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Gunpowder is gory – but if you’re going to depict our history, it shouldn’t be watered down

"We do history a disservice if we televise it through a rose-tinted camera lens," says historian Kate Williams

Published: Wednesday, 16th May 2018 at 9:27 am

This week, BBC1’s three-part series Gunpowder reaches its dramatic finale. Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and the rest will be discovered by the King’s men and we shall see torture, disembowelling, and shocking bloodshed.


There were howls of horror after the opening episode showed the horrific public torture of a Roman Catholic noblewoman, the fictional Lady Dorothy Dibdale (Sian Webber), and the killing of a priest. asked its readers if the violence was too much; the 3,000 responses were split – with 52 per cent deciding it was acceptable.

As they pointed out, it was a violent time and the programme was prefaced with warnings. And yet the violence at the time was worse. I’ve seen the final episode, and I can tell you that the camera spares us the full horror of public disembowelling and torture.

Fawkes himself was so weak after torture that he could barely sign his confession. He was so physically reduced that he was spared the horrible end of some of his fellow conspirators, who were hanged, taken down when still alive, disembowelled and their genitals cut off and burned in front of them.

Fawkes died while being hanged; the ringleader, Robert Catesby, was shot dead by royalist soldiers. Seventeenth-century England was full of bloodshed.

Kit Harington, who plays Catesby, told RT he wanted to show “a very real, visceral and violent world”. Crowds cheered torture and the hanging of traitors and Catholics had to bear terrible suffering for following their religion. If we deny that, then we fail to understand why Fawkes, Catesby and the rest were driven to such desperation that they planned to blow up Parliament.

Yes, violence on TV and films can be gratuitous. But not in this case. English Catholics were hunted down, refused basic liberties and freedoms, abused and mistreated over the years.

Simply, if you’re going to depict our history, it shouldn’t be watered down. Our past has scenes of beauty and glory, acts of kindness and unselfishness, but there was also cruelty, tyranny, torture and horrific treatment of those who dissented.

Revising history to make it more palatable is at our peril – it can encourage us to be too complacent about our past. Children bandy rhymes about Henry VIII’s beheading of the wives, but seeing Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall standing in terrified silence as the French swordsman stepped over her brought home the horror of her killing.

The Gunpowder period saw brutal violence, and it’s still happening in today’s world – as is torture. Tom Cullen, who plays Fawkes, said that one of his proudest moments as a child was winning a Guy competition and having his guy at the top of the fire – now he has a different view of that nationwide tradition.

We need history in all its bloody reality to comprehend what drove it. This is not bloodshed for entertainment. It happened – and should make us think about what lies behind the burning of the Guy on 5 November. We do history a disservice if we televise it through a rose-tinted camera lens.

By Kate Williams


This article was originally published in November 2017


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