The BBC drama, Gunpowder has been much criticised for its graphic depictions of the Jacobean persecution of Catholics, but it serves an important and necessary reminder of the brutal sectarian violence which went on for so long in the UK. If the BBC had been showing fictional gratuitous violence then perhaps such criticisms would carry more weight, but not one of the acts of brutality seen are without historical precedent.
In 1586 St Margaret Clitherow refused to enter a plea when charged with the crime of harbouring Catholic priests in her home, in order to prevent a trial in which her children would have been forced to testify and subjected to torture. She was stripped naked, laid upon a rock, covered with the door from her own house, before being gradually crushed as rocks were piled on top of her. After enduring for fifteen minutes her back was broken, her body left for six hours. She was pregnant with her fourth child.
Equally, to be a Catholic priest was an act of High Treason, punishable by being hung, drawn and quartered and their remains publicly displayed, the most horrific punishment available under English law. Violent public execution was part and parcel of life in Jacobean England. The events were popular spectacles no different to a sports match today.
Despite its modern familial nature of gathering around a bonfire with sparklers and parkin, it is important to remember the origins of the 5th November. That bonfire was once invariably topped by an effigy of Guy Fawkes as part of the celebration of ‘the joyful day of deliverance’ when James I and his Parliament narrowly avoided assassination by 13 Catholic conspirators, desperate to end the brutal repression of his rule, the celebration of which was a legal compulsion until 1829. It was only 30 years later that Catholics in England acquired the basic civil rights of voting and the ability to hold public office.
It is essential to acknowledge our history, for better or for worse. Nothing seen on BBC One on Saturday night was not seen as a grand day out in 17th Century England. So much of what we now consider as the beginning of Modern Britain was borne out of this era, this is a nation of individual liberty, the rule of law and Governmental accountability. It is also a nation of suppression, slavery and religious persecution. Of course Gunpowder is brutal, horrifying and all else it has been criticised as, and so was Britain.
To sugar-coat this era by ignoring the violence integral to society would be a disservice to the memory of those executed for no greater crime than their theological interpretations, and to ignore these events would be even worse; in order to be proud of our modern values of tolerance and social mobility, we need to confront our origins in persecution and oppression.
Image: Heat of The Night via Wikimedia Commons