Remember, remember: ‘Gunpowder’ and our nation’s bloody past

Laura Sangha

This is a reproduction of a piece that I wrote for the local press after watching the first episode of Gunpowder.

When Gunpowder first aired a few weeks ago it reportedly shocked audiences with its graphic scenes of capital punishment. People particularly objected to an execution scene in the first episode, where a women was stripped naked and crushed to death, and a man was hung, eviscerated and his body chopped into quarters. Viewers were split between those who found the brutality gratuitous and unnecessary, and those who welcomed a historical drama that didn’t shy away from our gory, violent past.

Gallows scene

A still from the execution scene that some viewers thought crossed a line.

I’m no expert on how violent television programmes should be, but I can say that this was a historically accurate representation – judicial execution was a part of Tudor and Stuart life, and killings were bloody affairs. Those who refused to plead either guilty or not guilty in court did face the hideous ordeal of ‘pressing to death’ – that is being laden with weights and stones until the victim either spoke to enter a plea, or died of suffocation. Although the character who suffered this fate in Gunpowder is fictional, her death appears to have been closely based on the execution of the catholic Margaret Clitheroe, who was accused of harbouring priests in 1586. Similarly, men convicted of high treason were hung, drawn and quartered, a punishment that reflected their deplorable crime of attacking the monarch’s authority. And the manner of execution was suitably deplorable – one historian estimated that the process of hanging, disembowelling and quartering a person would take at least half an hour, and there are contemporary reports that the smell and sight provoked horror and disgust in audiences at the time as well. Yet execution days could also be rowdy affairs, with crowds gathering to vent their anger at the victim, whilst pie men and ballad sellers circulated, taking advantage of the chance to earn a few extra pence. In some cases, public executions seem to have taken on an atmosphere of carnival.


A Dutch print depicting the execution of the gunpowder plotters (after 1605).

But whilst it’s evident that the violent deaths in Gunpowder were historically authentic, was depicting them on screen necessary? The BBC has explained why they did so, saying that the scene was designed to provide the catholic gunpowder plotters with convincing motives for their outrageous plan to blow up the protestant king, the royal family, councillors, senior judges, and leading lights of the aristocracy and Church who also sat in parliament. In this, Gunpowder certainly succeeded. Remember, the plot was intended as a violent political coup – at a stroke, the leader Robert Catesby and his allies planned to wipe out the protestant ruling elite, and afterwards rouse English catholics to rebellion and seize power themselves. The first episode of Gunpowder therefore focused on why the plotters were prepared to resort to such violent and drastic means. We saw the persecution that catholics faced at the time: as well as the execution of a catholic priest and the killing of the women who harboured him we saw catholic homes invaded, and catholic heads of households fined and thrown in prison for failing to attend protestant church services.

Parliament's Undercroft

The undercroft beneath the House of Lords, 1799 engraving.

For me, this interest in motivation was the programme makers’ most interesting creative decision. For they could have chosen to focus on the traditional villain of protestant folklore – Guy Fawkes. For hundreds of years it is Fawkes who has been the pantomime villain of gunpowder treason, and it is his effigy that is burnt on communal bonfires on the anniversary of the plot’s discovery. Indeed, Fawkes has been the focus of anti-catholic celebrations and protestant propaganda for centuries, perhaps unsurprisingly given the dramatic nature of his capture – he was apprehended in the undercroft directly beneath the House of Lords, with matches and touchwood on his person and thirty-six barrels of gunpowder stacked nearby. Yet Fawkes was only the ‘muscle’ of the plot, a zealot who had only recently returned to England and who does not seem to have known all the details of the plot. He was picked because his face was not as well known to the authorities as Catesby’s, making it easier for him to move around London without raising suspicion.


After the plot failed, protestants seized on the figure of Guy Fawkes as the focus for anti-Catholic propaganda

In focusing on Catesby, the creators of Gunpowder are already flying in the face of how the plot has traditionally been remembered, and its failure fêted throughout centuries of English history. Up to now we have only ever heard the triumphant, celebratory, protestant side of the story, so to tell the tale from the perspective of the catholics is a bold move. Not only that, but rather than setting up Catesby as the new pantomime villain of the piece, the focus on motivations allows the programme to better capture the political and religious landscape of the time. Though in no sense a n apology for the plotters’ actions, the programme is at least an attempt to get beyond the anti-catholic propaganda to the nuances of the age. In sum, whilst it might be too bloody, Gunpowder has done us a service, inviting us to ask new questions of our past and laying bare how high the stakes were for both sides in the religious struggles that tore western Europe apart in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

If you would like to know more about the Catholic community in seventeenth-century London, these three posts provide an introduction.


7 thoughts on “Remember, remember: ‘Gunpowder’ and our nation’s bloody past

  1. The problem I have with the BBC’s argument about the executions establishing a motivation is that it reduces it to a response to a single barbarous act, which trivialises the significance and complexity of the confessional divide. For my money, that’s a bigger point than having a realistic depiction of a C17 execution.

    • Thanks very much for your comment. I take your point, although I suppose the explanation should also be seen in the light of searches of houses and fines for non-attendance at Church and so on. The decision to move the treaty with Spain was a bit strange in this regard though – given that it no doubt contributed to the plotters’ decisions I think the move did detract from the significance and complexity of what was going on, and gave the Spanish a rather more significant role than you would expect.

  2. Gunpowder hasn’t screened here in New Zealand yet, though it probably will. A programme focussing on the Roman Catholic perspective and bringing Catesby to the fore should be interesting. However, the introduction of pressing into the Gunpowder story does sound gratuitous.

    • Thanks – yes, do let me know what you think if it does screen over there. In the end I thought the last two episodes didn’t entirely live up to the promise of the first.

      • Back again. I’ve now seen Gunpowder. In a word, abysmal. For all sorts of reasons, but here’s one. The way the women were portrayed.

        The first, an entirely imaginary character of high social status, gets to take off all her clothes and be pressed to death. Highly improbable in 1605, but let’s not accuse the programme makers of prurience. She’s too old to be sexy.

        Then there’s the blonde bimbo who trails around with King James. Isn’t she lucky that he finally notices her? That must be Anne of Denmark, who’d been pregnant half-a-dozen times and was over being noticed by James. I would be, too.

        And Anne Vaux, who flits off into the sunset to take care of Catesby’s boy. No arrest, no interrogation, no cool answers. Chicks may have got away with that sort of thing in the 17th C, but in the 21st? Ooh, no. It’s all about the boys.

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  4. The programme was intended to be consumed as entertainment. We were supposed to be entertained by seeing, for example, the woman being hung in front of our eyes. Violence against women as entertainment yet again. Almost simultaneously on another channel A N Wilson eschewed cheap thrills and tried at least to indicate that The Plot fitted into a wider context and, quite incidentally, served Cecil’s personal agenda very nicely.

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