— VOTF07 Confessions of a Mask

General Remarks

  • The narrator of this chapter is Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators involved in Guy Fawkes’s famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

    Francis Tresham
    Francis Tresham
  • The date given is “ AD 1607”, thus about 500 years have passed since the previous chapter.
    • The significance of this date is that it is not long after the Midland Revolt.
  • The indicated map location is the North Gate of Northampton,  along Kingsthorpe Road. (Technically, this should be a bit further south, about between the “A” and “M” of “NORTH-AMPTON”.)

Section 1

  • “parchment seed-pod” – A complex metaphor. Tresham’s thoughts are likened to loose seeds within a seed-pod which has dried out, causing its texture to resemble parchment. It is perhaps also significant that parchment is a medium for writing.
  • “Summer last or Summer before that” – Given that the chapter heading gives our date as 1607, the summer before last.
  • “Good King James” – James I of England, successor to Elizabeth I, and generally popular.
  • “I wonder, is my father yet alive” – Francis Tresham’s father was Sir Thomas Tresham. It’s curious that Francis would wonder about his father’s state, since his father died in September 1605, before Francis was even involved in the Gunpowder Plot. This seems to be an error on Moore’s part, see below.
  • “Poor Tom, as mad as I” – Alluding to the early 17th-century folkloric madman Tom o’ Bedlam.
    • It’s possible that this is also a deliberate reference to Shakespeare’s King Lear, an early version of which was probably performed before Tresham’s death. For more on Shakespeare, see below.
  • “the queer, three-sided hunting lodge” –
    Rushton Lodge
    Rushton Lodge

    Rushton Triangular Lodge exists, and is much as described here.

