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   Chapter 1 HISTORICAL EVIDENCE

What Gunpowder Plot Was By Samuel Rawson Gardiner Characters: 22982

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


In 'What was the Gunpowder Plot? The Traditional Story tested by Original Evidence,'[1] Father Gerard has set forth all the difficulties he found while sifting the accessible evidence, and has deduced from his examination a result which, though somewhat vague in itself, leaves upon his readers a very distinct impression that the celebrated conspiracy was mainly, if not altogether, a fiction devised by the Earl of Salisbury for the purpose of maintaining or strengthening his position in the government of the country under James I. Such, at least, is what I gather of Father Gerard's aim from a perusal of his book. Lest, however, I should in any way do him an injustice, I proceed to quote the summary placed by him at the conclusion of his argument:-

"The evidence available to us appears to establish principally two points: that the true history of the Gunpowder Plot is now known to no man, and that the history commonly received is certainly untrue.

"It is quite impossible to believe that the Government were not aware of the Plot long before they announced its discovery.

"It is difficult to believe that the proceedings of the conspirators were actually such as they are related to have been.

"It is unquestionable that the Government consistently falsified the story and the evidence as presented to the world, and that the points upon which they most insisted prove upon examination to be the most doubtful.

"There are grave reasons for the conclusion that the whole transaction was dexterously contrived for the purpose which in fact it opportunely served, by those who alone reaped benefit from it, and who showed themselves so unscrupulous in the manner of reaping."

No candid person, indeed, can feel surprise that any English Roman Catholic, especially a Roman Catholic priest, should feel anxious to wipe away the reproach which the plot has brought upon those who share his faith. Not merely were his spiritual predecessors subjected to a persecution borne with the noblest and least self-assertive constancy, simply in consequence of what is now known to all historical students to have been the entirely false charge that the plot emanated from, or was approved by the English Roman Catholics as a body, but this false belief prevailed so widely that it must have hindered, to no slight extent, the spread of that organisation which he regards as having been set forth by divine institution for the salvation of mankind. If Father Gerard has gone farther than this, and has attempted to show that even the handful of Catholics who took part in the plot were more sinned against than sinning, I, for one, am not inclined to condemn him very harshly, even if I am forced to repudiate alike his method and his conclusions.

Erroneous as I hold them, Father Gerard's conclusions at least call for patient inquiry. Up to this time critics have urged that parts at least of the public declarations of the Government were inconsistent with the evidence, and have even pointed to deliberate falsification. Father Gerard is, as far as I know, the first to go a step farther, and to argue that much of the evidence itself has been tampered with, on the ground that it is inconsistent with physical facts, so that things cannot possibly have happened as they are said to have happened in confessions attributed to the conspirators themselves. I can only speak for myself when I say that after reading much hostile criticism of Father Gerard's book-and I would especially refer to a most able review of it, so far as negative criticism can go, in the Edinburgh Review of January last-I did not feel that all difficulties had been removed, or that without further investigation I could safely maintain my former attitude towards the traditional story. It is, indeed, plain, as the Edinburgh Review has shown, that Father Gerard is unversed in the methods of historical inquiry which have guided recent scholars. Yet, for all that, he gives us hard nuts to crack; and, till they are cracked, the story of Gunpowder Plot cannot be allowed to settle down in peace.

It seems strange to find a writer so regardless of what is, in these days, considered the first canon of historical inquiry, that evidence worth having must be almost entirely the evidence of contemporaries who are in a position to know something about that which they assert. It is true that this canon must not be received pedantically. Tradition is worth something, at all events when it is not too far removed from its source. If a man whose character for truthfulness stands high, tells me that his father, also believed to be truthful, seriously informed him that he had seen a certain thing happen, I should be much more likely to believe that it was so than if a person, whom I knew to be untruthful, informed me that he had himself witnessed something at the present day. The historian is not bound, as the lawyer is, to reject hearsay evidence, because it is his business to ascertain the truth of individual assertions, whilst the lawyer has to think of the bearing of the evidence not merely on the case of the prisoner in the dock, but on an unrestricted number of possible prisoners, many of whom would be unjustly condemned if hearsay evidence were admitted. The historian is, however, bound to remember that evidence grows weaker with each link of the chain. The injunction, "Always leave a story better than you found it," is in accordance with the facts of human nature. Each reporter inevitably accentuates the side of the narrative which strikes his fancy, and drops some other part which interests him less. The rule laid down by the late Mr. Spedding, "When a thing is asserted as a fact, always ask who first reported it, and what means he had of knowing the truth," is an admirable corrective of loose traditional stories.

