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Notts Rebels: Henry Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot

6 May 20 words: David Yancy

In celebration of the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, our Notts Rebels series continues with David Yancy's exploration of local-lad Henry Garnet and his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot...

It was a night that changed the course of history.

Acting on an anonymous tip-off, the King’s Secretary of State ordered that the vaults beneath Parliament be searched - sure enough, a shadowy figure was discovered, meticulously preparing a stockpile of explosives. With the King due to meet his ministers the next day in the rooms directly above, and with enough gunpowder to level the entire building, there could be little doubt as to the stranger’s murderous intentions. Identifying himself as ‘John Johnson’ to his captors, he would attain lasting infamy under his true name: Guy Fawkes.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the UK who hasn’t heard of the Gunpowder Plot – after all, we still come together every 5th of November to commemorate its failure. Yet while the Gunpowder Plot is enshrined in our collective memory, and lent Guy Fawkes an enduring notoriety as the plot’s pantomime villain, less well remembered is the involvement of a Nottingham local, Henry Garnet. Born in Heanor and raised in Nottingham, Garnet was charged by the government with playing an instrumental role in the conspiracy, and would subsequently be executed in the gruesome manner deserving of a traitor: hung, drawn and then quartered, his severed head would be impaled on London Bridge, an emphatic warning to others who might entertain thoughts of treachery to the Crown.

Yet how did a former Nottingham High School student come to be embroiled in the most audacious assassination attempt in British history?

Parliament had decreed that any Catholic priests discovered in England would be put to death

The world that Henry Garnet knew was a turbulent one to say the least, and as a Catholic priest he had chosen a particularly dangerous profession for his times.

Decades before Garnet’s birth, King Henry VIII had broken England away from the Catholic Church in Rome, rejecting its authority to rule on religious matters. With their church no longer enjoying the King’s favour, and increasingly seen by him as a tool of foreign interference, England’s Catholics found themselves the targets of repressive measures – their monasteries were dissolved, and Church property was seized and liquidated, much to the benefit of the Crown’s coffers.

Fast forward to Garnet’s day, and the persecution of English Catholics (or ‘Papists’, in popular parlance of the time) had intensified under Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I. Embracing Protestantism, Elizabeth formalised the split from the Catholic Church that began under her father, and her Parliament passed a number of Acts that enshrined the supremacy of Protestantism into law. Although most of Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects - reluctantly at least - submitted to the authority of the Protestant Church of England, those who refused and boycotted its services (‘recusants’) suffered hefty weekly fines as punishment.

Ironically enough, the Pope himself scarcely helped the suffering of English Catholics: formally excommunicating Elizabeth in 1570, he declared her rule illegitimate, and actively encouraged Catholics to overthrow her. These calls for rebellion did indeed inspire multiple attempts on Elizabeth’s life in the ensuing decades, supported by England’s Catholic adversary, Spain – a revelation that did much to enhance English suspicion of Catholics as an insidious fifth column.

For England’s beleaguered Catholics, the screw would continue to tighten.

No longer content ‘‘to talk and do nothing’’, they would blow up Parliament with the King inside, and install a Catholic ruler in his place

Garnet for the most part had to follow the worsening predicament of his fellow believers from afar – he had left England in 1575, travelling to Rome to join the Catholic Church as a Jesuit. By the time he returned to England in 1586, eleven years later, his home country had changed dramatically. After years of teetering on the precipice of religious conflict, England and Spain were now finally at war, and Parliament had decreed that any Catholic priests discovered in England would be put to death.

This threat held particular resonance for Garnet - perhaps more than any other Catholic sect, the Jesuits he had joined were despised by the English authorities as ‘‘wretches’’, and spreaders of a treasonous ideology. As part of their induction, all prospective Jesuits were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to the Pope above all others. This fidelity to the Pope, who only a decade earlier had encouraged Catholic treason against Elizabeth, marked them out as especially sinister. To make matters worse, the Jesuits continued to preach in England despite the risks, spending much of their time disguised or in hiding from the authorities – clandestine habits which, although necessary to avoid capture, only reinforced the authorities’ view of them as foreign agitators and spies. It was through these underground ministries that Garnet would meet the eventual mastermind of the Gunpowder Plot, Robert Catesby.