  • “a calendar suggested by a certain Bishop (I do not recall his name)” – Most readers will suspect an allusion to the relatively well-known Bishop Ussher, whose Biblically-based chronology of the world was widely accepted. However, this chronology was not published until half a century after the construction of the Lodge and the other events of this chapter. Many other such chronologies have been proposed, however, so the source is presumably some other, unknown Bishop.
  • “Creation was accomplished on a Monday” – Ussher’s chronology started on a Saturday.
  • “great stone wedge of cheese” – This early mention of cheese is foreshadowing.
  • “it juts … into my cobwebbed cerebellum” – Tresham is using “cerebellum” as a poetic word for “skull”, which is evocative,  but inaccurate.
  • “If scheme there be, my present state tends to suggest that I am not considered vital in its outcome” – In Jerusalem, Moore will strongly suggest that there is such a scheme, and that everyone is vital to it.
  • “a crumhorn and a penny whistle” – A crumhorn is a medieval musical instrument in the woodwind family. A penny whistle is a kind of flute. Sadly, while flutes go back to prehistoric times, the term “penny whistle” appears to be a 20th century one; a better choice might have been “flageolet“.
  • “hoisted on our own petard” – A clear reference to “hoist with his own petard“, a phrase invented by William Shakespeare in Hamlet (first performed a few years before Tresham’s death). It means “to fall into one’s own trap”. This is a further suggestion that Tresham may have been a fan of Shakespeare.
  • “Each of us has his sticking place” – Occurring as it does one sentence after a Hamlet reference, we must wonder if this is an allusion to the line from Macbeth: “But screw your courage to the sticking-place,  and we’ll not fail.” Macbeth was probably first performed in 1606, after Tresham’s death. But given that Macbeth was arguably written in direct reaction to the Gunpowder Plot, it seems likely that Moore means this allusion, even if Tresham does not.
  • Aunt Sally” – A game played in parts of Britain where players throw things at a wooden dummy, or, the dummy itself.
  • “my father’s Catholic vision” – Sir Thomas Tresham was a devout Catholic, which was a radical position in the officially-Protestant England of his day.
  • “Fawkes and Winter” – Guy Fawkes was one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, and the one whose name is most remembered today. [Guy Fawkes symbolism is central to Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.] Thomas Winter (or Wintour) was another member of the conspiracy who had several interactions with Tresham.
  • “the gate-house there at Ashby” – The Gatehouse of  the Manor House at Ashby St. Ledgers was a frequent planning location for the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy. That said, there is no evidence that Francis Tresham was ever there.
  • “rotting in the Tower” – The Tower of London had a secondary function as a prison from 1100 to 1952. Francis Tresham was jailed there from November 15, 1605 until his death on December 23.
  • “rising of the lights” – An archaic term for croup, a type of respiratory infection. (I have been able to find no mention of Tresham suffering from croup; Wikipedia claims that, while in the tower, he had an inflamed urinary tract.)
  • gizzard” – In informal usage, a person’s stomach or throat. Given that Tresham is now literally a head on a pike, presumably that pike went through his throat.
  • “Behold ye meek: this prong of iron is all the Earth ye shall inherit.” – A response to the Biblical quotation “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”
  • “curds of brain are crusted around this bone-bowl’s rim” – Curds are, literally, a sort of coagulated milk. But Tresham is (as is his wont) speaking in flowery, metaphorical language, comparing the remnants of brain within his skull to milk encrustation on the rim of a bowl. This is also another bit of cheese imgery foreshadowing, see below.
  • “an older town than this … the feeling of it is the same … torsos” – This is clearly the proto-Northampton featured in chapter two.
  • “a woman’s trunk …  filled with …cunning” – Nusin, from chapter two.
  • “legs and feet” – These include the foot of Boy’s mother in chapter 0ne, and the lamed legs of Olun (chapter two), Alfgiva (chapter five), and Simon de Senlis (chapter six). It might perhaps include Stilts’s stilts from chapter three.
  • “I am set upon a low, flat rock …” – The head worshiped by the Templars in chapter six.
  • “widdershins” – Counterclockwise. The direction is commonly associated with evil magic. (This detail about the direction was not included in chapter six.)
  • “puzzling scent of rancid cheese” – More cheese foreshadowing.
  • “that pouch of ‘is … the Captain” – This is “Captain Pouch”, leader of the 1607 Midland Revolt, who will tell his own story with reasonable accuracy.
  • “his thousand men” – Pouch did lead about a thousand men in the Newton Rebellion, the climax of the Midland Revolt.
  • “his bowels at Oundle and his arse in Thrapston” – Pouch was hung, drawn, and quartered. I have not been able to find confirmation of the disposal of his remains. Oundle is an ancient market town in Northamptonshire, northeast of Northampton, along the River Nene. Thrapston is a town a bit southwest of Oundle.
  • “Barford Bridge” – is located in the town of Kettering, north of Northampton,  west of Oundle and Thrapston.
  • Newton-in-the-Willows” – A small village in Kettering, near Barford Bridge. The last battle of the Midland Revolt was fought there, which may be why Pouch calls it “home”. (Wikipedia says he is “said to be of Desborough”, which is a few villages to the west.)
  • “the weeping trees” – Willows are often referred to poetically as “weeping”.
  • “it was, as near as he was able to determine … the last week of October” – As we shall see below, Pouch is somewhat mistaken.
  • Geddington” – A village just east of Newton.
  • “the cross of the blessed Eleanor” – One of twelve stone crosses erected by King Edward I in memory of his late wife Eleanor of Castile, in the late 13th century.
  • “A serpent nestled in … Eden” – Biblical imagery from the book of Genesis.
  • “seized land” – The main cause of the Midland Revolt was protest over the enclosure of formerly common land.
  • “dovecote” – A building for housing doves. An unusually large d0vecote,
    The Tresham dovecote
    The Tresham dovecote

    with space for thousands of birds, was built on the grounds of the Tresham estate circa 1580, and still stands.

    • The severed heads of Tresham and Pouch now serve doves/pigeons in a much less grand fashion.
  • “St. Faith’s” – Newton‘s parish church.

