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on 23 July 2006
Antonia Fraser has the gift of presenting facts and documents from history in beautiful, engaging prose that you just want to keep on reading. The Gunpowder Plot was the first book by Ms Fraser that I read and I loved the thrill and the suspense which she weaves into her narrative. I felt as if I was reading a fast-paced, intriguing detective story rather than a book of fact - and though I knew from the start that the Plot will not succeed, Ms Fraser's style is so absorbing that you'll find youself turning the pages with excitement as you glimpse into the early 17th century religious turmoil of England. Most people will probably have heard of the Gunpowder Plot but won't really know about the forces that shaped it, or the outcome that it brought for England. With The Gunpowder Plot you will discover so many interesting facts about the Plot that you never knew, for example why celebrating Guy Fawkes Day in the USA is such a bizarre contradiction. I learnt a lot while reading this book and thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.
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I don't want to repeat all the many reviews already on here, but would like to add that there is a detectable emotional bias on the side of Fraser for the catholics. That doesn't detract from the book in any way (and could we ever elide our own emotions, opinions, bias' from any narrative?) but instead does add an interesting contemporary layer to her story. At the end, after the conspiracy has been discovered, this emotionalism becomes more obvious in the stories of the torture and execution of the conspirators (some of whom, arguably, were not actually involved). Fraser ends by not coming out on the side of the conspirators, but instead evoking the pity that such 'noble' men were forced into such ignoble deeeds: an interesting view, perhaps, given our own more recent experiences of terrorism in London and other places? A worthy book, and well-worth a read, both for its historical story-telling and its more modern narrative sub-text.
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on 26 November 2005
For those among you who have read other historical narratives by Antonia Fraser you will know that her depth of research and story telling skills are beyond reproach. And so it is with this book.
The book outlines not only the details of the conspiracy itself but also sets the scene by explaining the very real persecution that catholics were exposed to in the last years of Elizabeth's reign and how they hoped, and indeed believed, that they would achieve toleration once James was securely on the English throne.
One aspect of the book which I found particulary fascinating was in respect of how little things have changed over the last four hundred years. We still have politicians who are prepared to make all kinds of promises before they gain power which they have no intention of actually keeping. We also have politicians who have no qualms about lying to us about the real dangers posed by our so called enemies in order that they can implement policies which are beneficial to themselves. And, of course, even in the twenty first century we still have religious extremists who are prepared to bomb London in order to further their cause, though not thankfully those with catholic sympathies anymore.
As we would expect from a historical writer who has written so extensively about female historical characters she places much emphasis on the women who are connected to the powder treason, most notably Anne and Eliza Vaux. She also betrays her catholic sympathies, not so much by supporting the conspirators which she doesn't, but by her very sympathetic portrayal of the Jesuits and lay men who were part of the story, though not of the conspiracy.
In summary, I would highly recommend this book not only because it is a very good read but also because in many important respects many aspects of the narrative are still highly relevant today.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 October 2012
. . . and the version of the Tudor period told to Catholic children differs from the version taught in state schools. To the majority of us, Elizabeth was the golden queen who held the balance of power for 40 years, redeeming the bloodbath of her sister's reign with mercy and temperance, and saving us from the terrors of the Inquisition as carried in the holds of the Armada. More or less, anyway. It is, of course, a biased view in which Henry the Eighth, despite being a Bad Man, did a Good Thing when he got rid of monasteries, relics, chantry chapels and the other institutions used by Rome to maintain her hegemony.

Fraser, as a Catholic, necessarily has a different view from the mainstream on the history of the years from 1520 to 1620. She takes the view that the Gunpowder Plot was an extremist manifestation of a wide-spread seething of Catholic frustration and suffering. Her sympathy with fellow-travellers, and pity for the (admittedly wrong) conspirators, is evident from the start. Perhaps it is, indeed, high time the balance was redressed.

However, this is a weighing down on the other side of the scales, rather than an impartial view. From the start, Fraser refers repeatedly to the extremity of the 'persecution' of Catholics under Elizabeth. But if they felt so very persecuted, why was there so little insurrection during her reign? We need to look at matters from both sides.

