What are the Seven Pillars of Wisdom?

Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence

Steadily, I am reading through T.E. Lawrence’s military memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and I had to ask myself, “What are these seven pillars of wisdom anyway?” Nowhere in the text does he ever mention these seven pillars. What were they and what could they possibly mean?

My quest lead me down an interesting path of discovery, into the Bible and the works of Robert Graves, whose nonfiction book The White Goddess will have interest to readers of fantasy literature, since it is a source text behind much of the druid and bardic lore that went into making classic Celtic fantasy, and, I imagine, still goes into more recent fantasy as well.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a detailed, factual account of Thomas Edward Lawrence’s stint as liaison officer between the British forces and the Arabs in the Eastern theatre of the First World War. Arab officers rebelled against their Turkish commanders in order to declare open revolt against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and win their national independence from their mismanaging provincial oppressors stationed in Damascus. Lawrence–better known as Lawrence of Arabia–fought a manoeuvre war with the Arab commanders, rallying disparate tribes of nomads to fight as a united nation.

In this memoir, poetic observations of the harsh, magnificent landscape accompany an account of the day-to-day marches across the land to outflank and outmanoeuvre the Turks. Lawrence instructs the rebels to lay charges and detonate explosive gel under the train tracks that ferry supplies to the Turkish garrisons and towns. Moments of still peace and contemplation of strategy accompany moments of sudden violence, all described with the highest literary sensibility. It reads like an epic fantasy novel in its length and description of Lawrence’s extensive journeys, but the content is cold, hard fact written in a masterful style.

The twenty-first century is an age that that has not only seen a revival of an independent, but brutally medieval caliphate, but also one that has seen the struggle of multiple Middle Eastern peoples for national independence, such as the Kurds, who continue to fight ISIL. Some Kurds even fight the Turks from whom they desire to wrest independence–much to their chagrin. Such struggles have diversified and grown infinitely more complicated since 1917, but the struggles happening today may be traced to that much-rued Paris treaty signed after the conclusion of the Great War.

But enough historical background. Down to business. The most well-known reference to the seven pillars of Wisdom is in the Bible:

Wisdom has built her house, / she has hewn her seven pillars. (Proverbs 9.1)

The purpose of the reference is to characterize the persona of Wisdom as a woman who has prepared a feast. Only the wise are invited to this banquet; the foolish are unworthy.

This reference makes sense in relation to the jewels of profundity spread throughout the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence becomes immersed in the Arab viewpoint on the war, on religion, and on life itself, picking up on the wisdom of the Bedouin and Howeitat elders:

“Why are the Westerners always wanting all?” provokingly said Auda. “Behind our few stars we can see God, who is not behind your millions. […] If the end of wisdom is to add star to star our foolishness is pleasing.” (289)

While this captures something of the dynamic between Eastern and Western ways of thinking, what do seven pillars have to do with this wisdom?

Wikipedia makes clear that Seven Pillars of Wisdom was the title for a previous book Lawrence had been planning to publish before the war broke out. It was to be a scholarly work about the seven greatest cities of the Middle East: Cairo, Smyrna, Constantinople, Beyrout (Beirut), Aleppo, Damascus, and Medina. This manuscript never saw the light of publication. Lawrence destroyed it. To worsen matters, he would also lose his first manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1919, at Reading train station. Just in time for Christmas. It has never been recovered and would have been 250,000 words in length. And I thought losing a USB key was rough.

In the memoir that eventually saw publication–painfully rewritten by a shellshocked Lawrence overwhelmed by the demands of his own celebrity status as a war hero–the author makes reference to these seven cities, either in one way or another. Damascus, for instance, was the centre of Turkish control over the Arab Middle East and one of the Arab Revolt’s main targets. Even today, age-old Damascus is the capital of war-ravaged Syria and the headquarters of Bashar al-Assad. Owing to the new focus of his book, Lawrence skims over any further significance he may have attached to these seven cities.

Now, while I acknowledge the poetic value of calling the seven cities “pillars of wisdom,” the phrase does strike me as unconventional. Why was Lawrence so insistent on this title for his memoir? Did the seven pillars of Wisdom carry some other kind of meaning?

To provide an answer to this question–or the beginnings of an answer–it might be pointed out that the seven pillars of Wisdom are also mentioned in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.

Graves was a renowned war poet, just as Lawrence was a wartime writer. Their connection and sharing of ideas deserves to be excavated deeply by scholars. Perhaps they already have written studies of which I’m unaware.

Graves reviewed Lawrence’s memoir and edited the poem that opens Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The poem is “To. S.A.” and may have been addressed to Selim Ahmad, a young Syrian boy. It is written in such a way that it could address the Arab nation as a whole:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands

and wrote my will across the sky in stars

To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,

that your eyes might be shining for me […]  (ln. 1-4)

Freedom is a word seven letters long. Each letter represents one pillar in Wisdom’s house. Thus, Freedom is a kind of wisdom, or perhaps it is wisdom that makes you free.

Although I am not certain how Robert Graves edited this poem, he may have left the mark of his own ideas upon it, either directly in the editing process or by influencing Lawrence in other ways, such as through their correspondence. Since Lawrence was a bookish man as well as a soldier, he might have read Graves’s poetry and nonfiction works himself. Whatever the case, Lawrence’s poetic use of the seven pillars motif and his correspondence with Graves cannot be entirely coincidental. Not when Chapter 15 of The White Goddess is entitled “The Seven Pillars.”

Any deeper connection between Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The White Goddess evades me. I’m going to call the connection suggestive and leave it at that. But in case you were curious about what Graves does say in “The Seven Pillars,” let us hear it:

the seven pillars of Wisdom are identified by Hebrew mystics with the seven days of the Creation, with the seven days of the week. (259)

But since this is a book about ancient druid rituals and Welsh bards, a miscellaneous trove of Celtic lore, Graves finds a correlation with Irish tree symbolism.

The seven sacred trees of the Irish grove are “birch, willow, holly, hazel, oak, apple and alder” (259). Each tree corresponds to a day of the week and a deity of the classical pantheon. Alder corresponds to Saturn (Saturday), apple to Venus (Friday), oak to Jupiter (Thursday), willow to the Moon, or Circe (Monday), holly to Mars (Tuesday), birch to the Sun (Sunday). The seventh tree, hazel, corresponds to Mercury and its day falls in the middle of the week, on Wednesday. Wednesday in English is named after Odin (Woden), the Norse god of wisdom, which means his sacred tree, the ash, may be substituted for Mercury’s hazel. Not accidentally, Mercury is also a god of wisdom. Hence, you have the seven pillars of wisdom. You might imagine each tree in Wisdom’s house being carved from one of each type of wood–provided Irish trees could grow in ancient Israel.

Is there any connection between these gods, the days of the week, the planets, the sacred trees, and the seven greatest cities of the Middle East? The numerical symbolism is certainly striking and suggestive. What it means is anyone’s guess.

To conclude, it is interesting to casually note that Graves provides a classical Latin message hidden within the acronym of the first letters of the sacred Irish trees. Perhaps this will give us our final hint about the connection of Graves to Lawrence of Arabia.  “Benignissime, Solo Tibi Cordis Devotionem Quotidianam Facio.” In English, this reads, “Most Gracious One to Thee alone I make a daily devotion of my heart” (260).