    St. Faith's Church
    St. Faith’s Church
  • “ghostly monk” – There are local reports of a ghostly, bearded monk in current folklore, though it is unknown how far back these reach.
  • River Ise” – A tributary of the Nene.
  • “nice distinction” – This is the more archaic usage of the word nice as “precise”.
  • “Pentecostal counterpart” – In Christian symbolism, the Holy Ghost is usually represented as a dove.
  • “early in the year my father, Thomas Tresham, had … passed away” – This appears to be an error on Moore’s part. In fact, Thomas Tresham died on September 11, 1605, before Francis was even recruited into the Gunpowder Plot.
  • “‘Remember, remember'” – Though the chapter does not spell it out, this is the famous rhyme commemorating the Gunpowder Plot:
    Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot.
    I know of no reason why gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot.
    While the rhyme is only documented to the 19th century, it has been speculated in other fiction that it is much older. (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman shows it being composed by Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare in November 1610.) It is just barely possible that Tresham’s head could have overheard the rhyme a year earlier, on November 5, 1606.
  • “We’d meet … in my father’s triangular lodge” – While it is possible that there were some sort of preliminary get-togethers in Rushton Hall, the history is clear that, though the conspirators requested the use of Rushton from Tresham, he refused them.
  • “Bob Catesby” – Robert Catesby was the leader of the Gunpowder Plot.
  • Fotheringay Castle” – As described.
  • “Good Queen Mary” – Better known as Mary, Queen of Scots, a devout Catholic. During her life, many English Catholics believed her to have a better claim to the crown than Elizabeth. She was eventually convicted of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. The details given of her execution are accurate.
  • “I fear it was myself” – Tresham’s attempt to assume guilt for the Plot seems implausible, as he was only invited to join it after the plot had been in motion for over a year and a half.
  • Sack” – A type of white wine, often referenced in Shakespeare.
  • “all who placed their faith in Rome” – Catholics. Rome was (usually) the seat of the Catholic church, and the name of the city is sometimes used poetically to stand for the Church.
  • “it is November” – And, though Tresham does not say so, the strong implication is that is the fifth.
  • “I am John Reynolds” – This was Pouch’s original name.
  • “A small piece of green cheese” – This was, indeed, all that was found in the fabled pouch after the Captain’s capture.
  • “grail” – An allusion to the Arthurian Holy Grail. Here, standing as a symbol of the archetypal quest goal.
  • “Catesby rushed into Ashby gate-house” – Catesby, and several other conspirators, did gather at Ashby after Fawkes was arrested. Again, however, there is no evidence that Francis Tresham was there.
  • “The letter I wrote to my brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle” – Lord Monteagle, who was Francis Tresham’s brother-in-law, did receive an anonymous letter warning him to stay away from Parliament.
    The Monteagle letter
    The Monteagle letter

    Monteagle reported this letter to government officials, which led to the Plot’s failure. Francis Tresham is widely suspected of having written this letter, but the matter remains unproven. The letter certainly does not mention Tresham by name, nor that he could be found at Rushton Hall.

  • “eight-week illness in the Tower” – Tresham was in the Tower for 39 days, only six-and-a-half weeks.
  • “Behold! A traitor’s head!” – This was a commonplace saying of fictional executioners by at least the 19th century, possibly earlier. Tales of speaking severed heads abound, but I was not able to locate any connected with the Gunpowder Plot.
  • “Before they sang for us or raised their bonfires to support our effigies, they’d burn a doll to signify His Holiness the Pope” – This is in some ways accurate, but in others very anachronistic. While it is true that November 5 was made a holiday almost immediately after the Gunpowder Plot, the burning of Pope effigies came first, and the strong association with Guy Fawkes only seems to have evolved over a century later. Anti-papist sentiment had not been nearly as strong in England prior to the Gunpowder Plot.
  • “some earlier sacrifice” – This recalls the sacrifice of Boy in chapter one, and the succeeding “pig-boy” sacrifices seen in chapters two and four.
  • “cold, wet coal” – This is symbolically important. Coal is normally a medium for fire. But Tresham’s lack of passion (his ‘masked’ nature) leaves him all wet, and without the visionary fire of his friends.
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