Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Remember, remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.

We still remember the Fifth of November in Britain, even if it's only as an excuse to let off fireworks at any time from the beginning of October to Christmas, but many people know little about the event that sparked it all off.  The popular version is that a man called Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but was discovered at the last minute.  Although we celebrate the failure and burn Fawkes in effigy, there tends to be a sneaking admiration for him whenever politicians are being particularly aggravating.  Guy Fawkes has been described as the only man who ever entered Parliament with honest intention.

In fact, it was a lot more serious than that.  It's been suggested that, had the plot succeeded, it would have been as devastating to 17th century Britain as 9/11.  More so, in fact, as it would have taken out virtually the whole leadership of the country, as well as a lot of innocent bystanders.  And Fawkes wasn't even its instigator.

The plot was formed between a group of Catholic gentry from the Midlands — several were related to Shakespeare through his mother's family, the Ardens.  Under Elizabeth I, who died in 1603, Catholics had been forced to pay fines but had generally been left to get on with their religion, as long as they kept it behind closed doors.  She did become harsher after the Pope ordered that it was the duty of all English Catholics to assassinate her, but there was no wholesale persecution.

Nevertheless, it was far from an ideal situation for them, and many Catholics hoped for better when James VI of Scotland became James I of England.  He was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, but his education had been supervised by the arch-Calvinist John Knox.  In fact, James rejected both extremes, sticking with Elizabeth's middle-of-the-road Church of England.

Early in 1604, a meeting was held between Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour and John Wright, at which Catesby proposed his plan to blow up Parliament on the day the King was due to open it.  In the months that followed, a number of co-conspirators were recruited, including Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido Fawkes, a staunchly Catholic soldier who'd been fighting for the Spanish against the Dutch Protestants.

The plot was put on hold when the expected session of Parliament was postponed several times because of outbreaks of the Plague in London, but by the time the opening approached, on 5th November 1605, the plotters were ready.  The plan was to wipe out the King, his sons, the Privy Council, Lords, Bishops and Common — and, as collateral damage, anyone else who happened to be close by — and simultaneously raise a rebellion in the Midlands.  The rebels would seize James's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, and place her as their puppet on the throne.  Elizabeth was later Queen of Bohemia and known by evocative names like the Winter Queen and the Queen of Hearts; at nine years old, though, she presumably wouldn't have had much of a say.

The popular rebellion was probably nothing but wishful thinking, but the attack on Parliament could well have succeeded.  The problem was that several of the plotters had friends of relatives in Parliament, and one broke ranks and sent a warning to his brother-in-law that I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them.

When news of this came to James, he took it very seriously.  It must have resonated with him — his father had been assassinated by being blown up — and he ordered the cellars to be searched, a tradition still carried out before the State Opening of Parliament, though only as a ceremonial relic.

The plotters had rented a disused undercroft beneath Parliament and built up a large number of barrels of gunpowder there, hidden under piles of firewood.  Fawkes, the gunpowder expert, had stayed to set the fuse before making his escape, while the rest had left London to prepare their rising.  Guy Fawkes was caught waiting to lay his fuse and arrested, while the rebellion fizzled out into a fight at Holbeche House in the West Midlands, at which most of the plotters were either killed or captured.  All the survivors confessed under torture and were hung, drawn and quartered.

There was some backlash against Catholics in the short term, with the Jesuits being generally blamed for the plot, although there's no evidence any Jesuit was directly involved.  In the long run, though, there was no increase of persecution of Catholics — in fact, their lot improved somewhat during James's reign, and he kept out of the Protestant Alliance in the Thirty Years War, although his daughter was centrally involved.

From the first anniversary of the plot, nationwide celebrations were held to give thanks for its failure, and this gradually evolved into lighting bonfires to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, the main public hate-figure, or of the Pope.  This seems to have been a deft hijacking of the fires of Samhain, or Halloween, a few days earlier, at which an effigy of the Summer King was burnt on a bonfire, a possible descendent of an actual human sacrifice (as I discussed in more detail in my post last week).

Fireworks were let off as part of the celebrations from early on — they contain gunpowder, after all — and have now taken over as the main focus of the festival.  Until recently, it was common for children to take their "guy" around before burning it, asking for a penny for the guy, but this seems to have largely died out, and burning effigies in general is less common than it used to be.  Halloween rituals imported (or reimported) from America have largely taken over at this time of year.

It's easy to sympathise with the Gunpowder Plotters as persecuted men who only wanted religious freedom, but this is a naive view.  In modern terms, they were terrorists who were willing to accept any level of slaughter, of the innocent as well as their actual targets, and their objective was certainly not toleration and freedom.  It's probable they'd have treated Protestants a good deal worse than Elizabeth or James had treated them, and they'd almost certainly have snuffed out the early stirrings of parliamentary democracy which, by the end of the century, were to lead to a constitutional monarchy.  History would have been very different if Guy Fawkes had lit that fuse.

Some years ago, I wrote a poem called Guy Fawkes, which appeared in my self-published collection Lessons of History, which looks at him from all angles, from stuffed effigy to terrorist to sacrificial king.  I thought it would be good way to finish this piece.

Guy Fawkes

silly straw-stuffed face
crookedly amiable
cries in silent agony
as stuck-out tongues of fire
gently lick him
asking why
in his innocence
he is falsely condemned

archetypal anarchist
who so nearly carried out
what we dream of in anger
not that we would but
just suppose
and so we burn him now
for letting down our fantasy

king for the day
or a summer maybe
becomes a shield against
fear of age
of non-renewing
and this years hope turns to ash
so that next years hope can grow 
willing sacrifice
the cancer to be cut out
takes on himself
the fears of the world
dug into the soil
hung up on a tree
burnt into the skies
thank God it isnt me

he lives between our dreams
hiding behind our minds
he slips among shadows
of hopes and fears
and triumphs at last
as we feel the pain
of a stuffed nothing 
penny for the guy
penny for your thoughts


  1. Thanks for writing on this :)

    They don't teach us much about the Gunpowder Plot in the US, except that a guy (whose name was Guy) tried to blow up Parliament. I suppose it's unsurprising that there would be a certain amount of revisionism and romanticism about the Gunpowder Plot from some quarters. We sure get that about the Civil War in the US, and it's much more recent. I used to date a guy who had to be reminded from time to time that the US Civil War really WAS about slavery, and this in spite of his being a poly sci major.

    1. There's much the same thing with the English Civil War - there's an old saying that the Royalists were "wrong but romantic" and the Parliamentarians were "right but repulsive".

      Incidentally, the word "guy" meaning a man actually derives from Guy Fawkes. Because of the "penny for the guy" tradition, it was first used to mean an oddly dressed man, then any man.

  2. I remember reading something that was set circa 1800s in the US where the term "guy" was used to describe a man who was gullible or stupid. "I felt like such a guy when he told me it was all a prank" or something like. Also, the concept of being the "fall guy," as in the one who takes the blame for something. This makes sense, given the word's history.

    Funny how in the States, the word guy has become a casual synonym for a (usually younger) man or boy. In fact, it's pretty much replaced use of the word boy for anyone who isn't a little tyke. We talk about teenaged guys now more than teenaged boys (while the word girl still gets used for any woman young enough to be deemed sexually attractive by the media). Strange that the word guy would evolve so.

    Actually, in trying to write fantasy where there is a certain amount of banter and casualness between chums, I've been struggling to find a casual word that young males would use to refer to themselves and one another that isn't guy, bloke, dude or some similarly modern word. I'm not having a lot of luck, but man just feels formal, and boy comes off as too childish.