A line that Lawrence could well have spoken to his dear Selim, as a message to the Arab people.

 

Appendix:

 

Thank you, llamaladysg, for providing T.E. Lawrence’s original poem:

Most of Robert Grave’s changes were in the third stanza. This is the original version as written by T. E. Lawrence. I much prefer this one.

To S.A.

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.

Death was my servant on the road, till we were near
and saw you waiting:
When you smiled, and in sorrowful envy he outran me
and took you apart:
Into his quietness.

So our love’s earning was your cast-off body,
to be held one moment
Before earth’s soft hands would explore all your face
and the blind worms transmute
Your failing substance.

Men prayed me to set my work, the inviolate house,
In memory of you:
But for fit monument I shattered it unfinished, and now
the little things creep out to patch themselves hovels
In the marred shadow
Of your gift.

The third stanza in the version that Robert Graves edited runs as follows.

“Love, the way-weary, groped to your body, our brief wage

ours for the moment

Before earth’s soft hand explored your shape, and the blind

worms grew fat upon

Your substance.”

While I agree that the first lines of the third stanza in Lawrence’s original poem flow more easily, I agree with Graves’s call to concretize Lawrence’s original verb, “transmuting,” into the more vivid verb clause, “grew fat upon.”

20150610_182531
The tooling on the hard cover of Seven Pillars of Wisdom reads “the sword also means cleanness and death.”

If you liked this post, you might also like:

How T.E. Lawrence Came to Many-Pillared Iram

Could the Artificial Paradise of the Assassins be a Fairy Otherworld?

 

Works Cited

The Bible. New Revised Standard Version.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. London: Faber & Faber, 1988.

Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph. 1926. London: Penguin, 1962.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6 February 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Pillars_of_Wisdom.

 

 

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5 Reasons Why Christopher Marlowe is an Elizabethan Hipster Poet

Bonus: Reason #6 is he already has the requisite mustache. All he needs are the glasses.
Bonus: He grew hipster moustaches literally centuries before they were trendy.

Elizabethan England’s most celebrated poet and playwright, in underground kind of way, was Christopher Marlowe, although he was soon eclipsed by Mr. Will Shakespeare, whose popular plays would define the mainstream for centuries to come. It was the 90s. The 1590s to be precise. Marlowe was at the height of his powers, writing the politically subversive and experimental poetry that would come to define his generation. Doctor Faustus, for instance, would stand the test of centuries as a profound representation of Renaissance humanism.

Many have tried to label Marlowe. Attaining his MA at Cambridge, he was a member of a generation of college wits. The civil service was not large enough to accommodate the young poets of London, so they turned to more edgy professions, like poetry.

Poet, playwright, spy, homosexual, Catholic, atheist: even if the labels didn’t make any sense, they stuck. Marlowe’s response? Haters gonna hate.

Here are five reasons why Marlowe was basically a hipster:

1. He avoided all labels.

Although Edward II depicts the homosexual relationship between a king and his favourite courtier (fun fact: Edward II is Longshanks’ son in Braveheart), Marlowe cannot be outed of the closet based on textual evidence alone. In a similar way, scholars have argued about whether Doctor Faustus celebrates or a condemns Renaissance humanism and the pursuit of scientific knowledge–they have to settle on seeing the play as expressing a paradox. Neither can they determine with absolute certainty whether he was an atheist, or for that matter, a closet Catholic. You can’t pin Marlowe down or place him in any particular intellectual camp–being classified would make him way too mainstream.

2. He was over-educated and underemployed.

Sound familiar? Like a certain generation of young, college- and university-aged people today (such as yours truly), he had no money unless he sought patronage. Furthermore, his education in classical literature went nowhere towards finding him a job. He couldn’t just be a cobbler like his father, Mr. John Marlowe. Way too mainstream. Instead, the only way Marlowe was able to get his MA was by serving in Her Majesty’s Secret Service–such as it existed back then. Marlowe was sent to France to spy on Catholics for Elizabeth I, or at least that’s what scholars have argued. If only that was all you had to do today: become James Bond for a while and then bang! your degree is conferred, your tuition paid. (I’ll stop dreaming about it now.)

3. He was into retro.

Marlowe painstakingly tried to bring back the first-century Roman poet Ovid. Although he was not alone in reviving interest in Ovid’s poetry, most people came to know Ovid only in grammar school textbooks. Marlowe remixed a collection of Ovid’s poems, the Elegies, by translating them into English verse. Then he brought Ovid to popular audiences by writing highly pretentious  allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his plays. I don’t suppose you’d understand the reference, but…

4. He was unappreciated as an artist for centuries.

Marlowe’s art was so ahead of his time that his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers devalued him as only a necessary precursor to the Bard–John the Baptist to Shakespeare’s Christ. Well, the Romantics reappraised him after almost 200 years and his works, which explore tyranny and the dark side of politics, had new resonance in the twentieth century. Like Vincent Van Gogh, the archetypical unappreciated artist, the genius in Marlowe only became relevant after his death.

5. He wrote in blank verse before it was cool.

Rhymes were way too fashionable. Not to mention, they were just distasteful. I mean really. His contemporaries were infatuated with couplets, Spenserian stanzas, and rime royal. Marlowe was one of the first to realize that rhymes were overrated. Iambic pentameter blank verse in English, so characteristic of Shakespeare’s great dramatic speeches, was actually pioneered by his more underground predecessor. Unfortunately, Shakespeare is given all the cred for this. What everyone should come to realize is that Marlowe was not some kind of mindless trend follower; he started one of the greatest poetic trends in English literature, thank you very much.

 

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Mystical Vision of the Franklin Expedition in “Terror and Erebus”

Wanted: the Franklin Expedition
Wanted: the Franklin Expedition

Canada has been celebrating the discovery of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated ship, the Erebus, since early September. Along with the Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, this ship carried Franklin and his crew on their fatal quest for the Northwest Passage, which lasted three years (1845-1848). For most of that time, Franklin was stranded, a prisoner of the arctic ice. When finally his ships sank, the crew was forced to go overland on foot. They all eventually met their end, through cold and starvation.

This latest–and first successful–search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition was the last of six made since 2008, according to Tom Spears from Postmedia (“Shipwreck”). But many other expeditions to recover the ships were undertaken during the twentieth and nineteenth centuries–including that of Knud Rasmussen who visited the region from 1921-1924. He was also the first European to cross the Passage by dogsled.

So, you may ask, What does all this have to do with a mythopoeic Canadian poet who was active during the ’60s and ’70s and is now regrettably out-of-print?

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s volume of poetry Afterworlds contains a narrative long poem based on Rasmussen’s search for the Franklin Expedition, entitled “Terror and Erebus.” It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between Rasmussen and Franklin, the historical past conversing–or failing to converse–with the narrative present. Rasmussen follows the explorer through the same unforgiving landscape, his only advantage being the comforts of more advanced technology. Decades and Franklin’s watery grave separate them from each other, but the present nonetheless strives to connect to the past.

