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Page last updated at 10:20 GMT, Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Free the Gunpowder Plot One

Photo illustration of fictional protesters at the Houses of Parliament (BBC/Getty Images)
Photo illustration of fictional protesters at the Houses of Parliament

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

Was one of the Gunpowder Plotters an innocent victim of circumstance? As effigies of Guy Fawkes again go up in flames, is it time to rectify a 400-year-old miscarriage of justice?

After the failed attempt to blow up Parliament in November 1605, Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his parboiled head displayed on London Bridge.

Henry Garnet book
This book sold in 2007 is claimed to be covered with Garnet's skin

A 17th Century book describing the execution of this "barbarous traitor" sold at auction last year, with the unique selling point that its cover was allegedly made from the executed man's skin. But was the subject of this text really guilty?

On the day when the UK marks the anniversary of its most famous attempted coup, a historian is asking some awkward questions about one of those executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot.

Glyn Redworth has been researching the letters of a Spanish aristocrat who lived in London during the years surrounding the plot - and he says these reveal evidence Garnet was wrongly condemned.

What brought Garnet to the scaffold in St Paul's Churchyard in 1606 was the claim that he knew about the plot but had failed to alert the authorities.

Exotic witness

Dr Redworth's findings have come from his book The She-Apostle, telling the story of Luisa de Carvajal, a Spanish woman who came to London in 1605, with the aim of supporting England's Catholics, who faced persecution under the Protestant King James.

Henry Garnet at the gallows
Robert Catesby led plot to kill James I and leading nobles on 5 November 1605
It was conspiracy of disaffected Catholic gentry wanting to overthrow Protestant elite
Gunpowder was concealed in cellar below Houses of Parliament
Anonymous warning revealed plot

Her letters have some familiar complaints - the housing in London is over-priced and the locals get drunk and rowdy at the weekends.

This is also a London of religious intolerance, violence, plagues, public executions, torture and secret agents, plots and counter-terror.

The man who brought her to this dangerous place was Henry Garnet, and Dr Redworth says the timing of her arrival, in the months when the plotters were planning their attack, points away from the idea he was part of the conspiracy.

If he was desperate to avoid detection while planning to kill the king, he wouldn't have smuggled in a Spaniard who stood out like a sore thumb, says the University of Manchester historian.

"He wouldn't bring over this rare and exotic woman, who couldn't speak a word of English, who could so easily attract attention and lead people to the plot."

Luisa, familiar with the Catholic families in London and influenced by the opinions of Garnet, reveals in her letters a deep hostility to the plotters.

The historian believes that Luisa’s criticism of the "foolish and impudent" plotters was a direct reflection of Garnet's own views, and suggests that he was wrongly arrested as a sympathiser.

While Garnet was accused of secretly supporting the plotters, Luisa's letters show there was no appetite for terror in Garnet's private circle.

In front of a modern jury, he would have been seen not as a dangerous conspirator but a "naive bumbler", says Dr Redworth.

Political expediency

But there was no denying Garnet did know something. In the confession booth he had heard a second-hand account of plans for a rebellion – and he sought to dissuade radical Catholic gentry who might be involved.

Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes caught in the act

But the jury at his trial were unconvinced. Why hadn't he passed on his suspicions to the authorities?

Dr Redworth says on a previous occasion Garnet had tipped off the government. But there were so many plots and rumours of plots swirling around, it was not unreasonable for Garnet to hesitate.

And there was a political need to prove he was at the centre of the plot and not just a bystander. "They couldn't give him the benefit of the doubt," he says.

The ring-leaders had died in a shoot-out; other conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, had been caught, tortured and executed.

What made Garnet different was his status as leader of the Jesuit priests secretly operating in England.

The Jesuits were associated with a threat from overseas - and by punishing a Jesuit, it made it easier for King James to avoid blaming all English Catholics. In propaganda terms, it turned an attempted English rebellion into a foreign-inspired plot.

"By getting rid of the chief Jesuit, it allowed him to draw a line under the Gunpowder Plot," says Dr Redworth.

Ring leader

Michael Lobban, professor of legal history at Queen Mary, University of London, says the prosecution was designed to present Garnet as the chief manipulator who "directed and commanded" the plotters.

This cautious, scholarly son of a Nottingham head teacher was cast as leader of the hot-headed gentry who stacked cellars full of explosives.

We have to accept that according to the law of the time, he was guilty of sedition and treason
David Herber of the Gunpowder Plot Society

It was a successful tactic, supported by circumstance rather than any formal evidence. "The kind of evidence allowed at this time to convict people of treason was often very loose,” says Professor Lobban.

The jury only took 15 minutes to find Garnet guilty.

This remains one of the most famous crimes in British history - 5/11 in today's parlance - and Professor Lobban says there is still value in such re-evaluations.

"The more we can uncover about what Garnett did or did not do, the better. After all, we might have more evidence one way or another than contemporary prosecutors or jurors."

Such doubts do not persuade the Gunpowder Plot Society, which studies events surrounding the failed attack.

"We have to accept that according to the law of the time, he was guilty of sedition and treason and punished in accordance with that law," says the society's spokesman David Herber.

He also believes that far from being innocent, Garnet was "well aware of what was transpiring and chose to do nothing".

There was one more verdict on Garnet. The crowd who gathered to see the execution underwent a change of heart, turning against the executioners.

In one version of events the crowd pulled on his legs when he was hanging to save him from being disembowelled and ripped apart while still alive.

Garnet, says Dr Redworth, was “extremely unlucky” to have gone down in history as a Gunpowder Plotter.

