Of Pirates, Plotters, Coups, and Vendettas

Three books look at 16th-century terrorism, piracy, and medieval intrigue

Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot

By Antonia Fraser

Nan A. Telese/Doubleday

347 pp., $27.95

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

By David Cordingly

Random House

296 pp., $25

To Lie With Lions

By Dorothy Dunnett

Alfred A. Knopf

626 pp., $27

Over the past several years, Antonia Fraser has been producing popular histories about England that have captured the public imagination. Just how popular they are is evidenced by their lengthy stays on the British bestseller lists.

Fraser's latest book to land a coveted spot on these lists is Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, an examination of the most celebrated foiled coup in English history.

During the latter years of the 16th century, as the reign of Elizabeth I drew to a close, English Roman Catholics were subject to increasing persecution. They were barred from office, and fined heavily or even imprisoned for not attending Anglican services, or for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to Elizabeth as head of the church. Their hopes that James VI of Scotland, Elizabeth's presumed heir, would favor them or lessen the burden of persecution, were initially raised by the cagey James. But following his succession in 1603, the grip of prejudice and oppression tightened rather than loosed.

The plot unfolds

Then, in the days preceding the opening of Parliament in November 1605, a group of 13 Catholic gentlemen was found conspiring to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the king and his heirs. Their plan: ignite 36 strategically placed kegs of gunpowder and, in the ensuing chaos, seize power. The traitors were rounded up, tried, and executed, and anti-Catholic sentiment increased, as did the proscriptive laws against them.

"Faith and Treason" is Fraser's study of this historical watershed.

Previously, blame for the plot has been widely spread among key figures of the day, but Fraser maintains that Robert Catesby, a charismatic and well-connected young man, known for his religious fervor, was the instigator.

Though Fraser's evidence appears sound, the reader may remain unconvinced, for the author fails to portray Catesby as a man whose charm and fanaticism could initially outweigh the common prudence of his co-conspirators.

Then too, Fraser's discursive style acts against her, robbing her work of historical authority, even though it makes for easy reading. Equally, the American audience may find her use of English slang occasionally impenetrable. Fraser deals explicitly with the burden of persecution felt by Catholics and the role it played in creating a climate in which such a plot could be conceived.

The author also details the role of women in this world, for they nurtured their own and their families' prohibited piety and were the primary caretakers of outlawed priests.

This was possible, she shows, because under the law, women were non-persons. As such, the authorities tended to disregard both their intelligence and their abilities in the face of challenge or danger.

On the night of Nov. 5, 1605, the English lit bonfires (as they have done ever since) and burned effigies of Guy Fawkes, the conspirator found near the gunpowder, to celebrate the saving of their king and Parliament from conspiracy and anarchy.

Today, this failed plot - which she cites as an early example of modern terrorism - now rarely merits more than a page in modern histories of the period. It is to Fraser's credit that she has again placed the Gunpowder Plot, along with the circumstances contributing to its inception and its terrible aftermath, at the center of history's stage.

Anarchy of a different kind is the subject of David Cordingly's study of pirate life, appropriately titled Under the Black Flag. Cordingly's book grew out of an exhibit on piracy at the National Maritime Museum in London that traced primarily Anglo-American piracy from its early days under Elizabeth I, through its heyday in the 17th century to its waning in the 18th century.

This should be a fascinating book, for its subject has gripped the public imagination since Daniel Defoe wrote "Robinson Crusoe" in 1720. Since then, we've reveled in "Treasure Island" and thrilled as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn led their pirate bands to victory and romance on the screen.

Cordingly takes proper notice of this romanticization of piracy even as he debunks the reality. Like their outlaw counterparts in the Wild West, pirates were often sadistically cruel; they drank excessively and their reigns of terror were short-lived.

Unlike other outlaws, though, pirates were distinctly democratic: They elected their captains, they agreed and signed their own individual "articles of piracy," and they voted upon their choice of prey and prizes.

Regrettably, Cordingly's book suffers from a chronic lack of organization so that it reads as nothing more than a vast collection of pirate case-histories, thrown together higgledy-piggledy.

Admittedly, the facts of Blackbeard's piratical excesses speak for themselves, as does the story of Captain Kidd. Also, Cordingly is careful to explain to the uninitiated the differences between the various seafaring vessels that were used by the pirates - and the English Navy in pursuit of them.

But, for the most part, Cordingly's conclusions are drowned in a sea of undifferentiated details and what should have been a book of enthralling history is sapped of interest by the author's "quantity not quality" approach.

The 15th-century struggle for political and financial hegemony between France, Burgundy, Scotland and Venice forms the backdrop for To Lie with Lions, Dorothy Dunnett's newest work of historical fiction, the sixth in her House of Niccolo sequence.

Rich tapestry of historical fiction

Dunnett's protagonist, now called Nicholas de Fleury, divides his time and considerable talents between fueling international rivalries and funding his personal vendettas against his enemies.

However, it should be said that "historical" rather than "fiction" is the operative word when referring to Dunnett's work, so that Nicholas plays out his plans and schemes amid settings of the most exhaustive and delightful historical accuracy. Because the reader feels a personal stake in Nicholas's fortunes, the unfurling historical tapestry has an immediacy and interest that are often lacking in nonfiction texts about the period.

As ever, Dunnett includes those arenas ignored by most books on the period: Thus Nicholas is found in Iceland during a volcanic eruption, and in Cyprus as Venice tightens its hold on that strategically placed island, as well as in the Tyrol and Bavaria.

But beneath the surface of this historical panorama, the antagonisms have remained the same since Book 1, and their ability to disturb or dismay is lost - several characters are now little more than irritants, and faithful readers may wish Dunnett would dispose of them and get on with the story.

Nicholas's character is proved fine by the love and care he lavishes on his son, and by the fairness with which he protects other children from the consequences of their own folly. But with a wife who is little better than a soap opera ice-vixen, though less interesting, and a plot that locks its hero into a repetitive cycle of vengeance, "To Lie with Lions" lacks the promise of regeneration and victory that keep readers coming back.

Melissa Bennetts lives in England and reviews books for the Monitor.

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