Historical accuracy is a valuable commodity, and television and cinema have, thanks to the constraints within which they work, a poor record in conveying it. Thank goodness, therefore, that the BBC is to re-edit one of its recent programmes, removing a suggestion that Fr John Gerard, SJ, either approved or helped plan the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, as this magazine reports.
If the assertion that the Jesuits were somehow or another behind the Gunpowder Plot were to be left unchallenged and uncorrected, that would give the most unfortunate impression that the Catholic Church was the enemy of the British state, and that Catholics believe the end justifies the means, and that the centuries of anti-Catholic persecution was completely justified.
Recent history, as well as recent events in Britain, have shown us how conspiracy theories and misinformation, coupled with recurring ‘black legends’, can still get a grip on the popular imagination. This is bad for the victimised minorities who become the objects of suspicion and unjust hatred, but it is bad for the health of public discourse as well.
Historically the Gunpowder Plot was used by state-sponsored propagandists to stir up anti-Catholic feeling, to justify repression, and to reinforce the sense that the nation was under siege. Research points to a much more nuanced picture: that the plotters were never a serious threat, and that the Plot was known to the authorities from an early stage, and possibly even manipulated by Robert Cecil for political ends.
It is probable that we shall never know just what role Cecil played exactly. But even though there are lacunae in our knowledge of the Gunpowder Plot, this does not mean that fantasy is allowed to fill in the gaps, though there may be space for reasonable supposition. Television and history can go well together, but being the medium it is, television loves to compress complex things like motivation, and draw out less crucial aspects like background and atmosphere. This tends to simplify matters in the same manner as the historical novel, which like television, never delves into anything as boring and yet vital as the economic factors at work in a historical situation. The trouble is that the stickler for historical accuracy may well appear to be the killjoy out to ruin a good story.
This is a great pity, as historical accuracy is religion’s best friend, specifically Catholicism’s best friend. The other day I was reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and was taken back by his unsubstantiated claim that the persecutions of the early Church never really happened. He admits Peter and Paul were put to death, but denies the other apostles were, or any other early Christians in any great number. This represents an early attempt to undermine the historical basis of Catholicism. Sadly for Gibbon, there is hard evidence that the persecutions took place. There are many sources written by Christian authors that are reliable, and there are the surviving libelli from the reign of Decius.
In fact, Gibbon’s assertion is both unfounded, partisan and childish. A bit like the assertion, that no one should believe, that the Jesuits were behind the Gunpowder Plot. The truth, when it can be determined, is altogether more complex, and as it happens, frequently shows the Church in a better light. As the Blessed John Henry Newman observed: “To be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant.” We should always be on the side of deeper historical knowledge, for we have nothing to fear from the nuances of history. Thank goodness, that the BBC has corrected its mistake with regard to Fr Gerard.