Bonfires were lit across London in 1605 as the nation celebrated King James’s escape from a gunpowder plot against his life. It was August: three months before the discovery of the ‘Powder treason’ of November and the religious motives of the plotters were Protestant, not Catholic. But what is not how history remembers it.
The BBC’s Gunpowder drama has been attacked for inaccuracy and bias. But this fictional account was a paragon of precise truth beside the fake history that is taught in school and widely accepted as true. The know-it-alls at the water cooler (and Peter Hitchens) will tell you it is a ‘known fact’ that Catholics were the source of all the religiously motivated treason against Elizabeth I and King James; that this explains the horrible execution of Catholic priests shown on our screens.
In fact, a generation before a Papal Bull of 1570, had released Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects from their duty of obedience to her, Protestants had deployed religious justifications for treason. They argued monarchs drew their authority from the people, so the people had the right to overthrow those of the ‘wrong’ religion . This was aimed against the Catholic Queens Mary Tudor (against whom they plotted and rebelled) and Mary, Queen of Scots, (who they overthrew), but it was also aimed against the ‘wrong’ kind of Protestant.
This could be applied to anyone who wasn’t a through-going Calvinist. Elizabeth I certainly wasn’t, and James belief in the divine origins of an episcopate (Church government by Bishops) was never shared by Calvin. It was the issue of Bishops that had provoked the incident in Scotland known as the Gowrie conspiracy of 1600, in which James believed two noble brothers, in league with Minsters in the Presbyterian Church, had plotted to kidnap – and perhaps even kill him.
James’s advocacy of the Divine Right – that kings drew their authority from God and ruled by divine right – was his response to religious justifications for treason, Protestant and Catholic, while Elizabeth had protected herself by ensuring she had no clear replacement – and destroyed her Protestant heir first: Lady Katherine Grey died imprisoned in 1568, nine years before Elizabeth executed her Catholic heir, James’s mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Gunpowder plot of 1605 cemented in English culture Protestant propaganda that associated Catholics alone with treason but by the end of James’s reign it was those Calvinists known as Puritans that he was more concerned about. It was Puritans who would rebel against his son Charles I in 1642. They sold a civil war between Protestants over the nature of the Church of England – and its bishops – as a war against Popery, and they re-defined treason.
After Charles was beheaded, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan army oversaw a genocide in Catholic Ireland. 20% of the population died of famine and disease. Back in the 1590s Edmund Spenser had actually advocated this as a more effective means of wiping the Catholic Irish out than the sword. It says something further about our historical blinkers that we are now building a memorial outside parliament to a holocaust committed by Germans, while maintaining a statue to Cromwell.
Religious persecution is, furthermore, a live issue across the world today. But there is no virtue signaling from us here. Like the Spanish in Gunpowder, who sign a peace treaty with James in 1602 without making an end to Catholic persecution a part of their terms, we make out treaties with persecutors, and wash our hands.
Leanda de Lisle is the author of After Elizabeth: The Death of Elizabeth and the Coming of King James.