It was potentially the world’s first terrorist spectacular: thirty-six barrels of gunpowder to explode a king and his House of Lords, kidnap a princess and install a Catholic queen. The grinning face of Guido Fawkes is still the mask of choice for hacktivists and occupiers, with the foiled plot recalled in rhyme, bonfire nights, and every time we use the word “guy”.
The Gunpowder Plot is the backdrop for Treason, the new historical thriller by James Jackson, author of Pilgrim and Realm, and a chance to reunite Christian Hardy, the crown intelligencer, with the psychopathic English renegade, Realm.
‘The punchline of the gunpowder plot is rather well-known,’ Jackson tells me over the phone from London, ‘so I needed a different angle. I used the feud between Hardy and Realm, their ongoing game of cat-and-mouse, to add some unpredictability.’
That bloody quarrel certainly helps drive the story, but we also see the plot from multiple points of view: the Catholic conspirators, the king and his “beagle” spymaster Robert Cecil, his intelligencers, priest hunters and prey. The pace is unrelenting as the players move against each other like characters on stage, though there are few heroes to be found on either side.
‘It was a grim time,’ says Jackson. ‘A violent time. People forget that Shakespeare was hauled before the courts for threatening someone’s life, Ben Jonson was charged with manslaughter, Kit Marlowe was murdered. I wanted to capture that sense of danger, the tone and colour of the era, show the underbelly, the dark recesses and fighting dens.’
Shakespeare is a character in the book, but how much of a brush did he have with the real conspirators?
‘He was right in their midst. The main plotters came from estates around Stratford-upon-Avon. John Grant lived only two miles to the north. Shakespeare had close family ties to Robert Catesby, the Catholic ringleader, and would often meet with Ben Jonson in the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, a haunt of the conspirators. In his plays, he couldn’t directly allude to political situations, but there are hints. Lear is a warning against tyranny, and Macbeth obviously draws on a plot to overthrow a Scottish king. Shakespeare trod a very careful path, but I wanted him to be on the sidelines bearing witness.’
The danger came from a network of spies, the eyes and ears of Secretary of State, Robert Cecil. A true Machiavellian, he is one of the more intriguing characters in the book.
‘He was a successor of Francis Walsingham whose spycraft was the salvation of England during the time of the Spanish Armada. Walsingham bankrupted himself serving queen and country; Cecil used his position to accumulate vast wealth and power. When you think of all the tools at the disposal of modern intelligence agencies, Cecil achieved as much with a card index. I wanted to show how he manoeuvred his agents to unravel the plot. Every pub and gambling house had its snoops and reporters. In effect, it was a police state.’
Reading the book, the themes seem to resonate with modern Britain. A country ill at ease with itself, battle lines drawn over Scotland and Europe, the shadow of surveillance set against the real fear of religious extremism. One of the things that drew Jackson to the gunpowder plot was his background in military studies.
‘I could see the evolution of terrorism towards the spectacular, where violence was the aim not just the means. One of my earlier novels, The Reaper, came out in September 2001. It had the tagline, “Apocalypse has just been brought forward”, and I remember seeing the books on display in deserted airport bookshops in the weeks after 9/11. Nothing is really new. It’s like Churchill said, “The farther back you look, the farther forward you see”. Every generation goes through the same old debates, and it helps that this historical thriller can appeal to modern sensibilities.’
Our main protagonist Christian Hardy disdains the blanket surveillance favoured by his masters, with a line in the book saying, “He had never favoured trawling the shoals of the innocent to uncover the true enemy.” Compared to the zealotry of the conspirators, the duplicity of Cecil, and the cruelty of Realm, Hardy is the closest thing we have to a hero.
‘He operates in the streets and alleyways,’ Jackson says. ‘In my head I was writing a period 007. Hardy’s a supremely skilled swordsman, but he can also be charming and manipulative, especially when dealing with women. During his investigation, he uses a corkboard to connect names and scraps of evidence with pieces of coloured thread, like a modern-day cop drama. I just thought, why not?’
While Hardy is a fascinating fictional creation, most of the characters in Treason are based on real people, quite famous people. It’s an issue faced by many historical fiction writers, and I asked how Jackson established their voices.