MacEwen also deals with history in King of Egypt, King of Dreams, The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and, to a lesser extent, Julian the Magician. “Terror and Erebus” is a fusion of history and fantasy–that is to say, her own mystical reflections projected onto the past. She balances her historical, documentary subject matter with her impeccable poetic sensibility. The Arctic landscape becomes a wasteland where the self loses itself, faced with the harshness of the cosmos. These are some, at times, terrifying verses. The staggered lines recall the jagged fjords of ice that Captain Franklin would have had to traverse on his miserable voyage, his existential journey. Now, with the discovery of the Terror, it is a timely moment to reflect on Franklin’s terror at finding himself in this frigid, blank landscape.

Erebus and Terror
Erebus and Terror

MacEwen’s long poem opens with the following mood-setting lines:

Rasmussen:

King William Island . . . latitude unmentionable.

But I’m not the first here.

They preceded me, they marked the way

   ………………. .with bones

White as this ice is, whiter maybe,

The white of death,

    ………………. .of purity” (41).

Rasmussen attempts to interpret the signs that mark the trail of the expedition. He has the impression that Franklin “created the Passage / By willing it to be” (42). Furthermore, Franklin’s quest is interpreted as his search for “a passage from imagination to reality” (42). In this respect, “Terror and Erebus” explores the dividing line between reality and fantasy in way that can be compared to Julian’s illusion-spinning in Julian the Magician.

Franklin responds to Rasmussen, or at least it seems that way. His voice never really does reach Rasmussen, although the reader can see how Franklin ‘responds’ to Rasmussen’s speech, in a way. “I brought them here, a hundred and twenty-nine men, / Led them into this bottleneck, / This white asylum,” remarks Franklin. “My ships, the Terror, the Erebus / Are learning the meaning of their / names” (43). Erebus is a personification of darkness, a god born from Chaos in Greek mythology. The irony of the ship’s name is appropriate; the ship is surrounded desperately by endless white, but the history Rasmussen is trying to unravel is full of darkness.

MacEwen’s interests in dualities, psychology, and archetypes appear throughout the poem, adding depth to the existential situation in which Franklin and Rasmussen both find themselves alone. Although Franklin did not necessarily think these thoughts, they are all a part of the poet’s reflection on his subjection to the landscape. Franklin asks the captain of the Terror:

“Crozier, what laws govern

This final tug of war

between life and death,

the human polarities?

………………. . The ice

Is its own argument” (46).

After a harsh winter, Franklin abandons his ships struck in an ice flow that is “drifting south / Itself, like a ship” (47). He does so “in a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs” (47). Later, punning off Crozier’s name, which refers to a bishop’s staff containing a cross, the overland march becomes a walk towards crucifixion on Good Friday, “April 21, 1848” in the log (48).

The geography of the Arctic is alien, and the metaphysical truths Franklin believes in hold no more reality when he has sailed beyond Ultima Thule:

“Whoever said that Hell was darkness?

What fool said that light was good

………………. .and darkness evil?

In extremes all things reverse themselves” (49).

One of the most memorable images, in my reading, is of the ivory visors Rasmussen remarks upon, the kind with narrow slits that Inuit wear to keep away the snow glare. Existentially overwhelmed in the sheer vastness of the Arctic, the expedition can only protect their naked eyes with “those ridiculous / instruments / That keep the cosmos out” (50).

With no food to eat, the Franklin expedition may have resorted to cannibalism. MacEwen depicts this horrific likelihood with a series of startling images:

“the snow turns red, there are sounds

………………. .of men puking, and sounds

Of knives scraping bone.

They are eating

………………. .one of their dead” (50).

Now that the expedition has fallen so far beyond what is considered human and reasonable, Rasmussen remarks, “Now Crozier, now you’ve come / To the end of science” (52). Wishing for their salvation is futile. Crozier asks, “What magnet do I know of / That will pull us south?” (53)

Franklin’s crew were all doomed. Scarce traces of the expedition survived, though there was one cairn containing a message supposedly left behind by the survivors. Part of what enabled the 2014 expedition to finally discover the Erebus at the bottom of the sea, however, was the testimony of Inuit oral history. Rasmussen uncovers this testimony in the poem from the Inuit Qaqortingneq, who says, “I remember the day / When our fathers found a ship” (54).  The Inuit, like Rasmussen, are faced with a mystery: what to make of the strange, foreign ship they find captured in the ice floe. Unfamiliar with European technologies, “they went aboard the great ship / As though into another world / Understanding nothing” (54).

The poem concludes with a return to Rasmussen’s conviction that Franklin, though he failed to find it, was nonetheless utterly convinced of the Northwest Passage’s existence. In the end, there is a difference between this absolute certainty and the fact that we “cannot know […] where the passage lies /Between conjecture and reality” (57). Frankin had deduced that the Northwest Passage did exist, yet he died trying to find it. Certainty is not the same as discovering the reality behind that certainty. That was the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, and it is also what makes uncovering the past so difficult–indeed, it is essentially impossible.

In our day, light has been shone onto the Erebus, the god of darkness’s ship. Our knowledge of Franklin’s tragedy will become fuller in due time. Just as Rasmussen attempts to recover the Terror and Erebus , our age can look back upon MacEwen’s “Terror and Erebus,” and her potent reflections on the sacrifices involved in exploration.

Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of "Erebus and Terror"
Gwendolyn MacEwen, author of “Erebus and Terror”

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Works Cited:

MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Erebus and Terror.” Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 41-57.

Spears, Tom. “Shipwreck identified as Franklin’s flagship.” Montreal Gazette. 2 Oct. 2014. A2

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Photo Credits:

Poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin%27s_lost_expedition

Erebus and Terror: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Franklin

 

The Alchemist’s Quest

alchemyTo create the animated stone, take the juice of a Saturnine herb to extract mercury and evaporate it to get the purest earth. Join this with its like in equal weight and dissolve both with a crude metallic humor. Putrify for forty days. You may also calcine the earth with fire alone, join it with sublimatic arsenic, and it will be the greatest arcanum for human bodies.

If visions of a middle aged man in a dark robe fumbling in his laboratory to create the elixir of life appear to you when reading this alchemical recipe, then you already have a sense of the alchemist’s quest.

Immortality and infinite wealth were the boons such alchemists pursued, thinking it possible to turn base metals into gold. Although modern-day atom-smashing, particle-accelerating science has proven this technically possible on a tiny scale, early chemists such as Nicholas Flamel, Gerhard Dorn, Cornelius Agrippa, and Thomas Vaughan dreamed of attaining the impossible.

Yet for all their obvious mistakes, alchemists were pioneers. Their techniques of manipulating matter through sublimation, coagulation, putrefaction, and distillation eventually benefited early scientific chemistry. Furthermore, the philosophy of turning lead into gold–that humanity had the power to increase the quality of the world around them through their knowledge of the natural order–has remained a central motive behind many scientists.

Today I will take you into the world of the alchemists, and you can judge for yourself whether they were hacks, or spiritual idealists devoted to an old magic system.

