We watched V for Vendetta the other night and I though I ought to blog about November 5th when the date comes round. Only, I will hopefully be editing the final pages of my book come that time. So rather like posting about Easter in February, I’m going to post about Bonfire Night today. Long and factually-dubious history, I’m afraid, but really important history. I told you I was getting stuff out of my system.
The first thing to say about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot is that Fawkes was a scapegoat. Robert Catesby was the charismatic mastermind and perhaps a far more interesting character, but he got himself shot before the authorities could touch him. They needed to vilify a living person; someone to be subjected to a very public execution. And Guy Fawkes was the chap who had been caught red-handed in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, surrounded by barrels of gunpowder. His face fitted.
Fortunately, about to be hung, drawn and quartered, Guy leapt off the scaffold and broke his neck, resulting in a gratefully instant death. Phew! His surviving accomplices were not so lucky.
Now, this is a four hundred-year-old failed terrorist plot. Is it relevant to anything today? Well there are two answers to this. The first is that very few revellers attending bonfire parties will be considering what a “joyful day of deliverance” it was when King James escaped assassination – nor are they likely to be burning effigies of the Pope as they did in the early celebrations. But the annual moral panic about the dangers of fireworks has become a tradition in this country; it’s part of what makes us British.
The second answer concerns the usefulness of history. And yes, I think this is a very important period in history which has resonance in our times.
Everything changed on 5/11. Even America changed.
With hindsight, the division of the Christian Church would seem inevitable. Non-conformist ideas were almost bound to spring up here and there. But perhaps more to the point, the Roman Catholic Church was so huge with so much power that sooner or later some monarch or other was going to resent that power and break away.
However, the Tudors really didn’t do the English people any favours. First of all there’s Henry VIII, who might have been a good Catholic had he been able to keep his hose up. But he couldn’t, and we broke away from Rome. Then under his son Edward VI things get a bit more radical. Then of course Mary comes along and starts using Protestants as kindling.
Elizabeth I is the other way inclined and being Queen for forty-five years, at least offered something like stability. Unfortunately, by this time you have very serious sectarian divisions. People on all sides have seen persecution for believing what they believe. Some Protestants are edging towards Puritanism, believing that Elizabeth’s reforms haven’t gone far enough. Many Protestants regard Catholics as traitors. After all, we are spending a fair amount of time at war with Catholic Spain and Ireland, and when Elizabeth was excommunicated, the Pope stated that any Catholic who took her out was absolved from the sin of murder.
Elizabeth dies without any children or surviving siblings in 1603. And the strongest (if not the most logical) candidate for the throne is her cousin three times removed, James VI of Scotland. He is the son of Mary Queen of Scots; the Catholic Queen who attempted to depose Elizabeth as the Queen of England – a threat that Elizabeth had responded to by chopping her head off.
So it’s 1605 and we have James I of England, VI of Scotland on the throne. Shakespeare’s latest is showing at the Globe, Francis Bacon has just published The Proficience and Advancement of Learning and The King James Bible was in the pipeline.
Now James I and VI was famously described as "the wisest fool in Christendom". He stuttered, swore a lot and was open about having male lovers. Generally folks who met or heard him speak thought he was a bit thick. However, he was actually quite bright; may well have been one of the more intelligent and well-educated monarchs we’ve ever had. And I think he may well have had a genuine desire to see peace between the Catholics and Protestants, only to be let down by the people around him.
After all, there was no legal way of practising the Catholic faith in England at that time. A person would be fined for failing to attend the Church of England services and to attend or organise a Catholic Mass could result in imprisonment. All Catholic clergy had been ordered out of England in 1604. Plus you have all the side-effects of being treated as disloyal to your country on account of your religion; Catholics were more like to be stopped and searched, subject to raids on their homes, detained without trial and so on.
But the Gunpowder Plot wasn’t simply a response to persecution. Some Catholics believed that this Protestant malarkey was total heresy and England should be restored to a Catholic country as soon as possible..
So it was that James I was going round in a special padded doublet to protect him from assassin’s knives and there were various plots to force change before Robert Catesby got his band of friends together and planted thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, ready for the King's arrival. And although the gunpower was successfully defused, this was the metaphorical spark that lit a metaphorical fuse which would lead to the world being turned on its head. Metaphorically.
It can’t really be said that the administration exploited the failed terrorist attack for all that it was worth; many Catholics were horrified at what had been planned and James himself conceded that it was the work of an extremist minority. However, life was undoubtedly made more difficult.
The bit most relevant to American readers is that all religious separatists were targeted in the crackdown that followed. Thus it was in the direct aftermath of the Gunpowder plot that a group who later became known as the Pilgrim Fathers decided to clear off out of England. So if it wasn’t for Robert Catesby and the Gunpowder Plot, North America might look very different indeed.
Back in England, within a generation, civil war erupts. Civil war with all its associated horrors; neighbours and family members turned against one another, no household in the country remaining unaffected. Regicide is committed, only by Puritans who accuse James' son, King Charles I, of being a Papist Sympathiser (among other things). Not that the English Civil War was purely about religion by any means, but it was certainly a big part of it.
We get a Republic under Oliver Cromwell who cancels Christmas in 1647, bans dancing, swearing, any form of gambling and take a very dim view of non-religious art and music. But it was not long before the man literally bores himself to death (malarial fever, my arse) and we soon restore the monarchy*.
But we did learn our lesson. For one thing, we put in place what was probably the closest thing to a democratic system of government that existed anywhere else in the world – not recognisable as democracy today, but it was a significant step towards it. And whilst religious Catholics and other non-conformists did not get an easy time from there on in (the last person to be imprisoned for Atheism was convicted as late as 1842), we necessarily developed something like religious pluralism.
After all, the Civil War which everyone had fought believing God to be on their side was rather inconclusive. All these little religious groups sprung up, folks deciding that an entirely different course of action was necessary; thus folks like the Quakers and Methodists and many lesser known, long since declined denominations. And we all lived happily ever after. More or less.
Neither Guy Fawkes nor Robert Catesby or any of the others can be considered heroic, even if folks still joke about wishing to blow up Parliament today. Had they suceeded, it seems unlikely that they could have restored Catholicism in England or gained equal freedoms to worship; more likely the Catholic minority would have been all but wiped out in retaliation.
However, I do think there are important lessons here about religious toleration and the way that we respond to terrorist threats.
* Oliver Cromwell was in fact one of the most interesting people in British history, but he was still a bloody killjoy.