A further test has to be applied by each investigator for himself. When we have ascertained, as far as possible, on what evidence our knowledge of an alleged fact rests, we have to consider the inherent probability of the allegation. Is the statement about it in accordance with the general workings of human nature, or with the particular working of the nature of the persons to whom the action in question is ascribed? Father Gerard, for instance, lavishly employs this test. Again and again be tells us that such and such a statement is incredible, because, amongst other reasons, the people about whom it was made could not possibly have acted in the way ascribed to them. If I say in any of these cases that it appears to me probable that they did so act, it is merely one individual opinion against another. There is no mathematical certainty on either side. All we can respectively do is to set forth the reasons which incline us to one opinion or another, and leave the matter to others to judge as they see fit.

It will be necessary hereafter to deal at length with Father Gerard's attack upon the evidence, hitherto accepted as conclusive, of the facts of the plot. A short space may be allotted to the reasons for rejecting his preliminary argument, that it was the opinion of some contemporaries, and of some who lived in a later generation, that Salisbury contrived the plot in part, if not altogether. Does he realise, how difficult it is to prove such a thing by any external evidence whatever? If hearsay evidence can be taken as an argument of probability, and, in some cases, of strong probability, it is where some one material fact is concerned. For instance, I am of opinion that it is very likely that the story of Cromwell's visit to the body of Charles I. on the night after the King's execution is true, though the evidence is only that Spence heard it from Pope, and Pope heard it, mediately or immediately, from Southampton, who, as is alleged, saw the scene with his own eyes. It is very different when we are concerned with evidence as to an intention necessarily kept secret, and only exhibited by overt acts in such form as tampering with documents, suggesting false explanation of evidence, and so forth. A rumour that Salisbury got up the plot is absolutely worthless; a rumour that he forged a particular instrument would be worth examining, because it might have proceeded from some one who had seen him do it.

For these reasons I must regard the whole of Father Gerard's third chapter on 'The Opinion of Contemporaries and Historians' as absolutely worthless. To ask Mr. Spedding's question, 'What means had they of knowing the truth?' is quite sufficient to condemn the so-called evidence. Professor Brewer, Lodge, and the author of the 'Annals of England,'[2] to whose statements Father Gerard looks for support, all wrote in the nineteenth century, and had no documents before them which we are unable to examine for ourselves. Nor is reliance to be placed on the statements of Father John Gerard, because though he is a contemporary witness he had no more knowledge of Salisbury's actions than any indifferent person, and had far less knowledge of the evidence than we ourselves possess. Bishop Talbot, again, we are told, asserted, in 1658, 'that Cecil was the contriver, or at least the fomenter, of [the plot],' because it 'was testified by one of his own domestic gentlemen, who advertised a certain Catholic, by name Master Buck, two months before, of a wicked design his master had against Catholics.'[3] Was Salisbury such an idiot as to inform his 'domestic gentleman' that he had made up his mind to invent Gunpowder Plot? What may reasonably be supposed to have happened-on the supposition that Master Buck reported the occurrence accurately-is that Salisbury had in familiar talk disclosed, what was no secret, his animosity against the Catholics, and his resolution to keep them down. Even the Puritan, Osborne, it seems, thought the discovery 'a neat device of the Treasurer's, he being very plentiful in such plots'; and the 'Anglican Bishop,' Goodman, writes, that 'the great statesman had intelligence of all this, and because he would show his service to the State, he would first contrive and then discover a treason, and the more odious and hateful the treason were, his service would be the greater and the more acceptable.'[4] Father Grene again, in a letter written in 1666, says that Bishop Usher was divers times heard to say 'that if the papists knew what he knew, the blame of the Gunpowder Treason would not be with them.' "In like manner," adds Father Gerard, citing a book published in 1673, "we find it frequently asserted, on the authority of Lord Cobham and others, that King James himself, when he had time to realise the truth of the matter, was in the habit of speaking of the Fifth of November as 'Cecil's holiday.'"[5]

