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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 13 — James in England — the gunpowder plot

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Steps to Hinder a Protestant Successor to Elizabeth – Bulls of Clement VIII – Application to Philip II – English Jesuits thrown on their own Resources – The Gunpowder Plot Proposed – Catesby – Percy – Preparations to Blow up the Parliament – Pacific Professions of Romanists the while – Proofs that the Plot was Known to the Roman Catholic Authorities – The Spanish Match – Disgraceful Treaty – Growing Troubles

When it became known at Rome that the reign of Elizabeth was drawing to a close, steps were immediately taken to prevent any one mounting her throne save a prince whose attachment to Roman Catholicism could not be doubted, and on whom sure hopes could be built that he would restore the Papacy in England. The doubtful Protestantism of the Scottish king had, as we have already said, been somewhat strengthened by the destruction of the Spanish Armada. It was further steadied by the representations made to him by Elizabeth and her wise ministers, to the effect that he could not hope to succeed to the throne of England unless he should put his attachment to the Protestant interests beyond suspicion; and that the nobility and gentry of England had too much honor and spirit ever again to bow the neck to the tyranny of the Church of Rome. These representations and warnings weighed with the monarch, the summit of whose wishes was to ascend the throne of the southern kingdom, and who was ready to protest or even swear to maintain any set of maxims, political or religious, which the necessity of the hour made advisable, seeing that his principles of kingcraft permitted the adoption of a new policy whenever a new emergency arose or a stronger temptation crossed his path. Accordingly we find James, in the instructions sent to Hamilton, his agent in England in 1600, bidding him "assure honest men, on the princely word of a Christian king, that as I have ever without swerving maintained the same religion within my kingdom, so, as soon as it shall please God lawfully to possess me of the crown of that kingdom, I shall not only maintain the profession of the Gospel there, but withal not suffer any other religion to be professed within the bounds of that kingdom." This strong assurance, doubtless, quieted the fears of the English statesmen, but in the same degree it awakened the fears of the Roman Catholics.

They began to despair of the King of the Scots – prematurely, we think; but they were naturally more impatient than James, seeing the restoration of their Church was with them the first object, whereas with James it was only the second, and the English crown was the first. The conspirators in England, whose hopes had been much dashed by the strong declaration of the Scottish king, applied to Pope Clement VIII to put a bar in the way of his mounting the throne. Clement was not hard to be persuaded in the matter. He sent over to Garnet, Provincial of the Jesuits in England, two bulls of his apostolical authority: one addressed to the Romish clergy, the other to the nobility and laity, and both of the same tenor. The bulls enjoined those to whom they were directed, in virtue of their obedience, at whatever time "that miserable woman," [1] for so he called Elizabeth, should depart this life, to permit no one to ascend her throne, how near so ever in blood, unless he swore, according to the example of the former monarchs of England, not only to tolerate the Roman Catholic faith, but to the utmost of his power uphold and advance it. Armed with this authoritative document, the Romish faction in the kingdom waited till Elizabeth should breathe her last.

On the death of the queen, in March, 1603, they instantly dispatched a messenger to announce the fact to Winter, their agent at the Court of Spain. They charged him to represent to his most Catholic Majesty that his co-religionists in England were likely to be as grievously oppressed under the new king as they had been under the late sovereign, that in this emergency they turned their eyes to one whose zeal was as undoubted as his arm was powerful, and they prayed him to interpose in their behalf. The disaster of the Armada was too fresh in Philip's memory, the void it had made in his treasury, and which was not yet replenished, was too great, and the effects of the terrible blow on the national spirit were too depressing, to permit his responding to this appeal of the English Catholics by arms. Besides, he had opened negotiations for peace with the new king, and these must be ended one way or the other before he could take any step to prevent James mounting the throne, or to dispossess him of it after he had ascended it. Thus, the English Jesuits were left with the two bulls of Clement VIII, and the good wishes of Philip II, as their only weapons for carrying out their great enterprise of restoring their Church to its former supremacy in England. They did not despair, however. Thrown on their own resources, they considered the means by which they might give triumph to their cause.

The Order of Jesus is never more formidable than when it appears to be least so. It is when the Jesuits are stripped of all external means of doing harm that they devise the vastest schemes, and execute them with the most daring courage. Extremity but compels them to retreat yet deeper into the darkness, and arm themselves with those terrible powers wherein their great strength lies, and the full unsparing application of which they reserve for the conflicts of mightiest moment. The Jesuits in England now began to meditate a great blow. They had delivered an astounding stroke at sea but a few years before; they would signalize the present emergency by a

nearly as astounding stroke on land. They would prepare an Armada in the heart of the kingdom, which would inflict on England a ruin sudden, strange, and terrible, like that which Philip's fleet would have inflicted had not the "winds become Lutheran," as Medina Sidonia said with an oath, and in their sectarian fury sent his ships to the bottom.

