Four hundred and eight years ago today the public in England learned that on the previous night the king’s men had foiled a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament with eighteen hundredweight of gunpowder that had been stashed in the basement and enhanced with timbers and iron bars. The target of the plot was the king and queen who were scheduled to attend a ceremony at the House of Lords on the 5th of November. In all, some thirteen men were arrested and the eight survivors were swiftly tried and executed. The event is commemorated in England as Guy Fawkes Day (or Bonfire Day), because he was the man actually found standing over the barrels of gunpowder.
I thought Slaw readers might be interested in a report of the trial of eight of the conspiritors, including Fawkes, on January 27, 1605. It’s of note that Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney-General at the time, prosecuted the defendants, and the page I’m referring you to has his oration on it. (There are links at the bottom to further aspects of the trial report.) In particular, note the powerful, indeed extravagant language, all tricked out with Latin — translated, note — and the appearance of Logic. (By way of comparison, Shakespeare was in full swing at the time, Measure for Measure having just had its first performance a month earlier.) Below is an excerpt:
Now touching the Offences themselves, they are so exorbitant and transcendent, and aggregated of so many bloody and fearful Crimes, as they cannot be aggravated by any Inference, Argument or Circumstance whatsoever; and that in three respects:
First, Because this Offence is Primæ impressionis, and therefore sine Nomine, without any name which might be adæquatum, sufficient to express it, given by any Legist, that ever made or writ of any Laws. . . .
Secondly, It is, Sine exemplo, beyond all Examples, whether in Fact or Fiction, even of the tragick Poets, who did beat their Wits to represent the most fearful and horrible Murders.
Thirdly, It is, Sine modo, without all measure or stint of Iniquity; like a Mathematical Line, which is, divisibilis in semper divisibilia, infinitely divisible.
It is Treason to imagine or intend the Death of the King, Queen, or Prince.
For Treason is like a Tree whose Root is full of Poison, and lieth secret and hid within the Earth, resembling the Imagination of the Heart of Man, which is so secret as God only knoweth it.
Now the Wisdom of the Law provideth for the blasting and nipping, both of the Leaves, Blossoms, and Buds which proceed from this Root of Treason; either by Words, which are like to Leaves, or by some overt Act, which may be resembled to Buds or Blossoms, before it cometh to such Fruit and Ripeness, as would bring utter Destruction and Desolation upon the whole State. . . .
Improvised explosive devices, spying, terrorism, hasty trials with foregone conclusions, the construction of foreign enemies, forbidden imagining — we’ve been there before, many times of course. It’s sometimes helpful, if more than a trifle depressing, to remind ourselves of that.