First let me show you inside the laboratory, the best place as any to learn about the alchemist trade. The main piece of equipment was the athanor, a cylindrical furnace stove where the alchemists lit fires in order to refine lead. Inside the hollow chamber within that athanor are a series of pots placed within each other, linked to the outside via narrow tubes where substances may be poured in for experiments.  The athanor represents the womb where the Philosopher’s Stone was made. It is also the name I selected to brand my editing service.

athanor2Gerhard Dorn described four steps to the process of attaining the Stone. To attain the quintessence of matter, it was necessary to putrefy the body, decomposing all matter to a uniform blackness, purify it, then attempt to coagulate or condense the resulting spirit into a gold body. If you have any idea what that means, then I applaud you: alchemists concealed their secrets behind a web of symbolism and occult language, rather like the notation doctors use when they write subscriptions.

In order to attain the Stone of Harry Potter fame, the alchemist went through four processes using the athanor. These are called nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo: blackness, whiteness, yellowness, and then redness, each earthly colour endowed with its own symbolism. Not only did these processes for alchemical transformation correspond to actual techniques used in a laboratory, but Carl Jung found archetypical resonances charting the progress of self-individuation within this symbolism. Whereas nigredo represents “the dark night of the soul,” albedo represents the male and female aspects of the self, citrinitas represents wisdom, and rubedo wholeness.

Once these steps had been accomplished, the alchemist made “gold.” But saying this was the only goal of the alchemist’s quest would be limiting. “Gold” was merely a symbol for attaining “God,” specifically, attaining God’s creative matter, the power of the Word, or logos, itself. In the beginning was the Word, reads John’s Gospel, and many alchemists had as their goal the discovery of this primal creative substance. It was also called prima materia.

Within all matter, this piece of God’s own substance supposedly resided, and the alchemist’s job was to penetrate the form of matter in order to reach this seed. Indeed, some alchemists believed all matter to be alive in a way reminiscent of plants. Iron, gold, copper, and other metals supposedly “grew” underground. And attaining the “sperm” of the prima materia was a way to impregnate the “womb” of matter, giving birth to new substances. A menstruum was a solvent used to reduce a substance to prima materia and was considered the mother from which all metals were derived.

Since attaining the Stone required alchemists to search into the heart of matter itself (not dissimilar to our current search for the God particle), it is no wonder that the alchemists used VITRIOL as their motto. This sulphate of iron or copper makes a powerful sulfuric acid and forms the first letters of a Latin phrase: Visita Interlarem Terrae Rectifando Ivenies Operae Lapidem. “Go down into the bowels of the Earth; by distillation, you will find the stone for the Work.”

Mandala outlining alchemical principles and the VITRIOL motto
Mandala outlining alchemical principles and the VITRIOL motto

Often venturing this deep into the mysteries required the alchemist to go “underground” in more than one sense. The quest for the Work proved too expensive to pursue for many. Many alchemists fell into debt. They were often lonely, ostracized from a society that did not understand their beliefs. Though they thought they had greater insight into the beliefs central to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the representatives of orthodoxy would beg to disagree, claiming them to be heretics. This required alchemists to be secretive, to pass as much as possible under the noses of those who wished them evil.

Usually alchemists kept their athanor outside for ventilation, ordering clay materials from the local potter to construct their all-important furnace.  They would also require an assistant–or accomplice–to keep the bellows going, like at a smithy. They had to face dangers from the authorities and may have had to pay them to turn a blind eye to their experiments. Furthermore, there was always the risk of lead and mercury poisoning, which may have caused some of the delirium experienced by these early scientists.

alchemy2

Given the risky nature of the work–especially in terms of finances–it is not surprising that many “alchemists” were less interested in unearthing the blessed Word, but in swindling kings and dukes of their money. These charlatans would place a rock in a pan of mercury, which they stirred with a hollow stirring rod stoppered with clay at one end. After stirring the mercury and claiming the everyday rock to be the “Stone,” the mercury would evaporate and the clay melt, letting the gold powder stuffed in the stirring rod pour into the pan. From the observer’s perspective, this would seem magical. Once their sleight of hand trickery was discovered, such alchemists had to ditch town and flee the king’s men.

Treatise by Gerhard Dorn
Treatise by Gerhard Dorn

This is not, however, to imply that all who practiced alchemy were charlatans. There were those like Gerhard Dorn who believed alchemy was best used to cure the sick, rather than for self-enrichment. Whether their cures worked is another issue. While it is doubtful alchemical cures were anything like modern medicine, a well-versed alchemist who was aware of the sympathetic bonds between planets and metals may have also know of the bonds between planets and herbs. Since planets and stars were said to direct the fate of humanity due to the phenomenon of stellar influence, perceived bonds between planets like Venus and Mars to metals like copper and iron supposedly contained great power. Medicinal herbs, whether due to their inherent chemical properties or their magical affinity to the planets, in all likelihood really did heal certain diseases and afflictions.

It may be possible that, even in their blindness, alchemists found certain effects that they observed to work reliably, though they ascribed them to sympathetic magic rather than the physical properties of the plants and metals themselves. However, one thing is certain, and that is that modern science would not have been the same without the efforts of alchemists. At the turn between the Renaissance and Early Modern period, alchemists participated in one of the great transmutations of European history: the transition from a traditional, magical worldview into the stabilized, rationalized, scientific mindset that defines the worldview of our own age.

Agrippa's Famous On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences. Was alchemy itself a vain endeavour?
Agrippa’s Famous On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences. Was alchemy itself a vain endeavour?
Cornelius Agrippa
Cornelius Agrippa

King Arthur Conqueror of the Arctic? Historical Fantasy and Early British Imperialism

John DeeQueen e.

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John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, mathematician, and geographer–and he might have become the first lord of the North American territory we now call Canada.

Dee is known as a “Renaissance man” for the breadth of his knowledge and for his tendency towards the occult. On a trip to the Continent, he supposedly attempted to summon angels with fellow sorcerer Edward Kelley. Back home, he was a respected courtier whom Elizabeth would often consult–he set the day for her coronation, for example, based on favourable astrological conditions. His knowledge of geography enabled Sir Francis Drake to circumnavigate the globe. In addition to coining the term “British Empire,” Dee is known for employing a spy network, being the first to sign his name under the code “007.”

limits of british empireOne gift Dee gave to his Queen was a book called The Limits of the British Empire, or in Latin Brytanici Imperii Limites, which he wrote between 1577 and 1578. A wonderful edition of his work, with an introduction, was printed in 2004 by editors Ken MacMillan and Jennifer Abeles based on a manuscript copied by an amanuensis in 1593, which I have consulted.

Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh

Among the things Dee claims in the book is that Queen Elizabeth had rights–the justification for which go back to ancient times–to most of the territory we now call North America. Dee claims that King Arthur and his knights  conquered lands near the Arctic Sea, even a territory we now identify with Baffin Island. He also negotiated that he should be allowed ownership of all lands above the 50th parallel. Except for a thin interval of land just above the Canadian border with the modern U.S., that would encompass all of Our True North Strong and Free!

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Of course, at the time, England’s colonial strength in its first decade of New World settlement was not a powerful  force. Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement on Roanoke Island proved, in the end, to be a disaster, although it produced a few fascinating discoveries and occasioned John White to paint a series of watercolours of Native folk. Roanoke Island was abandoned mysteriously and no one to this day knows why.

