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n the seventh number of the novel’s periodical publication, Ainsworth has his protagonist Guy Fawkes dramatically prevent Radcliffe from joining the Gunpowder Plot. This plot element might be Ainsworth's oblique allusion to the Test Act, which until 1829 prevented Roman Catholics from serving in government posts, including positions in the universities, because they could not take an oath that implied both that the English monarch was the legitimate head of the Church in England and that crucial Catholic doctrines such as transubstantiation were invalid. In principle, none but those British subjects taking communion in the established Church of England were eligible for public employment, so that the Test Acts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries effectively barred non-Anglicans, whether Catholic or nonconformist, from holding public office.

In fact, no Test Act would have applied to Radcliffe in 1605 and 1606, the novel's nominal setting, since the Act of 1661 did not apply to members of the peerage. However, in 1678 Parliament extended the Act requiring both peers and members of the House of Commons to deny explicitly transubstantiation, invocation of saints, and the sacrament of the Catholic Mass.

The issue of anti-Catholic prejudice and the need for Catholic Emancipation remained a major issue during 1840s, when Ainsworth published the companion novels Guy Fawkes (with a Catholic hero) and The Tower of London (with a Protestant heroine, Lady Jane Grey). At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Daniel O'Connell, the charismatic Irish parliamentarian, lawyer, and orator, had tried to mobilize the Irish Roman Catholic peasantry and middle class to agitate for full emancipation, including full voting and property rights. In 1828, O'Connell in the County Clare by-election had insisted that he would not take his seat until the Conservative government in Westminster abolished the anti-Roman Catholic oath required of members of Parliament. Responding to O'Connell, the new British Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, and Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary and Tory Leader of the House of Commons, passed the Emancipation Act of 1829. All the provisions of the Test Acts themselves, however, were not finally repealed until 1871, and suspicion of Catholics as fifth columnists lingered for decades.

Ainsworth's opening establishes anti-Catholic sentiment and draconian measures against Catholics in England. The novelist reinforces such sentiment from the very first scene, in which the Pursuivant (an official appointed by James's Privy Council to root out recusants, or secret Catholics) and his minions publicly execute two seminary priests in Manchester — an historical fact that daramatizes James I's making the presence of such priests on English soil a capital offence. Even a Protestant nobleman such as Humphrey Chetham falls victim to the legislation for assisting the Catholic aristocrat who assisted the priests, Sir William Ratcliffe. At this point in the plot, the Pursuivant has arrested Chetham and is in pursuit of the Radcliffes, who, in company with Fawkes and his fellow plotters, have fled their ancestral estate.

Although appalled by the public executions, Sir William has very real doubts about the justice of Fawkes's plot, which would result in the deaths of hundreds of legislators, not merely those guilty of ordering the extirpation of Catholic clergy. According to Stephen Carver’s commentary on the novel,

It should also be noted that although Elizabeth-as-Cassandra is precise regarding the failure of the plot, she is ambivalent on the possibility of the restoration of the ‘Old Religion.’ This would be an inflammatory issue in 1840, when anti-Catholic feeling was still running high in the wake of recent and contentious legislation: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and Catholic emancipation.

Fawkes knows of Radcliffe's reservations, and he knows, too, through the prophecies of Elizabeth Orton and St. Winifred that the enterprise is doomed from the outset. Accordingly, were he to acquiesce in Radcliffe's joining the conspiracy, he would be ensuring that Viviana Radcliffe would become a penniless orphan once the Crown has seized all the family assets, including their estates near Manchester, for Sir William's treasonous conduct.


Ainsworth, William Harrison. Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason: An Historical Romance. With 22 illustrations by George Cruikshank. London: Cunningham & Mortimer, 1841 (first edition). Rpt., London: George Routledge & Sons, n. d. [See the text and images of the novel posted in May 2013 at Project Gutenberg Australia's website: .]

Carver, Stephen. "Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes: Tragic Hero, Catholic Martyr". Online version available from Harrison Ainsworth and Friends. Web. 5 November 2016.

Vann, J. Don. "Guy Fawkes in Bentley's Miscellany, January 1840-Noevmber 18401." Victorian Novels in Serial. New York: MLA, 1985. P. 20.

Last modified 28 August 2018