‘A lot through research, but mostly by instinct. When you describe a scene and place a character within it, it’s often clear to see what drives them. Human nature doesn’t change, and Shakespeare opened up the Elizabethan world. Also you can find small details to humanise them. I went to visit as many places as I could associated with the plot. To stand in the Tudor gatehouse where the plotters first met, you get a real sense of them. You can still feel the musket-ball holes in Holbeche House where they made their last stand, or the split timber beam damaged when the remaining gunpowder in their possession ignited while they were drying it in front of the fire – the only powder that went off during the entire scheme.’
Jackson is blind, and this tactile sense permeates his writing.
‘I went to visit Huddington Court,’ he says, ‘home of Thomas Wintour and climbed into the priest-hole used to hide fugitive Jesuits, still with its original trapdoor. Inside it felt like a coffin. It was built by ‘Little John’ – St Nicholas Owen – who constructed dozens of these hiding places throughout England. How many, no one is quite sure, as he never divulged a single one, even when arrested and tortured. So determined were the authorities to get him to talk that he exploded on the rack.’
A reminder of the persecution that provoked some of the plotters. It’s the audacity of the attempt that has embedded the gunpowder plot in the public consciousness, even though in hindsight it always seemed doomed to failure. Did Catesby and his conspirators truly believe they could cause a revolution?
‘I think they did. Their zealous faith would have bred certainty, which can lead to intolerance, which can lead to the belief that violence is the answer. But they underestimated several things, like how difficult it would be to maintain the secrecy of a months-long plot. Conspiracy is so hard in any era – eventually everything is revealed. Even if they had succeeded in igniting the powder, James’s son Prince Henry wasn’t present at the opening of parliament. His daughter Elizabeth had been squirreled to safety in Coventry. And if the House of Lords was reduced to rubble, well there are always uncles, brothers and heirs to claim the titles.’
One aspect of the story I hadn’t known about was Catesby’s forlorn attempts to rouse rebellion in the midlands after he knew Fawkes had been rumbled.
‘They were never going to answer the call,’ Jackson says. ‘Most people want a quiet life, and at such a turbulent time men had shifting allegiances, religious conviction was fluid. All they wanted was to hold on to their estates, practice their faith in private, and not have their balls torn off.’
Which seems reasonable enough. Treason is a book that revels in the menace and intrigue of one of the best-known conspiracies in British history, the intricate plot held together by Jackson’s meticulous research and deft touch. His next book, which sees some of the surviving characters cross the ocean to the Jamestown Settlement in North America, will be out next year.
‘I’m also working on a retelling of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children,’ he says, those simple rhymes that tell of errant youngsters and their grisly fates. ‘After dwelling so long in the brutal world of Hardy, Realm and Robert Cecil, I could do with some light relief.’
(c) Andrew Hughes
‘Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November…’
For fans of Conn Iggulden and Bernard Cornwell, this pulse-racing and dramatic new thriller from Sunday Times bestselling author James Jackson sheds new light on one of the most dramatic events in British history.
Behind the famous rhyme lies a murderous conspiracy that goes far beyond Guy Fawkes and his ill-fated Gunpowder Plot . . .
In a desperate race against time, spy Christian Hardy must uncover a web of deceit that runs from the cock-fighting pits of Shoe Lane, to the tunnels beneath a bear-baiting arena in Southwark, and from the bad lands of Clerkenwell to a brutal firefight in The Globe theatre.
But of the forces ranged against Hardy, all pale beside the renegade Spanish agent codenamed Realm.
‘There is no-one today writing fictionalised history, backed by ferocious research, like James Jackson. With his latest, Treason, he has done it again and the reading lamp just burns on through the night…’ Frederick Forsyth
Treason is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here!
About Andrew Hughes
Andrew Hughes was born in Ireland and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. It was while researching his acclaimed social history of Fitzwilliam Square―Lives Less Ordinary: Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, 1798-1922―that he first came across the true story of John Delahunt that inspired his debut novel, the brilliant The Convictions of John Delahunt, out in a beautiful hardback on 25 November 2016. His second book The Coroner’s Daughter is out February 2017.