Henry never embraced the theology of advanced Protestantism; he remained an Anglo-Catholic and liked to see himself as a sort of demi-pope rather than a trailblazer for reform. His short-lived son, educated in a more radical vein, brought in the main recognizable features of the Church of England. Mary's subjects, however, were left in no doubt that Protestantism was heresy and punishable with the utmost severity; moreover that in order to ensure the supremacy of the True Faith she was prepared to bring England into the Spanish sphere of influence. Her sister Elizabeth was constantly badgered about her beliefs and learned to walk a very fine tightrope as a result; any clear evidence of heresy could have given Mary the excuse to rid herself of a rival. Considering how young the Reformation still was, Mary found a surprising number of her subjects were sufficiently convinced she was wrong, to take the radical step of becoming martyrs for their beliefs. It is almost impossible for most of us to appreciate the mindset which, faced with the safe option of going along with the herd, is prepared to stand out and invite a hideous fate.

When Elizabeth came to the throne, both she and her new subjects had had quite enough of the hard-line approach. She made it as easy as possible for Catholics to fudge the issue, stay inside the law and carry on normal lives. The less devout, in droves, did just this. Anyone who doesn't find this surprising must be reminded of the following:
*According to Catholic dogma, attending C of E services, not attending Catholic mass, not going to confession and obtaining absolution, and dying without the services of a Catholic priest, all placed one in peril for one's immortal soul or, at the very least, a long spell in Purgatory; not an abstract concept for people of the time. "Fudging the issue" meant just this.
*By Catholic standards, Elizabeth had no right to the throne; her mother had not been legally married to Henry (who'd been excommunicated anyway, which made him an illegitimate ruler himself). Elizabeth herself, as a Protestant heretic, could not in the eyes of Rome be a legitimate ruler anyway.
*The Pope had explicitly made it the duty of good Catholics to depose Elizabeth by any means, and while infiltration by trained agents was constantly being attempted, it was the duty of Catholics to support these.

Nonetheless, not only did the vast majority of Catholics accept (however grumpily) the status quo, but when the crown passed to James - brought up in a far more radical form of Protestantism than Elizabeth - as Fraser notes, most English Catholics were concerned to display their loyalty right from the start. They did perhaps believe, from James's reluctance to make any unambiguous statement on the subject, that he intended to bring in freedom of religion; although this was not what had happened in Scotland and, while his mother was a Catholic, James was, like his predecessor Elizabeth, a monarch whose chief concern was to stay on the throne.

Fraser is quite good, and subtle, on why the Catholics had such high hopes for James, and it is here that we must look for the roots of rebellion, not in conditions under Elizabeth. Elizabeth's "persecution" had one aim; to prevent a Catholic party becoming wealthy, influential and fanatical enough to depose her in favour of a Spanish substitute. To this end she imprisoned those found to be too close to foreign sympathies, executed anyone implicated in actual plots against her, banned the entry of those who were likely to be instigating plots, and fined those Catholics devout enough to baulk at outward conformity, in order to reduce their wealth and influence. This was miserable for those who wished only to practise their religion loyally, but distinguishing between the truly loyal and those maneouvering to bring in foreign troops with the inquisition on their heels was just too close to call even for a man like Walsingham. History shows us that extreeme, violent action is rarely a response to long low-level oppression, but often a reaction to hopes suddenly dashed.
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VINE VOICEon 9 April 2014
I listened to this book on Audible, and it seemed to me that, while providing a good narrative of the events surrounding the attempted terrorist plot of the 5th November 1605, the reader (or listener) has to be very aware of Ms. Fraser's clear religious leanings. Once one makes allowances for that (and those allowances do need to be considerable in parts) the book rattles along at a fair pace and provide a decent picture of life among the persecuted Catholic minority during the turn of the 16th century.

What it does NOT do is to provide any sort of insight into the reasons behind the treatment of the Catholics by the Protestant Government, nor does it suggest whether the vast majority of Protestants were for or against that treatment.

While providing great and interesting detail (in a Foxe's Book of Martyrs sort of a way) into gory executions and tortures, exciting chases into Priests Holes and worthy and staunch Catholic women, there is no real examination of why the Protestants had arrived at the position of persecuting their fellow-countrymen. There is no mention at all of the persecution of Protestants under Queen Mary, and little indication of the fear in many people's psyche, of foreign (particularly Spanish) invasion, with the attendant threat of Spanish Inquisition.

The plotters themselves have always come across to me as a bunch of rather evil-minded incompetents to be frank, and nothing in this book has made me feel any different. The arch-demon, Cecil is depicted as a zealot and a devil, but realistically, one would hope that his natural successors are still in charge!!

