Sunday, 4 November 2012

Remember, Remember

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason,
Should ever be forgot.

Yes, it's Bonfire Night, November 5th, the day when we all light fires and play with fireworks while eating toffee or something similar. It's a centuries-old tradition that dates back to the early years of the seventeenth century, commemorating the successful thwarting of an attempted regicide. It was originally called Gunpowder Treason Day, in commemoration of the event, but these days the anti-Catholic, pro-Monarchist theme has largely been forgotten. I don't know if any Catholics regularly attend bonfires and play with sparklers, though. 

Much of the sixteenth century had seen religious upheaval, of course, beginning with the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The back-and-forth that followed, with Catholicism and Protestantism/Anglicanism vying for supremacy as the official religion of the State  perhaps reached a head under the reign of Elizabeth I, who oversaw the successful defense of England against the threat of a Catholic invasion from Spain in 1588, but who had no successor to ensure the continuance of a Protestant line. Her nearest relative who was suitable was her cousin Mary, the Queen of Scotland. However, Mary was Catholic, so proved to be no good. Living out her life in eternal imprisonment, she was eventually beheaded and her baby son James groomed to take over the throne following the death of Elizabeth. 

He did so in 1603, but having been brought up pro-Protestant (he is the King James whose translation of the Bible is still used to this day), he was not the lenient monarch many Catholics had hoped for to succeed Elizabeth. Enter one Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the plot. Already a veteran dissenter, having rebelled against Elizabeth in 1601, Catesby planned to murder James at the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605, then to crown James' daughter Elizabeth as a pro-Catholic Queen. Catesby and twelve other men, most landowners in the Midlands, plotted all of this in a pub just off the Strand, which I've always thought sounds quite silly really. Bar talk down the Dog and Duck, you know? Maybe that's just me. 

The most famous member of the group was, of course, Guy Fawkes, a Catholic fanatic who had made something of a name for himself fighting in the Spanish Netherlands, which was where he was recruited when Catesby and his cohorts were trying to drum up Spanish support. 

The plot came to light on 26 October, when one of the lords who would be in attendance at the State Opening received a letter warning him to stay away that night. Despite the fact that Catesby knew that the plot had been uncovered, and furthermore that it had been revealed to the King, they all decided to go ahead regardless. A number of searches were made of the Palace of Westminster, beginning on the night of 4 November, when Fawkes was discovered with a large pile of firewood, but he acted the part of a servant, and told the searchers the wood belonged to his master. The search party seemed placated by this, and it was only at the King's insistence that they continued the search. They happened across Fawkes again just after midnight, this time in cloak and spurs, and upon searching him they found matches and a pocketwatch (used to time the fuse). A more thorough search of the area revealed 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to level the palace. The servant excuse wouldn't really work this time...

Fawkes was brought before King James early in the morning of 5 November while his co-conspirators fled the capital, most following Catesby to Dunchurch in Warwickshire, where the Princess Elizabeth was currently residing at nearby Coombe Abbey. Fawkes, who had given his name as "John Johnson", refused to yield under interrogation the names of his cohorts, insisting he had acted alone (though he did say he was from Yorkshire...) However, the day after he was moved to the Tower of London, where James had authorised the use of torture in his interrogation, though it took a further day to get Fawkes to confess all. 

On the run, Catesby and the rest didn't get much support now that the stain of treason-by-association loomed large. They made their last stand at Holbeche House, in Staffordshire, where the Sheriff of Worcester besieged the band. On the morning of 8 November, Catesby died in the ensuing musket-fight, four of the remaining conspirators were arrested and returned to the capital for interrogation at the Tower. Parliament was opened on 9 November, with James using the news of the Plot to his advantage in pressing his belief of the Divine Right of Kings. 

The trials of the conspirators began on 26 January 1606, with Fawkes pleading not guilty due to having been recruited only halfway through the conspiracy. Only one man, Sir Everard Digby, actually stuck to his principle that he wished to kill the King because of the anti-Catholic sentiments in his policies. The executions were carried out on 30 January. The men were tied to hurdles, their heads near the ground, and dragged through the streets of London; stripped and then hanged until unconscious, then castrated, disembowelled (by which point they would be dead of course), then quartered and beheaded. Guy Fawkes managed to jump from the gallows and break his neck, a far quicker way to die, though the full punishment was still served upon him. 

James continued on until 1625, with very few Catholic persecutions marring his reign. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1606 to ensure the day James I survived would be commemorated with religious pomp and fervour, which led to the bonfire culture that has survived up to this day (even if the Act was repealed in the 1850s). Children would make effigies of old rags and newspaper called "guys", which would then be burned in the flames - the word "guy" was used to then denote an oddly-dressed man, and then later, a man in general. 

It strikes me as odd that such a pro-Monarchy tradition can survive so strongly into these jaded times. The excuse for revelry aside, the burning of a bonfire and the sparking of fireworks to celebrate the deliverance of a man who is otherwise unremembered outside of Bible publishing is quite amazing. The idea that celebrating the occasion is anti-Catholic I find to be a bit redundant, if I'm honest. If anyone has ever been to a Bonfire Night party (outside of Lewes) where people have been toasting James, and decrying the lack of any real Catholics to burn, then I shall rescind this statement. But nobody nowadays lights a sparkler and thinks what they would do with it if only the Pope were nearby (you're going to now, aren't you?!) Some people think it's clever to say "Guy Fawkes was the only man to ever enter the Houses of Parliament with good intentions", but I cannot suppress a cringe whenever I hear that. The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt to kill the entire ruling council of Britain and replace it with another governing body. If it had succeeded, it would have been called a coup, maybe a Catholic Revolution. But it would still have been mass-murder, a terrorist act. I see nothing clever in supporting that. Bonfire Night is all about ooh-ing and aah-ing at the pretty lights, having a toffee apple or three, perhaps some baked potatoes, and very little else. 

So get wrapped up, get your sparklers, and go have some fun! But be responsible out there, now!

To James I, the King Who Lived. 

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