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  • The Enigma of Gunpowder Plot, 1605: The Third Solution
  • Pauline Croft
The Enigma of Gunpowder Plot, 1605: The Third Solution. By Francis Edwards, S.J., with a foreword by Thomas M. McCoog, S.J. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. 2008. Pp. xviii, 510. $85.00. ISBN 978-1-846-82092-2.)

Father Francis Edwards wrote extensively on the plots and plotters of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. This study of the Gunpowder Plot, completed shortly before his death, advances at length his longstanding view that the plot was concocted by Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury, concluding a whole series of plots manufactured by Cecil and his father, Lord Burghley, to defame the English Catholic community. Edwards was a diligent researcher with an extensive knowledge of the archives, but his views have not found [End Page 360] favor with other historians, not least because sweeping statements such as “the whole country was . . . covered by a network of professional spies” (p. 158) are simply untenable. As McCoog notes, Edwards’s work assumed that Cecil devised the Gunpowder Plot to eliminate political opponents, prevent royal concessions to Catholics, and destroy the Jesuit mission to England. Yet Cecil’s own voluminous papers contain no hint of this agenda. Instead, they reveal his anxieties over the frictions caused by the presence of Scots courtiers in England after 1603, his tireless efforts to curb James I’s extravagance and restore financial stability after the immensely expensive Armada war, and his constant attention to foreign policy. Religion was not his principal concern. Edwards repeatedly describes Cecil as a Calvinist, but cites no evidence. Neither Cecil’s letters nor his will contain any indication of Calvinist beliefs, while his elaborately colorful chapel at Hatfield House points to the “high church” anti-Calvinism of Anglican divines such as his friend Lancelot Andrews. Nor does the detailed chronology of James’s reign support the argument. Cecil emerged as the king’s pre-eminent minister in summer 1604, when his patient diplomacy culminated in the treaty of London, bringing peace between Spain and England. Although James left in place the repressive anti-Catholic legislation enacted under Elizabeth, he made clear that, as earlier in Scotland, he had little intention of enforcing it. Both the king and Cecil were well aware that the Jesuit mission was unpopular with many Catholic Englishmen, who preferred a more accommodating stance toward the new regime. In these circumstances, it seems wholly improbable that Cecil embarked on the huge amount of work required to erect the plot. He must have inveigled the plotters into their actions, fabricated most of the evidence, completely deceived the king and other members of the privy council, planted the evidence in the palace of Westminster, and then stood back while the whole extraordinary scheme unraveled. Edwards believed that four of the principal plotters—Thomas Percy, Robert Catesby, John Grant, and Thomas Wintour—were treacherous catspaws who accomplished “great work” for Cecil (p. 166). Many English Catholics, shocked by the wickedness of a scheme not merely to blow up the royal family and the assembled Lords and Commons of Parliament, but also inevitably to set fire to large areas of the capital, could hardly bring themselves to believe that their co-religionists were responsible. That was not surprising. Wild rumors were probably also inevitable. Modern historians can compare the bizarre scenarios of conspiracy theorists that the United States fabricated the horrendous events of September 11, 2001. Like that atrocity, the Gunpowder Plot seemed to many contemporaries almost unbelievable. Certainly Sir Edward Coke, leading the prosecution in 1606, did everything within his power to blacken the surviving conspirators and by implication their fellow believers. But the elaborately detailed argument of this book—that the Gunpowder Plot was invented by the king’s chief minister—seems as unlikely as the conspiracy scenarios for September 2001. [End Page 361]

Pauline Croft
Royal Holloway, University of London


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