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Faith and Treason Hardcover – October 1, 1996

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Editorial Reviews Review

Our term "guy," slang for any man, comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, the alleged ringleader of the bungled plot to blow up King James I and the subject of Bonfire Night, the odd English holiday celebrated on November 5 by burning the execrable Guy in effigy. This and other facts tumble from the pages of this fascinating account of the Gunpowder Plot, written by the distinguished novelist and historian Antonia Fraser. Fraser delves into English religious history to show the harsh persecution of Roman Catholics under Jacobean rule and how James I disappointed those Catholics who hoped for a more liberal reign.

From Publishers Weekly

Although the "Gunpowder Plot" of 1605 to blow up Parliament as it was being opened by James I was foiled, the holiday it spawned, Guy Fawkes Day, is still marked each November 5. With political-religious terrorism now a hazard of everyday life, Fraser's searching look at the failed conspiracy of Robert Catesby (the actual planner) and Guy Fawkes could not be more timely. The narrative, however, is slowed by analysis as she examines whether the "facts" obtained by torture and show trials were genuine. Despite the graphic picture of anti-Catholic excesses, which the violence was intended to undo, and the agonizing punishment meted out to innocent and guilty alike, the pace is plodding. Biographer Fraser (Mary Queen of Scots) is at her best in limning lives: "Little John" Owen, the steadfast lay brother skilled at constructing hiding places for priests; Father Henry Garnet, a martyred divine of extraordinary intellect and courage; his patroness, the faithful, often-imprisoned Anne Vaux; and especially young Sir Everard Digby, a gallant courtier who, though drawn into the conspiracy at the last moment, was the first to mount the scaffold. Traditionally, the executioner cut out the condemned person's heart before the body ceased twitching, to claim, while eager crowds watched: "Here is the heart of a traitor." However anatomically impossible, Digby's "spirited riposte," supposedly, was "Thou Liest." Coming off far less favorably are the king, who retracted his promises of religious toleration; Sir Edward Coke, the country's leading judge, here a juridical monster; and Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, the bigoted power behind the throne occupied only a few years earlier by the great Elizabeth. Illustrations not seen by PW. .
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 347 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; First Edition edition (October 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385471890
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385471893
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.8 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,174,289 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Stephen M. Bainbridge on February 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
Few tales better illustrate the old saw, "truth is stranger than fiction," than the story of the Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, Catholic militants disappointed by James I's failure to move towards toleration (allegedly) tried to blow up Parliament by piling gunpowder in a basement. The (purported) plot was discovered in the nick of time. England still celebrates Guy Fawkes' Day to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and, among other things, Beefeaters still search the basements of Westminster (in full regalia, no less).
The Gunpowder Plot has long been highly controversial. Catholic apologists have claimed that the whole thing was invented by Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, King James' chief minister, and master of a vast intelligence network, with the assistance of Sir Edward Coke as Crown Prosecutor. Protestant apologists claim the Plot was real, the danger was real, and only narrowly averted (by God's special favor).
Antonia Fraser is a leading popular historian of the Tudor and Stuart periods of English history, as well as an accomplished novelist. She writes well, tells stories lucidly, and has a demonstrated command of the period. In "Faith and Treason," she strikes a balanced note. Yes, there was a plot. But the danger was not very real--Salisbury discovered the plot early, the gunpowder was defective, and Salisbury left it in the basement to be dramatically discovered so that the discovery would have maximum political effect. She makes a compelling case.
Fraser is sympathetic to the Catholic plotters, recognizing that they had been pushed too far, but she also doesn't hesitate to call them traitors and terrorists. Contrary to what some reviewers have said, she is not an apologist for either side. Instead, this is a fair and balanced account, written with the verve and style of a novel. Highly recommended.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Peter Bridgman on January 5, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a fascinating book. Antonia Fraser has examined most of the old evidence afresh, has weighed up the arguments of the "pro-plotters" (historians who believe there actually was a plot by Catholic terrorists) and "no-plotters" (historians who believe that - like the Babington Plot before it - the Plot was a government conspiracy) and has produced a sort of compromise between these opposing views: a reasonably plausible pro-plot version with Catholic sympathies. It's a well written account, and has marvellous character studies, but unfortunately Fraser's version does stretch the reader's credulity somewhat.
She doesn't adequately explain why the English government, in the person of chief minister Robert Cecil, sits on the information and does absolutely nothing when he learns of the plot. Surely if there were 30 barrels of live gunpowder hidden under the House of Lords, Cecil might want it removed? But he doesn't even arrange a search for ten days or so. Fraser hints that one of the plotters, Francis Tresham, may have been a government spy, and therefore that Cecil knew of the plot from its inception, but she doesn't carry this idea through to its conclusions. Furthermore, she hasn't explored the possibility that plot leader Robin Catesby was an agent provacateur who deliberately set up the Jesuit priests by telling them about the planned explosion under the seal of the confessional. Nor does she question why the powder delivered to the Tower was all decayed and wouldn't have exploded anyway. Nor does she explain why 36 desperate armed men fail to harm a single member of the government's forces sent after them.
As a result Fraser's book seems somewhat naive to me.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By David Dodds on November 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
There are two types of history books nowadays: the popular versions which use a readable style and concentrate on events; and the academic style which are less digestible and more demanding of the reader. With this book Ms Fraser has plotted a central path which has produced a very readable book (indeed, I read it on a succession of plane flights) yet conceded nothing to popular history.
The style is exciting and intriguing, which provokes that rare desire to keep on reading. The book is written with a clear aim of showing how and why the Gunpowder Conspirators found themselves acting as they did and it shows the many flavours of opinion which existed at the time. Most intriguing is the way Ms Fraser reveals the opposition the plotters faced from the Catholic establishment and the extent to which the King and Government created the situation in which some people felt driven to attempt Regicide on a grand scale.
An exciting read with strong academic value.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A. Maxham on June 13, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
My review of this book consists of three major elements:
First, the story and the history is much more interesting than I had anticipated. I've been sort of "grazing" British history and got this book because it certainly qualified. As Fraser notes, Bonfire night isn't much in the U.S. having been usurped by Halloween and Thanksgiving, and I'd only vaguely heard of Guy Fawkes. The "true" story isn't as simple and uninteresting as "Disgruntled Guy Fawkes tries to blow up Parliament and gets caught," as per some popular stories. I've read a lot about Henry VIII and this story very much complements his story- Henry separates the English church from the one in Rome, setting off a chain of events that lasted for years (even to this day)- This book is about one of those events. If you are at all interested in following the consequences of actions through history, you'll like this.
Which leads to my second point- Fraser does a wonderful job of putting the story in perspective. Not only does she inform you as to the history, culture, sociology (role of women in particular) and the religious environment that led to the plot to blow up James I, his heirs, and Parliament (and likely some innocent pigeons), but she also indicates how the plot still affects current thinking and events (citing such examples as Nelson Mandela).
Finally, she does a great job with the story itself. Given the large cast of characters, the fact that I said "Wait, who is that again?" only a few times is very much to her credit. The story is very thorough with numerous citations and explanations of her interpretations of historical actions.
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