Lord Cobham (Richard Temple) was created a peer in 1669, so that the story is given on very second-hand evidence indeed. The allegation about Usher, even if true, is not to the point. We are all prepared now to say as much as Usher is represented as saying. The blame of the Gunpowder Treason does not lie on 'the papists.' It lies, at the most, on a small body of conspirators, and even in their case, the Government must bear a share of it, not because it invented or encouraged the plot, but because, by the reinforcement of the penal laws, it irritated ardent and excitable natures past endurance. If we had Usher's actual words before us we should know whether he meant more than this. At present we are entirely in the dark. As for th

e evidence of Goodman and Osborne, it proves no more than this, that there were rumours about to the effect that the plot was got up by Salisbury. Neither Osborne nor Goodman are exactly the authorities which stand high with a cautious inquirer, and they had neither of them any personal acquaintance with the facts. Yet we may fairly take it from them that rumours damaging to Salisbury were in circulation. Is it, however, necessary to prove this? It was inevitable that it should be so. Granted a Government which conducted its investigations in secret, and which when it saw fit to publish documents occasionally mutilated them to serve its own ends; granted, too, a system of trial which gave little scope to the prisoner to bring out the weakness of the prosecution, while it allowed evidence to be produced which might have been extracted under torture, and what was to be expected but that some people, in complete ignorance of the facts, should, whenever any very extraordinary charge was made, assert positively that the whole of the accusation had been invented by the Government for political purposes?

Once, indeed, Father Gerard proffers evidence which appears to bring the accusation which he has brought against Salisbury nearer home. He produces certain notes by an anonymous correspondent of Anthony Wood, preserved in Fulman's collection in the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

"These remarkable notes, he tells us,[6] have been seen by Fulman, who inserted in the margin various questions and objections, to which the writer always supplied definite replies. In the following version this supplementary information is incorporated in the body of his statement, being distinguished by italics."[7]

The paper is as follows:-

"I should be glad to understand what your friend driveth at about the Fifth of November. It was without all peradventure a State plot. I have collected many pregnant circumstances concerning it.

"'Tis certain that the last Earl of Salisbury[8] confessed to William Lenthall it was his father's contrivance; which Lenthall soon after told one Mr. Webb (John Webb, Esq.), a person of quality, and his kinsman, yet alive.

"Sir Henry Wotton says, 'twas usual with Cecil to create plots that he might have the honour of the discovery, or to such effect.

"The Lord Monteagle knew there was a letter to be sent to him before it came. (Known by Edmund Church, Esq., his confidant.)

"Sir Everard Digby's sons were both knighted soon after, and Sir Kenelm would often say it was a State design to disengage the king of his promise to the Pope and the King of Spain to indulge the Catholics if ever he came to be king here; and somewhat to his[9] purpose was found in the Lord Wimbledon's papers after his death.

"Mr. Vowell, who was executed in the Rump time, did also affirm it so.

"Catesby's man (George Bartlet) on his death-bed confessed his master went to Salisbury House several nights before the discovery, and was always brought privately in at a back door."

Father Gerard, it is true, does not lay very great stress on this evidence; but neither does he subject it to the criticism to which it is reasonably open. What is to be thought, for instance, of the accuracy of a writer, who states that 'Sir Everard Digby's two sons were both knighted soon after,' when, as a matter of fact, the younger, Kenelm, was not knighted till 1623, and the elder, John, not till 1635? Neither Sir Kenelm's alleged talk, nor that of Wotton and Vowell, prove anything. On the statement about Catesby I shall have something to say later, and, as will be seen, I am quite ready to accept what is said about Monteagle. The most remarkable allegation in the paper is that relating to the second Earl of Salisbury. In the first place it may be noted that the story is produced long after the event. As the words imply that Lenthall was dead when they were written down, and as his death occurred in 1681, they relate to an event which occurred at least seventy-six years before the story took the shape in which it here reaches us. The second Earl of Salisbury, we are told, informed Lenthall that the plot was 'his father's contrivance,' and Lenthall told Webb. Are we quite sure that the story has not been altered in the telling? Such a very little change would be sufficient. If the second Earl had only said, "People talked about my father having contrived the plot," there would be nothing to object to. If we cannot conceive either Lenthall or Webb being guilty of 'leaving the story better than they found it,'-though Wood, no doubt a prejudiced witness, says that Lenthall was 'the grand braggadocio and liar of the age in which he lived'[10]-our anonymous and erudite friend who perpetrated that little blunder about the knighthood of Sir Everard Digby's sons was quite capable of the feat. The strongest objection against the truth of the assertion, however, lies in its inherent improbability. Whatever else a statesman may communicate to his son, we may be sure that he does not confide to him such appalling guilt as this. A man who commits forgery, and thereby sends several innocent fellow creatures to torture and death, would surely not unburden his conscience to one of his own children. Maxima debetur pueris reverentia. Moreover the second Earl, who was only twenty-one years of age at his father's death, was much too dull to be an intellectual companion for him, and therefore the less likely to invite an unprecedented confidence.