John White watercolourJohn White watercolour2

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Aside from such ephemeral settlements, England’s imperial strength was mostly limited to the occasional raid on Spanish ships. Privateers such as Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake were both explorers and ship-plunderers. Martin Frosbisher and Humphrey Gilbert were given licenses to start overseas colonies close to the Northwest Passage. However, there was a distinct lack of overseas activities through much of the 1590s, when the surviving manuscript of Brytanici Imperii Limites was written.

John Dee’s book advocated for the recovery of ancient British lands, including the North Atlantic, the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, and half of North America. His sources ranged from Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Geraldus Mercator, Jacobus Choyen of s’Hertogenbosh, Hector Boece, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Brut–a chronicle of Arthurian legends.

It was becoming urgent that England compete with Spain for the New World, which Dee occasionally named “Atlantis” or “Meta Incognita.” The Spanish empire was at its height and came to be associated with the cruelty that it was inflicting on its Native people and the barbaric human-sacrificing rituals of the Aztecs. (Of course, when England did settle the New World, they spread another wave of cruelty across the Native populations, in addition to the spreading of lethal diseases. ) While Spain sought to conquer through papal bulls, planting markers, and reading texts of conquest to often illiterate indigenous peoples (that never goes down well), the Brits divided their land with fences and houses.

Frosbisher’s plan to settle parts of North America was a state secret, but also an object of interest to the Spanish ambassadors in London. Any settlement in the New World, which was seen as territory partitioned between Spain and Portugal, could lead to an act of war.

Rodrigo BorgiaAlexander VI (aka Roderigo Borgia) wrote the famous papal bull Inter Cetera in 1493 (a hundred years before Dee’s manuscript was written) and the still more famous Treaty of Tordesillas. Both these documents split the territories in New World between the two Iberian countries along an arbitrary line in the Atlantic Ocean. None of this allowed England a toehold.

How could Dee overcome this opposition? Through sneaky legal loopholes and little imagination.

Basically, he alluded to a section of Justinian’s Digest that might well be the foundation of that oldest and dearest piece of legislation: finders keepers, losers weepers. Next time you find a penny on the ground, you can tell your irate friend that “what presently belongs to no one becomes by natural reason the property of the first taker.”

Of course, the land was owned–by hundreds of thousands of Native American peoples. In all fairness, John Dee might not have been aware of this truth, since the New World was still vastly undiscovered. But he might have taken the hint from Raleigh’s Virginia settlement that other people might already live there.

Although Lord Burghley doubted Dee’s accuracy, he laid the legal groundwork for England to claim everything from Terra Florida (which is Florida) to the territory of the Duke of Moscovia in Russia.

Arthur's knights stranded in the Arctic.
Arthur’s knights stranded in the Arctic.

Now the imagination came in. Tracing the ancestry of Britain from Troy through the legendary founder Brutus and down to King Arthur, Dee referred to how Arthur conquered thirty kingdoms in the North Atlantic and Scandinavia. Since Arthur conquered these lands for Britain first, Elizabeth had a right to them now, so long as she settled the land. Arthur, a Welsh king, was supposedly an ancestor of the Welsh Tudors, whose arrival on the English throne in 1485 signaled the revival of the “British” empire, after a long domination of England under the Saxons.

Dee’s mysterious Welsh source book–supposed to be the same nonexistent book on which Monmouth bases his History of the Kings of Britain–claims that King Arthur conquered the Arctic regions in the 530s. Arthur’s conquests of the Arctic, in which he encountered pygmies (Sibereans? Proto-Inuit tribesmen?), are recorded in Arthuri Gestis, or The Deeds of Arthur. During Arthur’s voyages, he encountered many troubles, including fast-flowing seas that blocked his passage to Northern Norway. Four thousands knights lost their lives in these treacherous passages among the straits of Norway. In the mountains around the North Pole, there were cities in Arthur’s time. The lands he conquered include Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands (Friseland), Grocland (NW corner of Greenland), Icaria (an island off of either Ireland or Labrador), Estotiland, and Drogio.

Baffin islandEstotiland is Baffin Island. Dee’s source about the Estotiland came from the journey of two Venetians to the Arctic region in the thirteenth century, Niccolo and Antonio Zeno. In 1558, Niccolo Zeno, a relative of the pair, published an account of this extraordinary story.

Zeno describes Estotiland as an island smaller than Iceland with a mountain in the middle and four rivers. It was ruled by a king in a beautiful, populous city, who kept interpreters. Legends told of a famous library of ancient texts in a strange language only two people in the city could speak, though the library was eventually destroyed. This Scandinavian civilization had gold mines, cultivated and brewed beer, and spoke like Europeans, trading with Greenland for skins. Possibly the texts were in Latin, a language uneducated commoners could not speak.

When most Canadians think of Baffin Island, they probably think of an expansive wasteland filled with ice and snow. But who knew it once had a king?

SaguenayThe Zeno brothers also discovered the “province of Drogio,” which likely corresponds to Labrador. How about we sign a petition to make Newfoundland and Labrador to change their name to Newfoundland and Drogio? They even supposedly landed in Saguenay, Quebec (or “Saguenaya”) two hundred years before Jacques Cartier did in 1535!

In addition to this fascinating Canadian content, I find how Dee’s book absolutely busts the myth that Christopher Colombus discovered the New World to be particularly gratifying.

His other sources for Brytanici Imperii Limites come from semi-legendary figures, such as Saint Brendan, who sailed from the British Isles in 560. He landed in Bermuda, which he called Insula Demonum, or “Island of Demons.” Should we be surprised that he claimed to see supernatural frights on an island known to exist in what is now known as the “Bermuda Triangle”? (Fun fact: Cambrien Machutus, a sailor on Brendan’s ship, became St. Malo, which became the name of the city in which Jacques Cartier was born in 1491!)

Devil's BackboneIn 1170, Lord Madoc, a Welsh prince, an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth, was outraged that his father would leave him no inheritance. So he set sail across the world. He settled, of all places, in Mobile Bay, Alabama! “Devil’s Backbone,” a mound in Indiana, is attributed to the Welsh Prince. This was the first British colony in the New World and Dee used it as precedent to establish England’s rights to conquer the new continent.

There is such a wealth of stories in these legends … but how to separate reality from myth? I’m afraid I do not have the answers. A king on Baffin Island, a Welsh nobleman settling Alabama, John Dee as Lord Canada, and King Arthur as Emperor of the Arctic … these are only a few of the truly radical stories out there. Supposedly Egyptians sailed up the Mississippi, which I cannot confirm or deny, though Neil Gaiman certainly confirms this in American Gods.

I would certainly like to credit these tales. They are the type of stories archeological evidence can do little to confirm.

In conclusion, Brytanici Imperii Limites is a fine example of “historical fantasy” used to justify imperialism and the “rights” of the English to settle North America. It reveals that the justification the British first used for their settlements in North America was based on a 900-year-old lie in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

“Dee built an empirical edifice of pseudohistorical sources to provide practical political advice to the English State,” say MacMillian and Abeles (26). But after a certain point, pseudohistory becomes real history. I imagine that Dee’s book can provide available inspiration to writers of historical fantasy or alternate history for generations to come.