In September, 1603, it would seem that the first meeting of the leading spirits of the party was held to talk over the course the new king was pursuing, and the measures to be adopted. Catesby, a gentleman of an ancient family, began by recounting the grievances under which the Roman Catholics of England groaned. His words kindling the anger of Percy, a descendant of the House of Northumberland, he observed that nothing was left them but to kill the king. "That," said Catesby, "is to run a great risk, and accomplish little," and he proceeded to unfold to Percy a much grander design, which could be executed with greater safety, and would be followed by far greater consequences. "You have," he continued, "taken off the king; but his children remain, who will succeed to his throne. Suppose you destroy the whole royal family, there will still remain the nobility, the gentry, the Parliament. All these we must sweep away with one stroke; and when our enemies have sunk in a common ruin, then may we restore the Church of Rome in England." In short, he proposed to blow up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder, when the king and the Estates of the Realm should be there assembled.

The manner in which this plot was proceeded with is too well known, and the details are too accessible in the ordinary histories, to require that we should here dwell upon them. The contemplated destruction was on so great a scale that some of the conspirators, when it was first explained to them, shrunk from the perpetration of a wickedness so awful. To satisfy the more scrupulous of the party they resolved to consult their spiritual advisers. "Is it lawful," they asked of Garnet, Tesmond, and Gerard, "to do this thing?" These Fathers assured them that they might go on with a good conscience and do the deed, seeing that those on whom the destruction would fall were heretics and excommunicated persons. "But," it was replied, "some Catholics will perish with the Protestants: is it lawful to destroy the righteous with the wicked? " It was answered, "Yes, for it is expedient that the few should die for the good of the many."

The point of conscience having been resolved, and the way made clear, the next step was an oath of secrecy, to inspire them with mutual confidence: the conspirators swore to one another by the Blessed Trinity and by the Sacrament not to disclose the matter, directly or indirectly, and never to desist from the execution of it, unless released by mutual consent. To add to the solemnity of the oath, they retired into an inner chamber, where they heard mass, and received the Sacrament from Gerard. They had sanctified themselves as the executioners of the vengeance of Heaven upon an apostate nation.

They set to work; they ran a mine under the Houses of Parliament; and now they learned by accident that with less ado they might compass their end. The vault under the House of Lords, commonly used as a coal-cellar, was to be let. They hired it, placed in it thirty-six barrels of gun, powder, and strewing plenteously over them billets, fagots, stones, and iron bars, threw open the doors that all might see how harmless were the materials with which the vault was stored. The plot had been brewing for a year and a half; it had been entrusted to some twenty persons, and not a whisper had been uttered by way of divulging the terrible secret.

The billets, fagots, and iron bars that concealed the gunpowder in the vault were not the only means by which it was sought to hide from the people all knowledge of the terrible catastrophe which was in preparation. "The Lay Catholic Petition" was at this time published, in which they supplicated the king for toleration, protesting their fidelity and unfeigned love for his Majesty, and offering to be bound life for life with good sureties for their loyal behavior. When the plot approached execution, Father Garnet began to talk much of bulls and mandates from the Pope to charge all the priests and their flocks in England to carry themselves with profound peace and quiet. Garnet sent Fawkes to Rome with a letter to Clement, supplicating that "commandment might come from his Holiness, or else from Aquaviva, the General of the Jesuits, for staying of all commotions of the Catholics in England." So anxious were they not to hurt a Protestant, or disturb the peace of the kingdom, or shake his Majesty's throne. The sky is clearing, said the Protestants, deceived by these arts; the winter of Catholic discontent is past, and all the clouds that lowered upon the land in the days of Elizabeth are buried in the "deep sea" of mutual conciliation. They knew not that the men from whom those loud protestations of loyalty and brotherly concord came were all the while storing gunpowder in the vault underneath the House of Lords, laying the train, and counting the hours when they should fire it, and shake down the pillars of the State, and dissolve the whole frame of the realm. The way in which this hideous crime was prevented, and England saved – namely, by a letter addressed to Lord Monteagle by one of the conspirators, whose heart would seem to have failed him at the last moment, leading to a search below the House of Lords, followed by the discovery of the astounding plot -- we need not relate.

