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Faith and Treason

In England, November 5 is Guy Fawkes Day, when fireworks displays commemorate the shocking moment in 1605 when government authorities uncovered a secret plan to blow up the House of Parliament--and King James I along with it. A group of English Catholics, seeking to unseat the king and reintroduce Catholicism as the state religion, daringly placed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the Palace of Westminster. Their aim was to ignite the gunpowder at the opening of the Parliamentary session. Though the charismatic Catholic, Robert Catesby, was the group's leader, it was the devout Guy Fawkes who emerged as its most famous member, as he was the one who was captured and who revealed under torture the names of his fellow plotters. In the aftermath of their arrests, conditions grew worse for English Catholics, as legal penalties against them were stiffened and public sentiment became rabidly intolerant.

In a narrative that reads like a gripping detective story, Antonia Fraser has untangled the web of religion, politics, and personalities that surrounded that fateful night of November 5. And, in examining the lengths to which individuals will go for their faith, she finds in this long-ago event a reflection of the religion-inspired terrorism that has produced gunpowder plots of our own time.

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About the Author

Antonia Fraser is the author of many internationally bestselling historical works, including Love and Louis XIV, Mary Queen of Scots, and Marie Antoinette, which was made into a film by Sofia Coppola. She is also the author of two memoirs, Must You Go? and My History. She has received the Wolfson History Prize, the 2000 Norton Medlicott Medal from Britain's Historical Association, and the Enid McLeod Franco-British Society Literary Prize. Fraser was made a Dame for services to literature in 2011.


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. . (Oct.)

On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes entered English history as the ultimate villain, the man responsible for trying to blow up Parliament‘king and all. What led him to such a desperate act? Was he truly the mastermind behind the plot, or just a player unfortunate enough to go down in infamy for this display of terrorism? In her latest book, Fraser demonstrates that a mix of personalities tossed with the oil-and-water blend of religion and politics is too often deadly. She untangles the events leading to the Gunpowder Plot and guides the reader through the trial, which proved that when pitted against politics, religion usually comes in second. As in her previous books (e.g., Political Death, LJ 11/1/95), Fraser delivers her narrative with flare and a wry sense of humor. An excellent choice for most libraries.‘Tobi Liedes-Bell, Washakie County Lib. System, Wy.

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