‘Gunpowder’ may be violent, but that’s how England treated Catholics

Kit Harington as Robert Catesby (Picture: BBC)

Did you see Gunpowder on BBC 1 this Saturday? It has had some encouraging reviews, and also some reactions that strike me as rather strange. It seems a lot of viewers found it too violent – or rather found two scenes in particular too much to watch.

The series of three programmes deals with the Gunpowder Plot, and stars Kit Harington, who, intriguingly, plays the part of his ancestor Robert Catesby, the leader of the plot. (Kit is also descended from James VI and I, on the wrong side of the blanket, but that doesn’t feature in the publicity material.)

The two scenes that upset viewers were the hanging, drawing and quartering of a young priest (or was he a seminarian? I was not quite sure) and the putting to death of an elderly lady by peine forte et dure. This was the method used on St Margaret Clitherow. As the Daily Telegraph points out, though these two characters are fictional, there is nothing fictional about the way they were put to death.

So, nothing in Gunpowder could possibly have surprised a Catholic who has been brought up on the stories of the martyrs, and who may very well have visited their shrine at the Tyburn Convent or visited the shrine of St Margaret Clitherow in York. The people who are likely to be surprised and shocked are those who perhaps are ignorant of Catholic history, and the bloody repression that Catholics faced during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James VI and I. Ironically, those very same people may think they are well informed about the events of the reign of Mary I, whom they insist on calling ‘Bloody Mary’. All this goes to show that we need a lot more programmes like Gunpowder to bring people up to speed on our history. It will be interesting to see how Gunpowder develops too: after all, the truth about the Plot is not entirely clear. Was it in fact the action of agents provocateurs who were encouraged by Cecil? (The next two episodes are already up on Iplayer, but I have not watched them yet.)

One last thought. The fates of various Jesuits, seminary priests and laypeople such as St Margaret Clitherow are perhaps not as known as they should be because they represent something profoundly embarrassing to the English consciousness, namely, the fact that the Reformation, which was supposed to be a time of enlightenment, progress, and defeat for superstition and cruelty, was anything but. The Tudors and James VI and I did not respect freedom of conscience, and they presided over many cruel punishments, while at the same time posing as the enemies of Popish darkness and superstition. (James, don’t forget, had a particular obsession with witches, and oversaw the punishment of many.) Their hypocrisy was astonishing. I know where I stand: with honest St Margaret and the good priests she sheltered, and, I have to admit, to some extent at least, with Robert Catesby, who wanted to send the whole ruling class sky high.