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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but leaves unanswered questions, January 5, 2003
This review is from: Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (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. Her young Catholic terrorists are handsome swashbuckling cavaliers who die heroically clutching pictures of the Virgin Mary. She seems to have little sense of the level of espionage and double-dealing that flourished in England at the time. (See Charles Nicholl's 'The Reckoning - the Murder of Christopher Marlowe' for a vivid account of this shadowy underworld).
What Antonia Fraser does achieve though, is a vivid picture of English (aristocratic) Catholic recusant life at the end of the sixteenth century, with its stately homes riddled with priest-holes, and the brave women who sheltered the hunted priests. She also draws a very sympathetic portrait of Fr Henry Garnet, the head of the Jesuits' mission to England. Henry was an honest man in a world of double dealers, who naively and bravely defends his Faith to the last. I was very surprised to find out afterwards that Garnet hasn't yet been canonised.
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