There is evidence for believing that the projected iniquity was not the affair of a

few desperate men in England only, but that the authorities of the Popish world knew of it, sanctioned it, and lent it all the help they dared. Del Rio, in a treatise printed in 1600, puts a supposititious case in the confessional: "as if," says Dr. Kennet, "he had already looked into the mine and cellars, and had surveyed the barrels of powder in them, and had heard the whole confession of Fawkes and Catesby." [2] The answer to the supposed case, which is that of the Gunpowder Plot, the names of the actors left out, forbade the divulging of such secrets, on the ground that the seal of the confessional must not be violated. This treatise, published at so short a distance from England as Louvain, and so near the time when the train was being laid, shows, as Bishop Burnet remarks, that the plot was then in their minds. In Sully's Memoirs there is oftener than once a reference to a "sudden blow" which was intended in England about this time; and King James was warned by a letter from the court of Henry IV to beware of the fate of Henry III; and in the oration pronounced at Rome in praise of Ravaillac, the assassin of Henry IV, it was said that he (Henry IV) was not only an enemy to the Catholic religion in his heart, but that he had obstructed the glorious enterprise of those who would have restored it in England, and had caused them to be crowned with martyrdom. It is not easy to see to what this can refer if it be not to the Gunpowder Plot, and the execution of the conspirators by which it was followed. The proof of knowledge beforehand on the part of the Popish authorities seemed to be completed by the action of Pope Paul V, who appointed a jubilee for the year 1605 – the year when the plot was to be executed for the purpose of "praying for help in emergent necessities," and among reasons assigned by the Pontiff for fixing on the year 1605, was that it was to witness "the rooting out of all the impious errors of the heretics. [3] Copely says that "he could never meet with any one Jesuit who blamed it." [4] Two of the Jesuit conspirators who made their escape to Rome were rewarded; one being made penitentiary to the Pope, and the other a confessor in St. Peter's. Garnet, who was executed as a traitor, is styled by Bellarmin a martyr; and Misson tells us that he saw his portrait among the martyrs in the hall of the Jesuit College at Rome, and by his side an angel who shows him the open gates of heaven. [5]

That the Romanists should thus plot against the religion and liberties of England was only what might be expected, but James himself became a plotter towards the same end. Instead of being warned off from so dangerous neighbors, he began industriously to court alliances with the Popish Powers. In these proceedings he laid the foundation of all the miseries which afterwards overtook his house and his kingdom. His first step was to send the Earl of Bristol to Spain, to negotiate a marriage with the Infanta for his son Prince Charles. He afterwards dispatched Buckingham with the prince himself on the same errand to the Spanish Court – a proceeding that surprised everybody, and which no one but the "English Solomon" could have been capable of. It gave fresh life to Romanism in England, greatly emboldened the Popish recusants, and was the subject (1621) of a remonstrance of the Commons to the king. The same man who had endeavored to stamp out the infant constitutional liberties of Scotland began to plot the overthrow of the more ancient franchises, privileges, and jurisdictions of England.

While the prince was in Spain all arts were employed to bring him within the pale of the Roman Church. An interchange of letters took place between him and the Pope, in which the Pontiff expresses his hope that "the Prince of the Apostles would be put in possession of his [the prince's] most noble island, and that he and his royal father might be styled the deliverers and restorers of the ancient paternal religion of Great Britain." The prince replies by expressing his ardent wishes "for an alliance with one that hath the same apprehension of the true religion with myself." [6] A Papal dispensation was granted; the marriage was agreed upon; the terms of the treaty were that no laws enacted against Roman Catholics should ever after be put in execution, that no new laws should ever hereafter be made against them, and that the prince should endeavor to the utmost of his power to procure the ratification by Parliament of these articles; and that, further, the Parliament "should approve and ratify all and singular articles in favor of Roman Catholics capitulated by the most renowned kings." The marriage came to nothing; nevertheless, the consequences of the treaty were most disastrous to both the king and England. It filled the land with Popish priests and Jesuits; it brought over the titular Bishop of Chalcedon to exercise Episcopal jurisdiction; it lost King James the love of his subjects; it exposed him to the contempt of his enemies; and in addition it cost him the loss of his honor and the sacrifice of Sir Walter Raleigh. Extending beyond the bounds of England, the evil effects of this treaty were felt in foreign countries. For the sake of his alliance with the House of Austria, James sacrificed the interests of his son-in-law: he lost the Palatinate, and became the immediate cause, as we have seen in a previous part of this history, of the overthrow of Protestantism in Bohemia.

James VI did not grow wiser as he advanced in years. Troubles continued to embitter his life, evils to encompass his throne, contempt to

wait upon his person, and calamity and distraction to darken his realm. These manifold miseries grew out of his rooted aversion to the religion of his native land, and an incurable leaning towards Romanism which led him to truckle to the Popish Powers, whose tool and dupe he became, and to cherish a reverence for the Church of Rome, which courted him only that she might rob him of his kingdom. And the same man who made himself so small and contemptible to all the world abroad was, by his invasion of the laws, his love of arbitrary power, and his unconstitutional acts, the tyrant of his Parliament and the oppressor of his people at home.


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