Yes, 'Gunpowder' is violent – that's what happens when religion goes bad

Judging by the first episode, the BBC's Gunpowder offers plenty of dramatic bang for the licence-payer's buck. But this tale of a thwarted 17th-century terrorist outrage has got viewers fizzing with outrage. Even today, when extreme on-screen violence has been normalised (who, after Game of Thrones, is going to be worried by anything at all they see on TV?) the sight of a woman being pressed to death and a man being hanged, drawn and quartered is too much.

The BBC has declined to say how many complaints it received, but Twitter was very active, with one person confessing to vomiting at the blood and gore.

Lady Dorothy Dibdale, played by Sian Webber, was pressed to death in the BBC's 'Gunpowder'.BBC/Kudos

We did not, in fact, see the quartering, though those axe thuds played havoc with our imaginations, but we did see the disembowelling. Should it have been shown?

There are certainly arguments against. Personally, I'm not a fan of graphic violence on screen. I think it can feed demons that are best starved of nourishment, and it can normalise a certain way of dealing with problems: shoot people, stab them or bludgeon them, and they go away. Back to GoT again: I'd have a lot more respect for people who are horrified about the amount of flesh on display if they were half as outraged about films that normalise killing.

But there's one reason I'm basically OK with the violence of Gunpowder. It's because that's the way it was. While Dorothy Dibdale is an invention, it is true that people who refused to plead guilty or not guilty were pressed to death – had huge weights piled on them that crushed and suffocated them. One of them was a Catholic saint, Margaret Clitheroe, who refused to plead when accused of harbouring outlawed priests, because if she were tried her children might be implicated. She died after weights totalling 700 lbs were piled on her. And yes, people were hanged until they were nearly dead, then had their bowels cut out, then had their arms and legs cut off.

But the point isn't just that these things happened: it's that, particularly at this time in our chequered history, they were done by Christians to other Christians – and we need to remember this (and, by the way, not try to weasel out by saying they weren't real Christians). 

During the reign of the Protestant James I and VI (the first James of England and the sixth of Scotland, he united the two countries under one monarchy) the fear of Catholicism was real and to an extent justified. Catholics owed their ultimate allegiance to the Pope, not the King, was the thinking. Pope Pius V had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth in 1570, and from then on England's Protestant rulers were fair game for Catholic conspirators. It was only a few years before that Philip II's Spanish Armada had been fought off; and Bloody Mary's Protestant bonfires were well remembered too. The Catholic clergy who hid in specially-made 'priest holes', some of which can still be seen, might for the most part have been spiritual figures intent on ministering to their frightened flocks, but as far as James's ministers were concerned, they were the enemy within, intent on fomenting rebellion – and as the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament with King and Council inside it shows, they were not always wrong.

Does this justify the torture and the barbarous executions? Of course not – we cannot judge the 17th century by the standards of the 21st. But we should remember, and mourn, the depths to which fear and hatred can drive Christians who believe they are fighting for truth and righteousness. Sometimes we believe we are doing the right thing, and the devil is laughing.

And we should learn from history, too. For Britain today, the enemy within is not Catholic. For all too many, it's Muslims – and the identification of ordinary Muslims with terrorist fanatics is just as corrupting to truth and justice. It makes people stupid, and it makes them cruel. Not just in Britain but in the rest of Europe, and in the US, Muslims are being challenged to prove their loyalty, and the bar is set very high.

And when a government minister, Rory Stewart, can say that British jihadists need to be killed rather than captured and dealt with through the courts, the 17th century seems uncomfortably nearer than we thought.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods