Kit Harrington as Robert Catesby in “Gunpowder”
I like many others, spent this past weekend watching the highly anticipated BBC drama “Gunpowder”, the story of the infamous 1605 plot to blow up King and Parliament by a group of over-zealous Catholics. It was a programme that I had been looking forward to for a very long time, having long had an interest in the Seventeenth Century thanks to my undergraduate work on the Battlefield Archaeology of the English Civil War – but my interest in this era goes beyond the bloody conflict of the 1640’s. Religious persecution was rampant in these times and life itself was incredibly violent – if you were convicted of treason, then you would be condemned to the most brutal death imaginable. If you were convicted of heresy, you would be condemned. Life was brutal. Executions were a public event.
Yet I was surprised to see earlier on, as I was perusing the news, complaints towards the BBC that the programme had been ‘too violent’ and that people couldn’t stomach the gore. Bearing in mind that the programme was on after the 9pm watershed and even had a warning at the start…what on earth did people expect? Life in the Seventeenth Century was kittens and rainbows – all you need to do is pick up a history book on the era to see that. It felt to me as I was reading about the complaints that people wanted to see the story of the Gunpowder plot through rose tinted glasses, to see a version of it that didn’t involve the gruesome executions that were so, so important in both sparking the rising and ending the lives of those who took part.
The execution of Thomas Armstrong. Wikimedia Commons
In this modern day and age it’s easy to distance yourself from the violent way of life that our ancestors lived in. But just a few hundred years ago, public executions were a public spectacle somewhat akin to watching an episode of Eastenders. It was a way of making sure that the populace were aware what would happen if you were caught out as being a criminal – and the very worst methods of death were meted out to those convicted of treachery against the Crown and the Nation.
Hanging, drawing and quartering. The very words are enough to send a shiver down your spine and set your imagination running wild. And it involved precisely what it said on the tin – you would be hung by the neck until almost dead, your internal organs would be drawn out and the body then cut into pieces. One can only imagine the sheer agony that the condemned went through, only to then have their body parts displayed about the land as a warning to others. Yes, it was brutal. Yes, it was gory. But it was the way things were back then. But in my eyes, and in the eyes of other historians, it was done in a way that showed the viewer what life was like back then – it didn’t turn a world full of religious persecution and severe brutality into a pompous costume drama full of romance. Rather it shattered the rose tinted view that so many these days have of the time, introducing them to a world that was much more violent in many ways than the world we live in today.
There are plenty of examples of brutalities from the past – execution by hanging, drawing and quartering is just one of them. What of stories of being broken on the wheel? What of condemned men being boiled alive or sawn in half? We must realise that history is full of such tales and that historical drama series are well within their rights, and wholly justified in showing such violent methods of death. It was the way the things were and we, as viewers, have the right to see authentic depictions of just how the world worked.