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Issue Date:  September 16, 2005

By Alice Hogge
HarperCollins Publishers, $27.95, 445 pages
By Paul West
New Directions, $15.95, 362 pages
Christian against Christian in 16th-century England

Writers draw surprising parallels with events today


Clergy sneak into a country after having been trained to engage in subversive activities that threaten the foundations of the state. Some of the people they influence join in antigovernment plots, including a cabal designed to kill the head of state and top officials of the government and the religious establishment. Government officials, growing increasingly paranoid, invade homes and arrest and torture suspects. Participation in any activities associated with the religious group under suspicion is considered to be a crime.

All this may seem like a projection of current events or the plot of Tom Clancy’s next novel, but it’s actually a description of the religio-political conflict that wracked England during the late 16th century and early 17th century. The best-known development of this tumultuous period, the Gunpowder Plot, was defused four centuries ago. As the Nov. 5 anniversary of the plan to blow up the Parliament building approaches, a new history describes the events that led up to it. God’s Secret Agents, historian Alice Hogge’s first book, is subtitled Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. Another appropriate subtitle might have been, “How the English Government Outlawed a Church and Tried to Destroy a Religious Movement.”

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 had implications for states and churches. Both England and Spain had seen the war as a conflict between Catholicism and Anglicanism, that hybrid of Christian beliefs that angered both the Vatican and the Puritans. Shortly after the end of the war, two Jesuit priests stealthily arrived on the Norfolk coast. They were the first of a clerical army designed to win back England for Catholicism by force of argument rather than force of arms.

The movement faced formidable opposition. In 1559, early in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the Act of Uniformity required all English subjects to attend services at their parish Anglican church every Sunday and holy day. Eleven years later, Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth, called her “pretended queen of England,” and openly encouraged her overthrow. Soldiers known as “pursuivants” searched for priests and for laypeople, known as recusants, who refused to obey the anti-Catholic laws.

But the Catholic apologists were well prepared for their task. Trained at the English College at the University of Douai in the Spanish Netherlands, they had read through the Old Testament 12 times and the New Testament 16 times and attended weekly debates to learn how to advocate both Catholic and “heretical” positions. And while the Church of England debated such matters as whether baptism was absolutely or only formally necessary for salvation, the Catholic mission offered English people a return to theological certainties. “God was in his heaven and you, too, could join Him there, if only you followed these simple guidelines,” Ms. Hogge writes in what sounds as much a description of Protestant fundamentalism as Catholic apologetics.

The English government’s persecution of Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular eventually led to the gathering of five plotters on May 20, 1604, at a London inn. They took an oath of secrecy, heard Mass and began to plan the destruction of the English government, which was now headed by King James I. It is unclear who officiated at the Mass, but a priest who definitely was not among those present, Fr. Henry Garnet, paid the ultimate penalty for his knowledge of the plot and his failure to reveal it to the authorities.

Fr. Garnet had become superior of the English Jesuits in 1586 and helped to organize and operate the network that enabled them to hide in safe houses throughout the English countryside. Eventually he became one of the hiders himself. His arrest in January 1606 and subsequent trial and execution gave the English government and its public a puzzling look at the method of clouding truth without directly lying known as “equivocation,” with which the term “Jesuitical” has become synonymous.

The technique had been used by Fr. John Gerard, one of the two priests who had sneaked back into England in 1588. At his first trial in 1594, he had been asked the so-called Bloody Question: “What would you do if the pope were to send over an army, declare that his only object was to bring the kingdom back to its Catholic allegiance, and use his apostolic authority to command obedience?” Fr. Gerard’s answer, that he “would behave as a loyal Catholic and as a loyal subject,” was a prime example of equivocation. Three years later, at another examination after having been tortured several times, he was convicted of treason after admitting that he had persuaded Queen Elizabeth’s subjects to give up their allegiance to the English church. Yet he insisted that his intention was not to deceive, “but simply to withhold the truth in cases where the questioned party is not bound to reveal it.”

Fr. Gerard was able to escape imprisonment and left England on April 30, 1606, the same day that Fr. Garnet was executed for his own equivocations and failure to reveal the existence of the Gunpowder Plot before it was uncovered. Ironically, his uncertainty about what to do about what he knew had won him the enmity of both the plotters and the government.

Fr. Garnet’s story was told in fictional form in 2001 by novelist Paul West in A Fifth of November, which was recently reissued in paperback. The story enables Mr. West to use language in his inimitable fashion, starting with the 101-word opening sentence and including a conversation in which Fr. Garnet tells one of his captors, Sir Henry Bromley, “You can always tell when a civilization is running down, when its theological conversations take place on horseback.”

Mr. West devotes a good deal of space to speculations about Fr. Garnet’s fascination with the sexuality of Anne Vaux, the noblewoman who hid him and other priests, but he also highlights the Jesuit superior’s dilemma after becoming acquainted with Guy Fawkes and the other plotters — that he came to England to “minister to the oppressed, not defuse a pack of rebels.” And Mr. Fawkes is depicted as having thought, in a moment of ironic futility, “We shall go down in history, indeed groveling in its filthiest gutters, but we shall not transform the country.”

The Gunpowder Plot plays a relatively minor role in both of these books, not even mentioned in Ms. Hogge’s history until Page 317. But both writers use the story of the English persecution of Catholics to draw some modern parallels. Mr. West remarks, “One day there will be a Prevention of Terrorism Act, with only lawyers exempt from it.” And Ms. Hogge notes that post-9/11 England has been debating the acceptable treatment of potential terrorists, the possible justifications for torture and a similar question to the one faced by the governments of Queen Elizabeth and King James — how to “distinguish those members of that contrary faith engaged in the conflict from those members with no such designs.”

Although Mr. West sometimes seems as preoccupied with fantasies of the flesh as with matters of faith and philosophy and Ms. Hogge is often repetitious in attempting to explain how Queen Elizabeth could have believed that her anti-Catholic policies did not constitute religious persecution, both books offer an illuminating look at an often overlooked period of church-state turmoil. It was a period not marked by Christians killing Muslims or Muslims killing Christians, but of Christians killing and attempting to kill each other.

Darrell Turner writers the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

National Catholic Reporter, September 16, 2005

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