Below is a selection of your comments.

My ancestor Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham was the judge in charge of the case at the time. He was known to be a very harsh judge and gave Guy Fawkes his sentence. He used to live in the house called Littlecote, in Hungerford, which is the last stately home shown on the current Warner Hotels advert. It's been interesting reading more about this time, so thank you.
Lisa Pearce, Chelmsford, Essex, UK

We must remember that this was over 400 years ago and as the proof is rather flimsy, we must let sleeping dogs lie. We must also remember that under Mary, she had Protestants burnt at the stake, whilst under Elizabeth especially, there was the real threat from Catholics inside England and fear that Spain (and France?) could possibly invade us to restore England to Catholicism. As the Gunpowder Plot was a serious attempt to take out Parliament and the Stuart Royal family, I can understand how the authorities acted. Therefore, the evidence does not appear to be overwhelming to reverse the verdict.
Andrew Lye, Johnston, Pembrokeshire

If this was a case of political expediency or the death of an "innocent man" is of little consequence to history, as we can testify today, terrorists are defined by the state, the press, public opinion and pressure on the system and people that rule. The rights and wrongs are defined by the "winners" of the age you live in, not by any truths recorded or spoken.
Gavin, London

Has bonfire night anything to do with much older traditions of a pre-Christian variety? More than likely. If you wished celebrate those old traditions in the 17th Century, would it be wise to admit to doing so? No, not very. If asked, wouldn't you say, "I am celebrating the death of a cursed traitor and up holding the supremacy of the Church of England." Well you wouldn't want to be next on your own bonfire would you?
Kevin Gray, Harrow

Presumably the state/church of the day wanted to banish an old custom (Celtic New Year), but fearing a public backlash in banning an opportunity for Joe Public to get a bit rowdy around a fire, the traditional holiday morphed into something that could be tolerated, the celebration of a failed plot. This scenario sounds awfully like how pagan traditions in December and spring became major Christian festivals. Rather than ban the holiday, it became something that the establishment could tolerate, even if the Christian (state) church was showing zero tolerance to anyone else's faith or beliefs.
Chris, Godalming

Asking people to stop celebrating fireworks day is like telling people that are not Christian to stop celebrating Christmas. Many of these events have grown beyond the simple meaning. For those taking part in Guy Fawkes in remembrance of the actual event, rather than just using it as an excuse for a party (which is perfectly fine), burning a Guy is not a barbarous act and launching fireworks is not celebrating executions. The first verse of the poem is very apt; Remember, remember, the 5th of November. It is the British people saying "We do not forget acts of terrorism and respond to such in the strongest possible force". Ask yourselves, how many people have attempted to blow up parliament since, and of those attempts, how many have been even partially as successful? There is a reason why your answer to the above question would be "I know of no other plot".
Phil, Southend, England

I'm sorry but this is pathetic. The evidence that was used to convict Garnet may have been shaky but to call what Dr Redworth is presenting evidence would be an insult to any legal system, be it today's or that of 1605. Based on little more than the fact that one person Garnet knew disagreed with the plot, he MUST be innocent? I'm sorry but that just doesn't wash. I'm not saying the man was definitely guilty but to start trying to rewrite history on the flimsiest pieces of conjecture is absurd. Dr Redworth is attempting to force his own interpretation onto what little evidence exists, as opposed to basing his opinion on what is actually apparent and you can see how much of a stretch it is.
Iain, Scotland

I always felt some remorse for the way Garnet was treated, and it is my understanding that he was treated differently to the remainder of the plotters at the scaffold. However, my own research still concludes that Garnet was more guilty than innocent and paid the ultimate price. Perhaps with our new found technology we should take DNA from the book, clone Garnet and ask him to tell us the truth.
Terry Kendall, Penzance

I think that Garnet's actions are relevant today. How guilty are those who belong to a community which gives rise to extremism if, though not active in terror themselves, they also do not oppose it with every means in their power? And when does loyalty to the State override loyalty to family, friends, coreligionists? I don't know the answers, but discussing a historical question allows us to debate these questions without giving offence to today's minority groups.
Jennifer Foster, Salisbury, UK

On moving to England a few years ago, I was amazed at how little people knew about the plot. It still surprises me that outspoken republicans of the Catholic faith to this day burn effigies of the Guy.
Keeper, Edinburgh

There will always be doubts over the convictions and executions of those accused of the gunpowder plot, but because of their capture this country has had a religious freedom that has annoyed Rome to no end. Look at what they have tried to regain control of this country - explosive plot aimed at killing the monarchy, the Spanish Armada to name but two. Attempts to justify the plot, and gain exemption from what may have been an injustice, are themselves bordering on treason. Leave history alone and learn from its errors.
Derek Penn, Truro, Cornwall

Isn't it about time we stopped this barbarous tradition? Effigies are burned every year, and hardly anyone can say who Guy Fawkes was, or why he was executed (and many people think he was burned). In an age where religious tolerance is important, we should abolish this ritual. If people still want a bonfire night then move it to 31 October - the old Celtic New Year's Eve. Which was celebrated with bonfires, by the way.
Terri Beckett, Mold, Flintshire

"Barbarous tradition"? Give me a break. Nowadays the effigies that are burnt are more likely to be modern figures - in the 80s it was Thatcher, Reagan, Scargill. This year it's Brand and Ross. It's just fun. There's no malice in it at all.
John, Nottingham, UK

Nothing in the above story convinced me he was innocent, especially in the times he lived in.
B J Nicholson, Manchester, England

Gunpowder plot 'skin' book sold
03 Dec 07 |  South Yorkshire

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