The British would later found the Thirteen Colonies that would becomes the United States--and conquer Canada from the French.
The British would later found the Thirteen Colonies that would becomes the United States–and conquer Canada from the French.

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Image Credits:

http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/ralegh.htm

http://www.erroluys.com/America/Images.htm

http://www.amazon.com/John-Dee-British-Military-International/dp/0275978230

http://www.strangehistory.net/2012/12/15/king-arthurs-last-men-stranded-in-the-arctic-north/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Backbone_%28rock_formation%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee

http://www.raremaps.com/gallery/archivedetail/23290/North_America_and_the_West_Indies_A_New_Map_Wherein_The_British_Empire/Bowles.html

http://danaenatsis.com/2012/05/15/rocks-and-stones-skin-and-bones/

http://www.artexpertswebsite.com/pages/artists/white.php

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baffin_Island

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/may/16/those-bad-borgias/

Behind Guy Fawkes: the History of Catholic Conspiracies

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!
Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

But as a nation—continued he in his reveries—these Spaniards are all an odd set; the very word Spaniard has a curious, conspirator, Guy-Fawkish twang to it.” -Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno.”

The imaginary is part of history.” -Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun.

[A] good case could be made that the last unchallenged and most perniciously pervasive element in the whig view of modern English history is an unacknowledged tendency to privilege all things protestant while sedulously marginalizing all things catholic.” -Peter Locke with Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat.

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It is finally November 5! Celebrate this day with your friends. Or if you want to stay indoors reading blogs…

The final part of the “Behind Guy Fawkes” series opens with the three epigraphs above. The first one, by Melville, is one I find humorous and relateable. It reveals that Protestant paranoia had a way of infusing itself even into nineteenth-century American culture.

Due to Jesuitophobia, the fear of Jesuit-led conspiracies that hit England after the Gunpowder Plot and inspired a literary genre of Jesuit slander, the English associated the Jesuits with Fawkes’ conspiracy. Since the English also associated any threat to their Protestant nation with the Spanish, it becomes intuitive for Herman Melville to associate the word “Spaniard” with Guy Fawkes–even though he was neither Spanish nor a Jesuit.

I have long imagined the word “Spaniard” to have exactly the kind of ‘twang’ Melville describes, although I may not have been always fully conscious of it. When I think of Guy Fawkes, Inigo Montoya is never far behind in my thoughts…

Inigo Montoya is the archetypical Spaniard. Do you agree?
Inigo Montoya is the archetypical Spaniard. Do you agree?

The other two epigraphs, the more serious ones, are also epigraphs to a fascinating book, Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy: Catholic and Anti-Catholic Discourses in Early Modern England, by Arthur F. Marotti. Marotti challenges how history is received and created in England. He examines the “process in which real and fabricated historical ‘evidence’ and events are translated into a developing set of rhetorical codes and ideological fantasies” (2). What is striking is how Marotti avoids discussing fact in his book and focuses on how historical events are imagined or embellished, in order to serve ideological ends.

The unofficial motto of this blog is that “history is fantasy.” As a result, I thought Marotti’s insights quite fascinating. History is what we imagine, after all. The past only exists in our memory, and our imagination inevitably colours even that.

Fawkes executionsWe pick up the story from last time: the Gunpowder Treason had fallen apart. England was in an uproar. But another battle was beginning: the war of the press.

Pamphlets, books, and sermons formed the blogosphere of early modern England. Then as now, political and religious factions battled it out to win the hearts and opinion of the population. Remember the terror that suffused the media after 9/11? That was what was happening in England, give or take, except instead of watching CNN or Fox, you would most likely hear a sermon from a preacher. England’s Most Wanted was the Pope—the Osama bin Laden of the day. And, if we continue this problematic analogy, the Jesuits were the Al-Qaeda.

The Jesuit Insignia
The Jesuit Insignia

Of course the world is not so simple, and I mean no slander on Jesuits of the time, much less the Jesuits of the present day. But black and white morality tends to appear whenever people are afraid of the “other.” When action is necessary to protect a nation, you don’t want to talk about your enemy in terms of “shades of grey.” You don’t want to let remorse slow you down, in doing what you believe must be done. Extreme fear in the state results in a superfluous amount of hatred that stimulates the masses—and produces an ideal moment for the king to step in and look good clearing up the situation. Morals become black and white when we think it is convenient for them to appear that way.

The Jesuits first came under suspicion in connection to the Gunpowder Plot when Thomas Bates, a servant to one of the conspirators, confessed that Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit, was in on the conspiracy. Garnet became one of the most loathed figures in England, and an example for many Protestants of why Jesuits should never be trusted.

Sir Edward Coke and the earl of Northampton wrote the propaganda masterpiece A True and Perfect Relation of the Proceedings at the several Arraignments of the Late Most barbarous Traitors in 1606. Right away, you can tell it is not true and perfect, since they say that it is true and perfect, instead of letting the evidence stand on its own. In this Relation, the Gunpowder Plot is called the “Jesuit treason,” reminding readers that Fawkes’ conspiracy was only the most recent in a long string of Jesuit-centred regicide attempts.

The Assassination of Henry IV
The Assassination of Henry IV

Throughout, Coke focuses on the ecclesiastical plotters, not those with secular motivations. He claims that Jesuits formed an international society of conspirators. For example, they were supposedly responsible for James Clement’s assassination of Henry III and, through the involvement of the Jesuit William Holt, Edmund of York’s plot to kill the Queen in 1594. Later, Juan de Mariam would say Jesuits were behind the deaths of Protestant leaders William of Orange and Henry IV, who was killed by radical Catholic François Ravaillac. Jesuits were also blamed for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Protestants in Paris, sparked by the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. (The massacre is more traditionally pinned on Catherine de’ Medici.)

Robert Cecil called the Jesuits “that generation of vipers” (47-48). The stereotype of a Jesuit ran as follows: he had the Pope in his belly, Machiavelli in his head, and Mercury’s wings on his feet. Not only could they think deviously in the Pope’s service, but they could be anywhere and travel from country to country with speed. This fear, spurred on by paranoia, turned the Jesuit into an evil supervillain.

Mephistopheles and Faustus in Doctor Faustus
Mephistopheles and Faustus in Doctor Faustus

In one colourful piece of libel, Thomas Dekker, playwright of the world-famous Shoemaker’s Holiday, says that Jacques Clement, a Jesuit, used black magic to conjure a devil in the likeness of a friar. One can only suppose that Dekker suffered from an unhealthy over-familiarity with Christopher Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, in which the titular blasphemer does just that.

But why all this hate against the Jesuits? To begin with, Jesuits understood themselves to be soldiers not only of God, but the Pope himself. Their presence in England was seen as a threatening encroachment of foreign power. The intellectual disciplines of the Jesuit priesthood were also seen as unsavoury. They moved in secret among the underground Catholics, masters of disguise and rhetoric, which they used to persuade Catholics to commit treason and even sacrifice their lives suicide-bomber style, for the sake of God. They were said to seal such pacts with the “superstitious” ritual of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Fact is difficult to separate from fantasy here, but it seems fair to assume that Jesuits were not half so Satanic as they were depicted as being.

