The consequences of gunpowder treason

by Nick

I’ve been doing a bit of digging for a Bonfire Night post, and in the British Museum catalogues I came across a good example of how the event lingered in popular consciousness:

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© The Trustees of the British Museum

The etching shows the collapse of a floor in Hunsdon House in Blackfriars in 1623. Hunsdon was at that point occupied by the French ambassador Count de Tillieres. On Sunday 26 October, a Catholic congregation had assembled to listen to a Jesuit called Master Drury. He had been delivering a sermon for about half an hour to a crowd of about 300 people when the weight of the crowd caused the main beam supporting the floor to give way. Drury was killed along with 95 other people; the survivors were in a part of the room that did not give away and escaped by cutting their way through the plaster walls. Crowds quickly gathered and the city authorities had to close off the accident scene to protect the survivors.

Some reacted with horror and sympathy to the accident. A broadside by Matthew Rhodes described the scene:

The Husband cries out, Oh my loving wife,
The Wife cries out, Oh save my Husband deare,
The Father cries, Would I had lost my life,
His Childrens woes doe touch his heart so neare,
All things so rufull, dreadfull, doe appeare:
Thus Tyrant death with his all-peircing dart,
Acts many a fatall Scoene, and bloudy part.

The Brother bids the Sister quite adue,
The Sister cries, Farewell my loving Brother,
The Infants losse doth make the mother rue,
The Child cries out, Oh where’s my carefull Mother?
All these (alas) stones, lyme, and timber smother.
Yea many there which on their friends had gazed,
Yet knew them not, they were so much amazed.

The Servant cries, Oh I have lost my Master,
The Master for his Servant doth complaine,
The faithfull Friend laments his Friends disaster,
Wishing that for his sake himselfe were slaine:
Thus teares gush out on every side amaine.
Some swound with feare, unable for to speake,
Which might a Christians heart with sorrow break.

Thus some were buried up alive in dust,
Some mangled, bruized, wounded with the fall,
Some brain’d with Timber, some in pieces crusht,
Of those that scap’d the number was but small;
A fearfull Doome and Summons to us All:
Calling us to repentance many wayes,
Considering well the shortnesse of our dayes.

But others saw the catastrophe differently. The etching above shows James I in Parliament in 1605, with Guy Fawkes led by the devil and the soldiers who apprehend him led by an angel. If dated New Style, the collapse in 1623 took place on 5 November. More than one broadside drew this parallel: below are a series of etchings that ram the comparison home.

First is A Plot with Powder:

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© The Trustees of the British Museum

Next is A Plot without Powder, showing a conspiracy of Jesuits:

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© The Trustees of the British Museum

Finally there is No Plot No Powder, with a striking image of Dury struck by the hand of God:

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© The Trustees of the British Museum

For much more on the Blackfriars accident, how these broadsides may have been commissioned, and their implications for our understanding of contemporary religious and popular culture, see Alexandra Walsham’s wonderful ‘”The Fatall Vesper”: Providentialism and Anti-Popery in Late Jacobean England’, Past & Present, 144, 1 (1994), pp. 36-87. [Athens access required]