Despite the fact that he was certainly not a foreign spy, the dangers that Garnet and his fellow Jesuits faced in being caught inevitably meant that they operated in much the same way. Every aspect of their work was carried out in absolute secrecy, with Garnet and his missionary colleagues operating via a national network of safehouses. Provided at great risk by sympathetic recusants (harbouring ‘Papist priests’ carried the death penalty), these safehouses were the subject of frequent searches by the authorities, and on more than one occasion Garnet would narrowly escape government raids – often by hiding behind panels within the walls, his pursuers only feet away.

For Garnet and his fellow Catholics, some hope of relief would come with Elizabeth’s death in 1603. Her successor, James I, appeared ambivalent on questions of religion, and his wife Anne was herself a Catholic convert. Yet their optimism was dashed: anti-Catholic legislation still rumbled through Parliament, safehouse raids persisted, and Garnet’s priestly colleagues continued to be executed.

With little prospect of improvement under the new King, and with England’s recent peace with Spain making a Catholic invasion to help them unlikely, Catesby would assemble a team of conspirators to take matters into their own hands. No longer content ‘‘to talk and do nothing’’, they would blow up Parliament with the King inside, and install a Catholic ruler in his place. As Catesby put it to a fellow conspirator, ‘‘the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy’’.

Although Garnet now knew without a doubt that the Gunpowder Plot was in motion, the sacred nature of the Confessional bound him to silence

The first time that Garnet received any hint of Catesby’s scheme in June of 1605, he missed it completely. In an exchange that Garnet thought little of at the time, but would take on ominous significance later, Catesby questioned him at length on the moral permissibility of killing according to Church doctrine. Garnet for his part had no appetite for violence, even if the aim was to relieve his English flock – indeed so committed was Garnet to avoiding bloodshed, that only two years earlier he had actually helped alert the authorities to a plot against the King by another group of disaffected Catholics. In Garnet’s view, violent action against the King by radicals would only give the authorities fresh ammunition, justifying even harsher punishments on the Catholic community. Better by far to bide their time, and trust to God that their situation would improve, however slowly.

Needless to say, Catesby had little appetite for Garnet’s pacificism, and made his frustration at the submissive state of England’s Catholics clear. On the occasions that they met, the two would quarrel, Garnet admonishing Catesby’s hot-headedness. Despite his ignorance of the substance of Catesby’s plans, he must have felt something was afoot, as a month after Catesby’s questions on morality he wrote to Rome, fearing ‘‘a risk that some private endeavour may commit treason or use force against the King.’’

Garnet’s worst fears would be confirmed a short while later, when a fellow Jesuit, Father Tesimond, came to Garnet having heard Confession from Catesby. In what would later prove to be disastrous for Garnet, Tesimond himself used the Seal of the Confessional to relay what Catesby had disclosed. Although Garnet now knew without a doubt that the Gunpowder Plot was in motion, the sacred nature of the Confessional bound him to silence – Catholic law demanded its confidentiality, and Garnet was bound by his faith to uphold it, regardless of his own misgivings.

In November of course, the plot was uncovered, and most of the thirteen conspirators arrested (some, such as Catesby, were killed while resisting arrest). Captured in January after weeks as a fugitive, Garnet’s trial was a charged affair, and one were the prosecution made much of the familiar image of Jesuits as duplicitous traitors. Yet there was no direct evidence of him having played a role himself, only circumstantial associations with the likes of Catesby. The authorities needed something more conclusive.

It was to be only a matter of time - under torture, or merely the threat of it, Garnet cracked, and admitted his foreknowledge of the conspiracy gained under Tesimond’s Confession. Finally breaking the sacred confidentiality of the Confessional, the government had found its ‘smoking gun’, and Garnet’s trial on the 28th March was little more than a formality. His jury returned a verdict of guilty in a mere fifteen minutes, sentencing him to death.

A man of God, who lived as a fugitive and died an enemy of the state, Garnet’s story is a convoluted one, but worth remembering. There can be little doubt that he did indeed know ahead of time of the Gunpowder Plot that made Guy Fawkes a household name, and in this sense it is true that he was guilty of failing to act. But perhaps this is also the very reason why he is less known – he was no zealous assassin like Catesby or Fawkes, and was, in his own way, a victim of the conspiracy. A deeply pious man, when destiny demanded that he choose between his King and his conscience, Garnet would choose the latter, to the end.

‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday           

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