In the early morning hours of November 5th, 1605, a man going by the name of John Johnson was arrested in a rented cellar filled with gunpowder beneath the House of Lords. Johnson, whose real name was Guido "Guy" Fawkes, was a devout Catholic and a soldier who had fought for the Spanish in Flanders. Under torture, he confessed to being part of a small conspiracy of English Catholic gentlemen who, angered by King James' refusal to grant toleration to Catholics and despairing of help from Catholic monarchs abroad, had concocted a lot to blow up Parliament with the King and most of the royal family inside, then abduct the princess Elizabeth and, by marrying her off to a suitable continental prince, reestablish the Catholic monarchy. In the hands of the British government, the Gunpowder Plot was recast as a wide-ranging conspiracy hatched by the Jesuits and implicating virtually every recusant family in England. As such, it not only became the excuse for immediate renewed persecution, but its legend became a vital part of English identity, justifying future anti-Catholic pogroms like the Popish Plot and the Gordon riots, with the result that it would not be until the nineteenth century that Catholics in England would enjoy the same rights granted to Protestants in France in the sixteenth.
At least, such is the story as Antonia Fraser convincingly tells it. The story of the Powder Treason, befitting its place in the English psyche, has been told and retold from perspectives ranging from that of King James himself in the immediate aftermath to latter day conspiracy theorists who believe that the entire plot was nothing more than a government invention. Fraser's narrative (which in the author's native land bore the subtitle "Terror and Faith in 1605") aligns with more recent experiences, notably the Reichstag fire, another seemingly real terroristic act by a desperate individual seized upon by opportunists in positions of power. Her compelling account focuses attention on the lives and motivations of the conspirators as well as the innocents caught in their web, and ends by, as the prosecutors of the conspirators boasted they had done, bringing to light deeds done in darkness, with the awareness that some of those dark deeds were done by those who fancied themselves lightbringers.