Many times while listening to this book, which was written in the late 90's, I was left wondering whether the book would be any different had it been written post 9/11

I know more about the period now than I did before, which is the hallmark f good history, but treat with care!!
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on 30 October 2007
As soon as the scene of the day was set, I couldn't put this book down.
I only knew a bit of the gruesome fate that awaited a few of the characters of this real drama, but never before appreciated the extent of it, the accounts remaining, and how many were implicated.

This has enough detail and background, but with minimal patience required, as you are rewarded by constant plunges back to the real tension (and high stakes) that must have existed as this gripping episode in british history unfolded.

Fraser provides a comprehensive understanding of the fate of the Catholic conspirators that emerges through her respect for detail, pace, and moderate 'between-the-lines' (of the numerous biased accounts). She gets under the skin of what most likely occurred.

Literally: convictions, intrigue, friendship, betrayal, love, loyalties, horse chases, a mysterious letter, gun-battles, gunpowder, treason and plot. Then: the horrors awaiting the captives, and those finding themselves involved....and the repercussions for all.
Akin to 'The Crucible' concerning fear and witch hunts, but on a much more intricate scale.

Intelligent commentary and sympathetic character-analysis also involves one in this harrowing account to really 'remember, remember'.
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on 11 July 2013
I am a fan of Antonia Fraser's books. I think she generally finds the right balance between dry factual history and a 'good read'. This book is no exception in that it is proper history, with footnotes and a copious list of sources and references, but at the same time there is a story that draws you in and makes you want to keep reading, even though we all know what the outcome was. However, as with so many things to do with our history I suspect we all know a little but are actually fairly ignorant when it comes to the full picture. This work should fill in the gaps and I think it provides a balanced and unbiased explanation of what was going on at the time.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 November 2010
Antonia Fraser's lively and authoritative history not only provides an entertaining account of the events that have turned November 5th into an annual fireworks celebration but also throws a light on how to tackle terrorism. For the early seventeenth century world which spawned Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and an attempt to blow up Parliament was one in which there were widespread fears of plots and violence, motivated by differing religious views that led some (but not all) to see the future as inevitably bringing a violent confrontation for religious supremacy. Fears of terrorist conspiracy by an extremist minority in a religion that nominally owned obedience to an overseas religious figure all sounds rather contemporary.

Fraser's skill in mixing the stories of individuals with the story of social tensions brings out the frequent difficulty in deciding quite who or what behaviour is beyond the pale. There was then a spectrum, with at one end a small number of Catholic extremists plotting violent treason but then moving on to those who supported the plot, even if they did not directly participate, those who knew of the plot and let it be, those who knew of the plot and privately tried to stop it (but did not call in the authorities), those who did not know of the plot but only by virtue of turning a blind eye and finally, those who knew of the plot and, probably, did tip off the authorities. Picking precisely where on that spectrum to draw legal culpability, especially in a world of imperfect evidence and conflicting accounts, is not easy and the existence of that spectrum means that successfully tackling the extremists at one end often means appealing to - rather than antagonising - those further along the spectrum.

Aside from the strength of these modern parallels, the other aspect of the book which most surprised me was the role of women in keeping the Catholic religion going in England. The paucity of legal and property rights for women meant that they were, ironically, largely protected from the financial penalties levied on Catholics at the time. Therefore in many families the wife remained a Catholic, bringing up children (at least until adulthood) as Catholics too but with the husband and other adult men in the family paying obedience to the demands of Protestantism.

At heart, however, is the well told story of the plotters, their attempts to blow up Parliament and the consequences for them and for many other Catholics. It is a good read, even without those other bonus perspectives.
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on 30 January 2016
There is an obvious and distinct lack of balance in this account of the plot. From start to finish it is deeply sympathetic to the plotters. This bias takes away from its value as an objective examination of the events. Nor did I find that it raced along with page turning suspense that many other reviewers concluded. It does raise interesting parallels with what is occurring in the world today. Where religious fanatics go abroad to fight in holy wars, returning to their country damaged, de-sensitised and battle hardened to wreak death and destruction in God's name and the innocent suffer. It seems nothing much changes.
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on 29 March 2015
A comprehensive investigation of the Gunpowder plot, and the politics of parliament and royalty of the time, and the strengths of convictions in society, during an period of history that I am not that familiar with. The narrative is clearly written although not a light read, and draws the reader to important points but also the author's specific interpretations of some of the aspects of the whole business, rather than relying upon received wisdom of established views. Driven by their convictions, I have to say that a more amateur bunch of desperadoes might be difficult to find!
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