A little chilling background is required to appreciate what went on at the tower in the aftermath of the discovery of the gunpowder plot. It's thought that, between rackings, Fawkes was incarcerated in the bowels of the White Tower, now a museum of weaponry in the center of the complex. Fawkes held out long enough to give other plotters a chance to flee on horseback to the Catholic stronghold of Warwickshire, where they had planned to incite a popular uprising had things fallen differently at Westminster. With the authorities in hot pursuit, they made a bloody last stand in one of the plotter's manor houses near present-day Birmingham, where four were killed. The rest were arrested there or run to ground soon after.
The walls of the nearby Salt and Broad Arrow Towers bear bits of Catholic iconography that testify to the incarceration of Church of Rome believers and priests, including Father Henry Garnet, who was pursued with a vengeance for having failed to speak out when he learned, some months before the planned explosion at Westminster, that a Catholic plot was in the works (though he would have had to break the seal of the confessional to expose it). For putting his vows to the church before loyalty to the crown, Garnet was hanged and drawn and quartered as crowds of Londoners watched.
Does one owe ultimate allegiance to conscience or crown? That was the Jesuit's dilemma, mirrored in the hearts of the conspirators. Unlike Garnet, the unlucky 13 who plotted the gunpowder treason were traitors and terrorists. The beauty of Fraser's book is that it rubs the tarnish off the other side of the coin to show how these members of a persecuted religious minority came to feel justified in killing innocents for their cause and how they too were driven by courage and conviction.
A trip to Warwickshire — which takes about two hours by car north from London and can be incorporated into a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon — brings the character and motives of the conspirators to life and shows how traces of the Old Faith ribboned through the region around Shakespeare's birthplace. The playwright's mother, Mary Arden, was born to a prominent local Catholic family; in 1592, his father, John Shakespeare, is named on a list of recusants; four masters at the school young Will attended were Catholic sympathizers.
If no one can say whether Shakespeare knew the conspirators, there is little doubt about their wide Warwickshire connections. If you stand at the top of St. Mary's Church in the town of Warwick, north of Stratford, you can survey the deceptively placid countryside of the Catholic plotters — once covered by the Forest of Arden, borrowed by Shakespeare for the setting of "As You Like It." There, in oak and hemlock shade, Catholic families clustered, worshiped in secret, harbored priests and bred such hotheads as Robert Catesby. Charismatic, swashbuckling and tragically widowed at a young age, he was a Catholic fanatic who recruited kinsmen and friends for the cause, many of whom went to the block praising him. He, not Fawkes, was the author of the plot.
I stopped on my way north in the village of Ashby St. Ledgers to see the mellow stone home of Catesby's mother, now a private residence. Tradition has it that he and a handful of co-conspirators worked out the details of the plot in the beautiful half-timbered Tudor gatehouse there.
Historians say that on his ride north from London after Fawkes' apprehension at Westminster, Catesby stopped at Ashby St. Ledgers to tell the bad news to a fellow plotter, without making his presence known to his mother, who never saw him alive again.
I stayed in the hamlet of Dunchurch, about 10 miles northwest of Ashby St. Ledgers. There, one of Catesby's most regrettable recruits, rich, well-beloved, sweet-tempered Everard Digby, waited at the Old Red Lion Inn — now privately owned, with a plaque that calls it the Guy Fawkes House — for the terrible news from London. When it came, the conspirators leaped on their horses and rode west for the Welsh border.
An easy drive northwest from Dunchurch takes you across Dunsmore Heath, over which Digby proposed to hunt while, in reality, readying his henchmen to raise a Catholic rebellion. A network of meandering country roads leads eventually to Coombe Abbey, where Digby was supposed to kidnap Elizabeth, the 9-year-old daughter of James I, and make her a puppet queen, with strings drawn by Catholics.
Near the abbey, there's a chain of Catholic manors where gunpowder plotters briefly rested as agents of the crown snapped at their heels. Huddington Court, the scene of the refugee plotters' final Mass, and Holbeach House, where they made their last stand, are two of these, privately owned and tucked into the countryside but worth finding with the guidance of "In the Footsteps of the Gunpowder Plotters" by Conall Boyle, a member of the international Gunpowder Plot Society.
Besides these, two Catholic houses in Warwickshire are English National Trust properties open to tourists. I started at Baddesley Clinton, a small, comfortable 13th century manor with stained-glass heraldic devices gleaming in its windows and a parish church, close to the castle town of Warwick. A restaurant and gift shop operated by the National Trust make Baddesley Clinton a good day-trip destination.
Casual visitors rarely have a clue about the dramas that took place at the manor in the time of the Catholic noblewoman Anne Vaux, Father Garnet's acolyte, who sheltered priests there in the guise of family friends and retainers. When searchers, known as pursuivants, banged on the door, brave widow Anne stashed away chalices, vestments and religious counselors in priest holes, ingeniously built into the walls and floors of the house.
Then it was on to Coughton Court, a grand aristocratic manse about 10 miles northwest of Stratford-upon-Avon, with a Tudor gatehouse sandwiched between twin 18th century wings, an Elizabethan knot garden and two lovely churches, Protestant and Catholic. Of enduring importance to English Church of Rome devotees, Coughton Court has been the home of the high-ranking Catholic Throckmorton family for the last six centuries.
One of the first Catholic members of Parliament was a Throckmorton, and Catesby was related to the clan, as was his recruit Francis Tresham, who is thought to have written the anonymous letter that exposed the gunpowder plot.
Coughton also has priest holes aplenty and an elegant blue drawing room where a messenger told Digby's pretty wife of the plot's failure
Seeing these places doesn't resolve unanswered questions about the plot. Who wrote the letter that alerted the government? Were the conspirators' confessions forged? How much did Cecil know about the plot before the fact?
Nevertheless, I will always remember the 5th of November, Digby, Catesby and Fawkes. After tracing their steps across England, I am inclined to believe that they were motivated not by unadulterated evil but by religious zeal, which is much more powerful than gunpowder.