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The Gunpowder Plot – one authentic victim?

November 6, 2013


Reflecting on the Gunpowder Plot yesterday, I neglected to say anything about the one real victim of the whole affair – Father Henry Garnet.  Garnet was an English Catholic priest who refused to conform but earnestly desired the peaceful reconciliation of Christendom.

Garnet’s crime was that he learned of the Gunpowder Plot under the seal of confessional.  His private religious judgement forbade him from passing on what he had learned to the authorities.  He did however do everything he could behind the scenes to encourage the plotters to abandon their enterprise.  He used his international contacts to try to have English Catholics warned not to engage in terrorism.  Indeed, Father Garnet was one of those rare early-modern individuals who wanted protestants and catholics to stop killing one another.

Unfortunately, there was tremendous political pressure to execute at least one Catholic priest following the Gunpowder Plot.  Garnet’s  “equivocations” became notorious, and may be alluded to in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

(One side-swipe at the Oxfordians – Macbeth could not have been written by De-Vere/ Oxford because it could not have been written during Elizabeth’s reign.  Elizabeth hated all talk of James Stuart succeeding her, even though she knew it was probably inevitable.  She hated the idea of her courtiers deserting the setting for the rising sun – sending letters to Edinburgh when they should be dancing attendance on her.  Nobody would have dared stage a play anticipating the Stuart succession while Elizabeth breathed and Elizabeth outlived Oxford.)

As it happened, Garnet has enough friends left in the world to run out of the crowd and tug on his legs as he was being hanged – thus breaking his neck and sparing him the full torture of his sentence of subsequent drawing and quartering.  By a bizarre coincidence therefore the man who was actually trying to light the fuse (Fawkes) and the man who squash the plot before it got going (Garnet) both died mercifully by neck-break hangings.

Garnet’s sad story is the story of a legal and political inability to reconcile state security within individual freedom of conscience.

This story is ongoing and the twenty first century is still struggling with it.


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