It is not only on the reception of second-hand evidence that I find myself at variance with Father Gerard. I also object to his criticism as purely negative. He holds that the evidence in favour of the traditional story breaks down, but he has nothing to substitute for it. He has not made up his mind whether Salisbury invented the whole plot or part of it, or merely knew of its existence, and allowed its development till a fitting time arrived for its suppression. Let me not be misunderstood. I do not for an instant complain of a historian for honestly avowing that he has not sufficient evidence to warrant a positive conclusion. What I do complain of is, that Father Gerard has not started any single hypothesis wherewith to test the evidence on which he relies, and has thereby neglected the most potent instrument of historical investigation. When a door-key is missing, the householder does not lose time in deploring the intricacy of the lock, he tries every key at his disposal to see whether it will fit the wards, and only sends for the locksmith when he finds that his own keys are useless. So it is with historical inquiry, at least in cases such as that of the Gunpowder Plot, where we have a considerable mass of evidence before us. Try, if need be, one hypothesis after another-Salisbury's guilt, his connivance, his innocence, or what you please. Apply them to the evidence, and when one fails to unlock the secret, try another. Only when all imaginable keys have failed have you a right to call the public to witness your avowal of incompetence to solve the riddle.

At all events, this is the course which I intend to pursue. My first hypothesis is that the traditional story is true-cellar, mine, the Monteagle letter and all. I cannot be content with merely negativing Father Gerard's inferences. I am certain that if this hypothesis of mine be false, it will be found to jar somewhere or another with established facts. In that case we must try another key. Of course there must be some ragged ends to the story-some details which must be left in doubt; but I shall ask my readers to watch narrowly whether the traditional story meets with any obstacles inconsistent with its substantial truth.

Before proceeding further, it will be well to remind my readers what the so-called traditional story is-or, rather, the story which has been told by writers who have in the present century availed themselves of the manuscript treasures now at our disposal, and which are for the most part in the Public Record Office. With this object, I cannot do better than borrow the succinct narrative of the Edinburgh Reviewer.[11]

Early in 1604, the three men, Robert Catesby, John Wright, and Thomas Winter, meeting in a house at Lambeth, resolved on a Powder Plot, though, of course, only in outline. By April they had added to their number Wright's brother-in-law, Thomas Percy, and Guy Fawkes, a Yorkshire man of respectable family, but actually a soldier of fortune, serving in the Spanish army in the Low Countries, who was specially brought over to England as a capable and resolute man. Later on they enlisted Wright's brother Christopher; Winter's brother Robert; Robert Keyes, and a few more; but all, with the exception of Thomas Bates, Catesby's servant, men of family, and for the most part of competent fortune, though Keyes is said to have been in straitened circumstances, and Catesby to have been impoverished by a heavy fine levied on him as a recusant.[12] Percy, a second cousin of the Earl of Northumberland, then captain of the Gentleman Pensioners, was admitted by him into that body in-it is said-an irregular manner, his relationship to the earl passing in lieu of the usual oath of fidelity. The position gave him some authority and license near the Court, and enabled him to hire a house, or part of a house, adjoining the House of Lords. From the cellar of this house they proposed to burrow under the House of Lords; to place there a large quantity of powder, and to blow up the whole when the King and his family were there assembled at the opening of Parliament. On December 11, 1604, they began to dig in the cellar, and after a fortnight's labour, having come to a thick wall, they left off work and separated for Christmas.

Early in January they began at the wall, which they found to be extremely hard, so that, after working for about two months,[13] they had not got more than half way through it. They then learned that a cellar actually under the House of Lords, and used as a coal cellar, was to be let; and as it was most suitable for their design, Percy hired it as though for his own use. The digging was stopped, and powder, to the amount of thirty-six barrels, was brought into the cellar, where it was stowed under heaps of coal or firewood, and so remained under the immediate care of Guy Fawkes,[14] till, on the night of November 4, 1605-the opening of Parliament being fixed for the next day-Sir Thomas Knyvet, with a party of men, was ordered to examine the cellar. He met Fawkes coming out of it, arrested him, and on a close search, found the powder, of which a mysterious warning had been conveyed to Lord Monteagle a few days before. On the news of this discovery the conspirators scattered, but by different roads rejoined each other in Warwickshire, whence, endeavouring to raise the country, they rode through Worcestershire, and were finally shot or taken prisoners at Holbeche in Staffordshire.

It is this story that I now propose to compare with the evidence. When any insuperable difficulties appear, it will be time to try another key. To reach the heart of the matter, let us put aside for the present all questions arising out of the alleged discovery of the plot through the letter received by Monteagle, and let us take it that Guy Fawkes has already been arrested, brought into the King's presence, and, on the morning of the 5th, is put through his first examination.

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