What’s worse, from a Protestant standpoint, was the Jesuit practice of mental reservation and their doctrine of equivocation. Essentially, the doctrine of equivocation said, that it was not a sin to break or swear an oath that would force you to betray the cause of Catholicism. It also freed the conscience of Jesuits to give false confessions while under torture, if it meant saving the lives of their friends. Equivocation threatened the integrity of the oral bonds and oaths that held society together.

Henry Garnet defended himself by defending the doctrine of equivocation, papal disposition of power, the general innocence of Catholic recusants, and the innocence of Jesuits who played no part in conspiracies.

Northampton rebutted, claiming the Gunpowder Plot was devilry, that “the cursed snake who eats the dust of powder, now eats gunpowder with them [the conspirators]” (141). The Papacy’s temporal claims and its claiming of the right to depose kings corrupted the institution of the holy church and removed its legitimacy. So ran the Protestant argument.

fawkes libelA series of plates and engravings also served a widespread, if crude, propaganda. A typical plate shows Guy Fawkes holding his infamous lantern, about to ignite the powder, when the eye of God turns on him and casts him in a spotlight. The letter that detailed the conspiracy could also be seen being given to state authorities by an angel (or an eagle, in honour of Mounteagle).

john miltonJohn Milton’s In Quintus Novembris frames the Gunpowder Plot as a hellish conspiracy, following this rich tradition of writings. His poem depicts Satan, the hero of Paradise Lost, in envy of England, bothered by how it does not accept the yoke of Roman Catholicism (144). The Church at this time was called Babylon, or the Romish Babylonians, or even the Synagogue of Satan.

From a twenty-first century standpoint, of course, these epithets sound pathetically hilarious, “Romish Babylonians” sounding more like a sports team than anything else. However, the Church was much more powerful in the early seventeenth century, a force to contend with that had temporal interests.

The main tension point on the Protestant side came from its demand for liberty of conscience in all things, against the general opinion of Catholicism’s intolerability. The foreign authority of the Pope simply did not mix with the absolute authority of the English monarchy after the Restoration. The defence of the ‘ancient liberties’ of the English frequently trumped any desire for toleration through ‘liberty of conscience’—even though liberty of conscience was what Protestants had traditionally fought for, since the beginning of the Reformation. Robert Southwell and Robert Parsons both wrote directly about this irony.

In human psychology, to arrive at an individual identity, one must be able to separate the “self” from the “other.” When we can tell the difference between the outside and our interior, then we have an identity. The same is true in the growth of nationhood. It might be said, that England had to find a group to exclude, in order to create their identity as a Protestant nation.

The same phenomenon occurred in Spain in 1492: nationalism surged after the Reconquest was complete, Muslims forced from Catholic lands. Likewise, German nationalism soared under Hitler, when Jews were excluded from participating in the country. If you create and “in” group, you must exclude those who are “out”: observe this phenomenon on any high school lunch table. This does not mean, however, that the process of exclusion is unproblematic. The example of the Nazis is an obvious warning.

Catholics were excluded from the running of English society, for the longest time unable to hold public office or become heirs to the throne. That is now changing. Marotti seems to imply that it is also time to rethink how we frame the history of England. Finding voices that have been forced underground can be a subversive way to open up the questions history poses us.

No doubt if someone should tell Guy Fawkes’ story, and the general story of Catholicism in England, it would run much differently from what Protestant historians have written. History, as we understand it, depends much more on who writes history, than it does on what actually happened. Simply because we have received a historical tradition does not mean there is only one way to understand events. Take V for Vendetta, as an example. Questioning the claims of the fascistic government’s legitimacy, V was able to unmask the conspiracy that got it into power. For these, and many other reasons, Gunpowder Treason really should never be forgot.

How will you remember the fifth of November?

Fawkes

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Works Cited:

Buchanan, Brenda, David Cannadine, and Justin Champion, et al. Gunpowder Plots. London: Penguin, 2005.

Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Dover: Alan Sutton, 1994.

Marotti, Arthur F. Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

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Picture Credits:

The Guy: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-489089/Bonfire-night-cancelled-Guy-Fawkes-home-town-health-safety-killjoys.html

Inigo Montoya: http://www.comicvine.com/forums/battles-7/inigo-montoya-vs-madmartigan-653118/

Jesuit Logo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_Jesus

John Milton: http://1year100books.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/36-samson-agonistes-by-john-milton/

Mephistophilis: http://www.mgoodliffe.co.uk/

Ravaillac: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ois_Ravaillac

Behind Guy Fawkes II: The Gunpowder Plot

Persecution of Catholics did not relent after James I assumed the throne.
Persecution of Catholics did not relent after James I assumed the throne.

“But ‘The Gunpowder Plot’–there was a get-penny! I have presented that to an eighteen- or twenty-pence audience nine times in an afternoon. Your home-born projects prover ever the best; they are so easy and familiar. They put too much learning i’their things nowadays, and that, I fear, will be the spoil o’ this.”

-Leatherhead, Bartholomew Fair by Ben Johnson, Act 5 Scene 1

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A get-penny was a bestselling performance–in this case a puppet show of the Gunpowder Plot, so as Johnson attests through this quote, the drama of the 5 November was as popular today as it was in the seventeenth century.

When James I took the throne, Catholics flocked across the channel from France to return to England, hoping for toleration in the form of a law similar to the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which granted toleration to French Huguenots. However, several things were to go wrong.

First, there was the Bye Plot, in which William Watson, a priest, planned to kidnap the king and hold him for ransom until he declared toleration law. Then the Main Plot, which followed, was led by certain high-ranking courtiers like Lord Cobham and Sir Walter Raleigh. It aimed to get rid of the Scottish King James and replace him with Lady Arabella Stewart. In 1604, due to Puritan Scottish advisers, the king began to harden in his stance towards Catholic toleration. 19 March 1604 marked the passing of recusancy laws that formed a continuation of Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic policies.

Robert Catesby was a main ringleader among the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. He belonged to a wealthy Catholic family from Warwickshire. His cousin, Francis Tresham, was also prepared to use physical violence to achieve his aim of initiating a regime change. Jack and Kit Wright were notable swordsmen who fought during Essex’s failed rebellion of 1601, which saw the disgruntled earl beheaded. These two men would have known Guy Fawkes from school at St. Peter’s,York. Fawkes himself was a veteran of the wars against the Dutch in the Netherlands. Thomas and Robert Wintour, relatives of Catesby, also owned Huddington Court, a priest refuge. Thomas’ uncle had been a priest. He’d been hanged, drawn, and quartered—presumably for treason—a gesture I doubt Thomas appreciated.

Wintour and Fawkes are both known to have travelled to Spain in order to seek support. The Spanish under King Philip III was making a peace treaty with the English. Sceptical that the treaty would force the English king to tolerate Catholics, the conspirators prepared for another, more violent means of having their way.

Fawkes Conspirators
The Gunpowder Plot conspirators. Guy Fawkes’ name appears as Guido because he was closely associated with the Spanish.

