Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: GUNPOWDER — In 1605, Kit Harington’s ancestor plots bombing of Parliament in real world thrones game

"The air in this house 
is rancid with popery"

All eyes forward tonight and for weeks to come on Game of ThronesJon Snow, but the man who animates him, Kit Harington — given name, Christopher Catesby Harington — is a cousin on both his mother’s and his father’s side of one Robert Catesby, instigator of the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Catesby’s father had been jailed by Queen Elizabeth I (d 1603) for his Catholic loyalties and the son became a religious warrior when persecution continued under Protestant King James I. The plotters aimed to incinerate Parliament with James present, hoping to set off a revolution against Protestantism that had grown lethally repressive to Catholics since Henry VIII broke with Rome.

Harington stars in the 3-episode series (2017) that he helped create and co-executive produce for HBO; it is worth the watch to experience the belligerent period up close and to wonder at our own history of religion gone amok. Unfortunately not much empathy for its characters is written into the script to offset the barbarity. Rather one relates as though to a graphic novel of villains and victims (below, archival sketch of key plot rebels).

Nobleman Catesby, a widower with a young son, is sharing in a private mass at the manor estate of relatives when a troop of the king’s enforcers bang at the entrance; two priests are swiftly hidden and artifacts secreted away; no evidence of Catholic observance is apparent. But, says the king’s man, Sir William Wade: ‘the air in this house is rancid with popery.’ An extensive search turns up a young Jesuit; he is arrested along with the estate’s owner, Catesby’s relative, and shortly murdered in front of our eyes — the young Jesuit hung, drawn, and quartered, the woman crushed to death by weights (below). Catesby’s rage and indignation matured into the failed plot; many years of civil disorder followed.

A tightly loyal group of Catholics, prompted by Catesby, answered back with violence of their own. He masterminded a scheme to blow up Parliament on opening day when King James and his son would be in the hall. An outsider was added to the conspirators, an expert in explosives — one Guy Fawkes. It is Fawkes who was found standing guard over barrels of gunpowder secreted in the cellars below Parliament and hauled away for torture, followed by Catesby and the others being hunted down (shot or hung). Fawkes, caught with the goods, became most associated with the plot; it’s now feted every Nov 5 as Bonfire or Guy Fawkes Night — partying that is far removed from the origin of those murderous Catholic persecutions. The contrast between the modern yearly celebrations and the ugliness of the real story led some shocked viewers of this series to complain, even vomit at the depicted violence.

But the story is an early example of modern home-grown terrorism, in this case intertwining with fabled centuries of Catholic abuse. Some have claimed that anti-catholic propaganda helped create Protestant England — fueled by newspapers, memoirs, bibles, books, et al, then circulating in the new age of the printing press. It seems new technology and waves of progress are followed by magnified outbreaks of rage — religious hysteria and persecution followed the printing press that is matched today by the internet propelling terrorism and worldwide right-wing populism. Too much change makes people crazy! Below is an archival depiction of an early celebration of Guy Fawkes Night.

In any event, anti-catholicism was not the doing of God in Henry VIII’s time or since— it was kings and queens waging politics. To protect the monarch, to prevent rebellion, discriminatory laws were passed. Oaths had to be sworn, Anglican church attendance expected. Catholic mass was banned and forced into secrecy. “As Catholics,” Catesby intones: “we are hunted, imprisoned, fined, banished, tortured, and hanged.” The deprivation of religious freedom led to civil disorder at home, of which the Gunpowder Plot made a thunderous noise in public consciousness despite there being no actual bang of gunpowder in that November of 1605.

A cast of familiars play these parts. Tom Cullen of Knightfall and Downton Abbey is Guy Fawkes. And you wouldn’t recognize the man in his broody, feral, scowling silence, as though he had just leaped off the screen of a Black Sails pirate schooner rather than out of Lady Mary’s bed as Tony Gillingham. Harington on the other hand is described by Mike Hale in a NYT review (12/17) in all his Jon Snow glory: ‘beautiful hair, soulful eyes and a one-size-fits-all blank expression that serves him for both mournful gazing and impassioned speeches.’ He works it with grace.

Our villains include the mincing Scotsman King James I, satirized mildly as a bit of a fop by Glaswegian Derek Riddell (below, center, a veteran of Happy Valley, Fantastic Beasts, Shetland); Mark Gatiss, the king’s secretary of state and evil doer, Lord Robert Cecil, his head crooked to denote Cecil’s scoliosis, thought to have been Shakespeare’s model for hump-backed, Machiavellian Richard III, is familiar from Game of Thrones, The Favourite, and Sherlock; Shaun Dooley as Sir William Wade, executor of Cecil’s ugly policies, played in White Queen, Misfits, Jamestown (he is bottom left in the magazine spread pictured at end). Below, Lord Cecil is to King James’ left, and James’ chamberlain, is far right, of whom he was rather fond.

Marvelous actress Liv Tyler is altogether the most sympathetic character in the series as Anne Vaux, cousin to Catesby and carer of his son. She sheltered her (apparent lover) priest, Father Henry Garnet (Peter Mullen), who opposed violence and Catesby’s plot.

It is particularly through Tyler that we come to feel grief about the frenzy over a freedom we take nearly for granted (and are reminded of religious extremists that wage terror elsewhere on the globe in our own century). And it is through the care of Anne Vaux we are imagined to have young Robert Catesby, Jr., sire the line that has produced our current prince, Christopher Catesby Harington — Jon Snow.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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