Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Book Review: A History of the Gunpowder Plot

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.

The old school children's rhyme about the Gunpowder Plot sticks in my mind, and yet, to my shame, while I could give a vague overview of what happened - Guy Fawkes, the Houses of Parliament, gunpowder, in 1605, that may be as far as I could go. So when I saw this little book a while back, I purchased a copy to be better informed. And so, last week, running up to the anniversary of the plot's discovery, I decided it would be an opportune time to read about the events in London and the attempt to assassinate King James I (and VI of Scotland).

Philip Sydney's book has been extremely well researched, with access to the original records in the British Museum and the Public Record Office. While fascinating reading, I'm not sure that this volume was intended for the general reader seeking an introduction to the events, but rather it is a fairly detailed and passionately argued position in distinction to previous histories of the plot. I noticed this particularly at the start, where the introduction was fairly short and sharp, almost immediately we were being introduced to the main conspirators without really having enough background to draw us in to the story.

Perhaps what was assumed in the general reader was too much, or else I was just starting further back than the author's intended readership! Similarly, the motivation of the plotters was almost skimmed over, and again, perhaps assumed rather than explained. Having said that, there are lots of the original documents consulted and quoted, which helps us hear from the people involved.

In numerous places, the writer is keen to disagree with and refute the suggestions and conclusions of other historians writing on the plot, particularly those of Jesuit sources, which suggests that the old battle of religion rife in Britain and Ireland in the 1600s is still alive and well in the historian's world as books and articles are written and argued.

Another slight disadvantage for me, although perhaps understandable and beyond the author's remit, was the almost complete ignorance of Ireland - it would have been good to see how events in Ireland around the end of Elizabeth's reign and the beginning of James' contributed or informed what happened.

All in all, if you're interested in the history of the period, then this will be a good book to get your teeth into. If you're looking for an introduction, or something slightly more accessible, I don't think I would recommend this book, but then I'm not sure what other book I would recommend. Any suggestions, do leave a comment!

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