In winter 1604, Wintour met Catesby and Jack Wright in their house in Lambeth, which was a stone’s throw across the Thames from Westminster—their target. The Gunpowder plot was Catesby’s idea, and hardening their resolve, once Fawkes had crossed the Channel, they met at a house behind St. Clements in the Strand. There, Father John Gerard, a Jesuit, celebrated Mass. Jesuits in England at this time were not allowed to enter England as “secular” priests: Elizabeth I had banished them from England by decree 5 November 1602. After the Mass, the conspirators swore an oath. The John Gerard was most likely not present for the oath, although Protestants would associate the conspiracy with the Jesuit order for a long time.

Parliament opened 19 March 1604. On 24 May, Thomas Percy acquired a lease on a small house near the House of Lords, where they were to excavate a shaft from the cellars to the foundations of the House of Lords’ chamber, and then lay the powder in a stack of concealed barrels. The peace treaty with Spain was signed, and it included no mention of Catholic toleration. The situation worsened when the king appointed a committee to prevent Jesuits from subverting the king’s authority.

The plotters encountered many setbacks. Their house was requisitioned while they were digging the mine, which risked the exposure of the plot. A plague outbreak forced Parliament to prorogue until 3 October 1605. They hoped for Princess Elizabeth to survive the explosion—a female monarch, they felt, would be more easily manipulable. Apparently, they had forgotten how much they suffered under the last female monarch, the last Elizabeth.

Robert Wintour, Kit Wright, and John Grant (a notorious participant in the Essex rebellion and the brother-in-law of Robert Wintour), entered the conspiracy in March 1605. Soon, they discovered coal in storage in the Lords’ meeting house. This meant they could place powder directly under the House of Lords. Presumably, the coal would help the fires burn afterwards. On 3 October, Parliament was prorogued once more, until the fateful day of 5 November.

robert cecil
Robert Cecil, spymaster and secretary of state. One of the successors of Francis Walsingham’s office, and a master in snooping out Catholic threats.

On 27 October, Catesby had reason to suspect the plot had been betrayed. He suspected Francis Tresham, for his connections to Mounteagle, but he denied it enough to convince the conspirators he was innocent. They pushed forward with their resolution. Thomas Percy met lord Northumberland in an attempt to see if he had heard about the conspiracy, but found that he was ignorant of it. The gunpowder was undisturbed, reported Fawkes.

Nonetheless, on Friday 1 November, the king read Mounteagle’s letter at Whitehall Palace. The next day, the Lord Chamberlain was ordered to search the palace at Westminster …

Fawkes enters the chamber with a slow match on 4 November. He comes face-to-face with the Lord Chamberlain. Imagine Guy’s surprise when the Chamberlain takes him to be a servant of the house. They are standing right in front of a pile of gunpowder barrels concealed only beneath a pile of brushwood and wooden sticks. Fawkes sighs in relief when the Chamberlain, satisfied, resumes his inspection of the rest of House of Lords.

The lie Fawkes uses to get out of that tight spot is not really a lie at all, but an omission of the truth: he said the sticks belonged to the tenant of the house, Thomas Percy, a respectable gentleman pensioner. However, Monteagle finds this suspicious. Why would Percy, a known Catholic, own a second house near Parliament when he has his own house in nearby London? The king has Sir Thomas Knyvet, a Justice of the Peace, an old friend of Robert Cecil, and one of the king’s privy chambermen, perform a more thorough search.

At midnight, they found Fawkes with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, red-handed. Fawkes claimed he was actually “John Johnson,” Percy’s servant, but I doubt it took much of a genius to know he was lying and thought of that name on the spot.

fawkes discovered

Fawkes had intended to light the fuse after hearing the king enter Parliament above, then escape across the Thames before the whole thing blew. Sir Everard Digby and his men were stationed in an inn called the Red Lion in Dunchurch, posing as hunters, awaiting Step 2, which Catsby would have initiated after arriving from London with the intent of initiating a Catholic uprising. However, when news of the arrest reached them, the assemble huntsmen lost heart, losing all sense of guidance and momentum.

Catesby, Ambrose Rockwood, and John Grant fled from Catholic safehouse to safehouse, avoiding the law. Once, they were wounded in an accidental gunpowder explosion, when they left damp powder too close to a fireplace. So grim was their situation that “Jack White suggested to Catesby that they should blow themselves up with the remaining powder” (Cannadine 28).

What followed at Holbeach was like a showdown in the Wild West. The sheriff of Worcestershire arrived with two hundred men and exchanged fire with the conspirators. The Wright brothers (not the inventors of the airplane, but the Catholics Jack and Kit Wright), were killed. Tom Percy and Rob Catesby were brought down by a single bullet. Catesby died after crawling back to his house and hugging onto a statue of the Virgin Mary. The survivors were rounded up and brought to the Tower.

Under torture, Fawkes confessed to the crime. He hated the Scots, many of whom were Puritans, and he hated the Scottish king James for assuming the English throne. The earl of Northumberland, whom the plotters were suspected of planning to use as a lord protector after Princess Elizabeth took the throne, was thrown in the Tower. On 27 January 1606 the surviving plotters were tried: Guy Fawkes, Tom and Robert Wintour, Sir Everard Digby, John Grant, Robery Keyes, Ambrose Rockwood, and Thomas Bates. They were executed over the course of several days.

Fawkes executionsThomas Bates was the one who spoke of the involvements of three Catholic priests: Father John Gerard, Father Oswald Tesimond, and Father Henry Garnet, who was the only one in England at the time. Garnet was hanged, drawn, and quartered 28 March 1606.

On 5 November 1605, Londoners rang bells and lit bonfires in celebration of the deliverance of the kingdom from unthinkable treachery. In 1606, the day became a religious occasion and later in the century, effigies of the Pope were burned in public every 5 November. The tradition of burning effigies of “the guy,” meaning Guy Fawkes, would only arrive in the next century.

We can only imagine what would have happened had the plot succeeded. Chances are that the explosion would have set Westminister ablaze, inflicting destruction over a wide area. Hundreds or even thousands of people, including the bulk of the power structure of England, would have been annihilated spectacularly. Perhaps it was the consciousness of this conspiracy in history that inspired the string of similar conspiracies in twenty-first century popular culture: for example, the anti-mater bomb placed under St. Peter’s Basilica during the papal conclave in Angels and Demons, and the Nazi theatre explosion in Inglourious Basterds. Nothing like the Gunpowder Plot happened before 1605. And since then, nothing else has happened quite like it (except perhaps the failed attempt to crash a plane in the White House on 9/11).

Just as people today imagine what might have happened had the conspiracy succeeded, people back then tried, and imagined horrors. The paranoia stirred by the failed plot led to worse persecutions for Catholics. Collective fears also helped shape how the history of the plot was understood in posterity.

Gunpowder plot watercolour

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Next week: Jesuitophobia and the History of Catholic Conspiracies

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Works Cited:

Buchanan, Brenda, David Cannadine, and Justin Champion, et al. Gunpowder Plots. London: Penguin, 2005.

Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Dover: Alan Sutton, 1994.

Marotti, Arthur F. Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

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Picture Credits:

Guy Fawkes: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/cristinaodone/100187789/health-and-safety-threatens-bonfire-night-and-making-me-feel-sympathy-for-guy-fawkes/

Robert Cecil: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Cecil,_1st_Earl_of_Salisbury

King James I: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King_James_I_of_England_and_VI_of_Scotland_by_John_De_Critz_the_Elder.jpg