When Margaret Clitherow is arrested for illegally harbouring Catholic priests, her friends, led by a youthful Guy Fawkes, face a race against time to save her from the gallows. As events unfold, their lives, and our history, change forever.
What events could persuade a happily married woman to become a martyr or transform a young man into a terrorist?
The story of Guy Fawkes started way before the Gunpowder Plot. Who was he? Where did he come from? Although in the first chapter we see that he is being tortured and his flashbacks are a means to block out the agony, in reality the book is not about the Gunpowder Plot at all (for that, I learned later, I need to read “Remember, Remember the 6th of November”). This is a different story—a sad and pitiful story—a tale about the persecution of Catholics and a martyr whose fate propels Fawkes to his destiny. Guy Fawkes didn’t start out as a revolutionary—nor did he start out as a Catholic. But he lived in a time where it was impossible to remain neutral when the normal laws were turned upside-down and your neighbor could be dragged away and tried for treason on the word of a child. The Pearl of York, as Margaret Clitherow came to be known, may have been guilty of harboring priests, but it didn’t follow that she deserved the most horrible of deaths. Fawkes and all of York are shocked at the miscarriage of justice, and they are helpless to save Mistress Clitherow, who would rather sacrifice herself than endanger others, or—god forbid—deny her faith. For Guy, the answers weren’t easy:
‘I was raised by my father to be with the Church of England,’ I replied. ‘He wanted me to follow him into the legal profession but the events of recent weeks have made this impossible. I’ve been expelled from school. I’ve attended Catholic Mass with my mother. The service had a powerful impression on me but I remain confused. The only thing I know for certain is that the Queen and her laws are wrong when they punish good honest folk like Mistress Clitherow. But whether I can commit myself fully to the Catholic Church or not, I don’t know yet. So much has happened, I need time to clear my head.’
Throughout the book, Guy wrestled with his feelings, but the inexorable Protestant powers forced him into a vengeful mindset. We follow his struggles every step of the way. Evolving from Protestant to Catholic was almost suicidal, and Guy wasn’t the ideal candidate. One suspects he would have been satisfied to remain Protestant if things had been different. But the book really wasn’t about Guy. It was about a brave and generous woman caught up in a controversy not of her own making, who took a stand and was prepared to die for it. It was about a martyr who deserves to be remembered and a time when the slightest slip-up could get anyone killed. It certainly helped explain why someone like Guy Fawkes could be driven to contemplate such a horrific deed as blowing up Parliament and his Protestant king. Was it worth all the sacrifice and danger for the sake of a mass? He probably wouldn’t have thought so.
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