. The Scots had a depressingly long tradition of having to crown infant monarchs, with James’s grandfather having succeeded at the age of seventeen months, his mother at the age of one week, and he himself at the age of thirteen months; only one Scottish monarch since 1390 had succeeded at full age, and then only barely. The accession of Henry at such a tender age, with the prospect of a long regency under his mother, Anna of Denmark – a close friend of the Ruthven family, and a Catholic convert – might have been of incalculable significance in Scotland, where the balance between Protestant and Catholic was still precarious. But it would have been more significant still south of the border. Three years later, the child-king Henry of Scotland would hardly have been such an attractive potential king of England as his father undoubtedly was by that time, despite James’s more dubious personal traits. If not James or Henry, then who would have succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne?
This is the crux of the difference between the ‘alternative histories’ that stem from the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ and the ‘Gowrie conspiracy’. In 1605, the Stuarts were the only commodity on the market. James the First had been duly crowned and anointed King of England, and even if he had only been on the throne for thirty months before being blown to kingdom come, the succession would have passed by right to his children. A Stuart would have ruled England still. But five years earlier, in 1600, the English succession was an auction. One contemporary discourse on the matter listed well over a dozen potential candidates for Elizabeth I’s throne, ranging from the King of Spain’s sister to the singularly obscure Lord Strange. To many people, James VI was the most attractive candidate on offer – adult, experienced, Protestant, and above all, male, following half a century of thoroughly unnatural female rule. But against that, he was a foreigner. English law specified that no foreigner could own land in England, so surely the same proviso applied to the country as a whole? Not only was he a foreigner, he was a Scot, and there were plenty of old Englishmen still alive who had fought against the Scots in formal wars or in the endemic, ongoing casual violence along the border. To English law was added the complication of English history. Henry VIII’s constant changes of mind over the order of succession as his marital saga progressed; the Wars of the Roses, which had torn up the rules of straightforward hereditary succession; the consequences of royal breeding all the way back to Edward III’s notorious fecundity – all these legacies of the past provided a long list of potential alternative candidates to the King of Scots, and every one of those candidates had their partisans. None of that mattered once the English political establishment decided that it had to be James, if only as the ‘least worst’ option, and it mattered even less once James was crowned in Westminster Abbey. But if King James Stuart had been killed at Gowrie House on 5 August 1600, and if his corpse had been decomposing in the royal vault of Holyrood Abbey for almost three years before Elizabeth I went to her own at Westminster, the auction would have had to start all over again, with new favourites, new deals being done, and, inevitably, the emergence of a new King or Queen of England on 24 March 1603.
If James had died in 1600, and the English political elite had rejected the seriously weakened claim of his Stuart children in favour of some suitable mediocrity, there would probably have been no civil war in the middle of the seventeenth century, with all that stemmed from it. After all, the outbreak of that war has often been attributed to the perceived inadequacies as king of James’s son, Charles I; but Charles was only King of England because his father had reigned there before him, and because his elder brother, the same Prince Henry who might have become King of Scots on 5 August 1600, had died aged only eighteen. If there had never been a civil war, perhaps Oliver Cromwell would still have died in his bed, but in an obscure Cambridgeshire farmhouse, not the Palace of Whitehall. The many historians and politicians who see the origins of British parliamentary democracy in the war and in Cromwell would presumably have to look elsewhere, if indeed they could find anywhere else to look. If the Stuarts had never ruled England, would Scotland ever have lost her independence through an Act of Union, in 1707 or at any other time, and would she ever have experienced the horrors of the ‘Highland Clearances’? In Ireland, King James VI and I was personally responsible for much of the ‘plantation’ policy in Ulster, encouraging English and Scottish Protestants to colonise large parts of the north of Ireland. The transformation of Derry into Londonderry occurred under James’s direct auspices. So if James Stuart had never reigned in England, would Ireland ever have witnessed her tragically seminal events of the seventeenth century – the bloody rebellion of 1641, Cromwell’s massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, and the Battle of the Boyne – with all their tortured and lasting legacies?
All of the great events of the seventeenth century were able to come about because King James the Sixth of Scotland did not die at Gowrie House on 5 August 1600. In England, at least, the mindless and nasty little sectarian jamborees that take place every ‘bonfire night’, and the pointlessly enduring legacy of Guy Fawkes, ensure that there is no sense of proportion about the two great crises that James faced in the first five years of the seventeenth century. King James Stuart, the sixth of Scots and first of England, was in far more immediate danger, and in far more real and imminent likelihood of death, on 5 August 1600 at Perth than he was on at Westminster on 5 November 1605 at the hands of Fawkes and his manipulated, misled and ultimately incompetent fellow plotters. There is a humorous, cod-historical plaque that adorns many pub walls in England, and an amended version of it could justifiably be set up within the Palace of Westminster:
On this spot
On 5 November 1605
Despite the fact that it commemorates a complete non-event, and for all its political incorrectness and nightmarish ‘health and safety’ implications, Bonfire Night lives on, while the arguably more significant events of 5 August 1600 are virtually forgotten. Even in Scotland, the memory of the ‘Gowrie conspiracy’ has faded; Perth’s museum is strong on innocuous social history, but has virtually nothing on display to mark probably the most important event that ever took place in the town. If modern history books refer to the ‘Gowrie conspiracy’ at all, they usually dismiss it in a few sentences or paragraphs as a doomed, bungled and anachronistic attempt at an aristocratic coup, mounted by two naïve and inept young men. But what happened on 5 August 1600 at Gowrie House, or what could have happened, was far more significant than that. The fact that King James Stuart did not die that day, when the odds were stacked heavily in favour of his dying, changed the history of the British Isles, for better or worse.