The BBC TV drama Gunpowder has stirred up a lot of interest in – and a fair bit of controversy around – the true story of the 1605 plot to blow up the Protestant King James I during the State Opening of Parliament. It got off to a gory start, with depictions of a woman being pressed to death and a priest being hanged, drawn and quartered. Some have questioned whether Catholics were truly treated in this horrific manner, while others have said the drama didn’t go far enough.
For those who haven’t seen it, or read any of the reviews, it’s a three part mini-series based around one of the conspirators, Robert Catesby. He’s played on screen by his own descendant, the Games of Thrones actor Kit Harrington. So is it true to life in its portrayal of Catholic suppression in England? A quick visit to the Exhibition at The Bar Convent will provide some answers.
Firstly, it’s important to point out that there is a link between the convent and the gunpowder plot. The house is home to a religious community called the Congregation of Jesus (CJ). It was founded in the 17th century by Yorkshire woman Mary Ward, who believed in the (then) radical notion that men and women were equal. She died 40 years before the house opened but two of her uncles, John and Kit Wright, were among the gunpowder plotters.
One of the many real life stories the Exhibition tells is that of Margaret Clitherow – St Margaret of York. She was a butcher’s wife from the Shambles who, in 1586, was arrested under suspicion of allowing a Catholic mass to take place in her house. She refused to plea or give any statement and was ordered to be pressed to death.
In Ouse Gaol (beneath a modern day restaurant by Ouse Bridge) she was laid on the floor with her own front door on top of her. Heavy weights were then piled on. If this was meant to make her talk, it failed. She died in agony in 15 minutes.
So horrified was Queen Elisabeth at this, she wrote to the people of York to apologise. The pressing depiction in Gunpowder is almost certainly based on what happened in York, as only one woman is known to have been pressed to death.
But the story doesn’t end there. Margaret’s preserved hand rests in the chapel at the convent, as a religious relic and a reminder of the extremes of religious oppression.
Elsewhere there are similar echoes to Gunpowder. The bones of martyred priests John Lockwood and Edmund Catherick are in the Exhibition. They were both hanged, drawn and quartered for the crime of being priests and their heads stuck on spikes above York’s Bar Walls.
We also have items that show the lengths Catholics went to, to hide their true identities – including original priest’s vestments and even a bedstead that doubled as an altar. And of course there’s the priest hole in the chapel. Though never used, it would have served as a last resort if the building had ever been raided during a mass.
So there’s plenty of evidence here that what is shown in Gunpowder is accurate. And the Exhibition also shows how atrocities are not limited to any one group or religion. Queen (Bloody) Mary burned 300 protestants and Mary Ward narrowly escaped being burned alive by her own Catholic Church for heresy.
Gunpowder is a stark reminder that behind the fun of November 5th lies a far crueller reality than many of us care to remember.