Good old Guy Fawkes!

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | November 5, 2019 0


Today Britain joyously celebrates the sectarian evisceration of a War Veteran disillusioned by broken promises. Some would say we need more people like Guido, who was only trying to improve Parliament and the Monarchy as best he could! And anyway, according to at least some historians, this ‘Plot’ was a put-up job, to instill fear into the people and strengthen the hold of the rulers. A frightened populace is an obedient one. Of course that could never happen now…?

This week in this Sceptered Isle they will commemorate on Bonfire Night, the 5th November, the 414th Anniversary of Guy Fawkes and friend’s unsuccessful experiment in direct democracy. Some say Mr. Fawkes and Co. were the last people to enter the Houses of Parliament in Westminster with honest intentions. Certainly the three years discussion on Brexit has reinforced this perception!

Bonfire Night is an annual celebration on the evening of the 5th of November celebrating the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of the 5th of November 1605 in which a number of Catholic conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London, England. It is primarily marked in the United Kingdom where it was compulsory, by Royal Decree, to celebrate the deliverance of the King until 1859.





Remember, remember the fifth of November!

This tasteful commemoration consists of the ritual re-enactment of the burning of Catholics on Bonfire night normally followed by fireworks to remind us that the Gunpowder Plot did not work out greatly to the advantage of the plotters. After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. James I had, after all, had a Catholic mother. Unfortunately, James did not turn out to be more tolerant than Elizabeth and a number of young men, 13 to be exact, decided that violent action was the answer.

A small group took shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby felt that violent action was warranted. Indeed, the thing to do was to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In doing so, they would kill the King, maybe even the Prince of Wales, and the Members of Parliament who were making life difficult for the Catholics. Today these conspirators would be known as extremists, or terrorists.

To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder – and stored them in a cellar, just under the House of Lords. But as the group worked on the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack, including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded hundreds would have died in the blast including the King, his son and heir Henry, his Lords and Bishops. Experts believe that Fawkes had more than 20 times the gunpowder he needed to totally destroy the Westminster Parliament.

Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members even sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th. Was the letter real? The warning letter reached the King, and the King’s forces made plans to stop the conspirators. 4 November 1605 a group of armed men led by a Sir Thomas Knyvett, a Westminster magistrate, was searching the under croft below the House of Lords. They discovered Guy Fawkes and 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Lewes Bonfire, Guy Fawkes Effigy

Lewes Bonfire, Guy Fawkes Effigy

It’s unclear if the conspirators would ever have been able to pull off their plan to blow up the Parliament even if they had not been betrayed. Some have suggested that the gunpowder itself was so old as to be useless. Since Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators got caught before trying to ignite the powder, we’ll never know for certain.

Even for the period which was notoriously unstable, the Gunpowder Plot struck a very profound chord for the people of England. In fact, even today, the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called “the State Opening of Parliament”. Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. Nowadays, the Queen and Parliament still observe this tradition. On the very night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night. The event is commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Lewes Bonfire Night, procession of the Martyr’s Crosses. Part of the Bonfire Night celebrations on the 5th November in Lewes, Sussex. The burning crosses commemorate the 17 Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in the town during the Marian persecutions of 1555–1557.

The origins of Guy Fawkes’ Night lay partly in the conscious inculcation of a set of approved patriotic demonstrations that would wed the English populace more closely to the Crown, to the Protestant religion, and to their self-notion of themselves as a free island people in constant danger of envelopment from the Catholic continent, their foreign enemies abetted by a Fifth Column of traitorous home-grown Papists. guy fawkes bonfire night gunpowder plot

Bell-ringing, torch-lit parading and the reading of pedagogical sermons was officially sanctioned to root the new customs into the popular consciousness, and pastors dwelt in length on the symbolic universalism of the Plot, not merely an attempt on the life of a King but a threat to the nation as a whole – a conspiracy of such diabolical comprehensiveness that no level of hyperbole could be unfairly reached, as Francis Herring showed in 1610.

“The quintessence of Satan’s policy, the furthest reach of human stain and malice and cruelty, not to be paralleled among the savage Turks, the barbarous Indians, nor, as I am persuaded, among the more brutish cannibals.”

The Gunpowder Plot was retroactively associated with the defence of England against the Spanish Armada in 1588, and as other examples of Catholic mendacity came forth so these too became elements in the celebratory mix. The thwarting of the Popish Plot and the successful carrying out of the Glorious Revolution added more proof of God’s peculiar favour towards his chosen people, as first evidenced by his staying of the assassin’s hand in 1605. At its best, Gunpowder Treason Day became a nationalising cement that helped to create common cultural associations between the English regions; at its worst, it countenanced the kind of sectarian ugliness that burst forth in the Gordon Riots and can still be seen in the worst of the Ulster Unionists’ Orange Lodge ceremonies.


Some of the English have been known to wonder, in a tongue in cheek kind of way, whether they are celebrating Fawkes’ execution or honouring his attempt to do away with the government! On 31 January 1606, Fawkes and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were tried in Westminster Hall. After being found guilty, they were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster and St Paul’s Yard, where they were hanged, drawn and quartered.


King James the VI of Scotland and King James the I of England – Not a fun guy and hard on Catholics and witches

The foiling of the plot had been expertly engineered by James I’s spymaster, Robert Cecil. Fawkes was subjected to various tortures, including the rack. Torture was technically illegal, and James I was personally required to give a licence for Fawkes to endure its ravages.

“The fearful abounding, at this time and in this country of these detestable slaves of the devil, the witches (…) hath moved me to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine (…) to resolve the doubting (…) both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished.”

While just the threat of torture was enough to break the resolve of many, Fawkes withstood two days of the most terrible pain before he confessed all. Famously, his signature on his confession was that of a shattered and broken man, the ill-formed letters telling the story of a someone who was barely able to hold a quill. His fortitude throughout had impressed James I, who said he admired Fawkes’ “Roman resolution”.

It is perhaps surprising that Guy Fawkes and not the charismatic ring-leader Robert Catesby is remembered, but it was Fawkes who was caught red-handed under the Houses of Parliament, Fawkes who refused to speak under torture, and Fawkes who was publicly executed. Catesby, by contrast, was killed evading capture and was never tried.Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death – to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’. In the event, he jumped from the gallows, breaking his own neck and thereby avoiding the horror of being cut down while still alive, having his testicles cut off and his stomach opened and his guts spilled before his eyes. His lifeless body was hacked into quarters and his remains sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others. guyfawkesbonfire-night

For aficionados of such things, hanging, drawing and was in a league of its own in what the U.S Constitution calls “cruel and unusual punishment; Until 1814, the full punishment for the crime of treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in that the condemned prisoner would be:

1. Dragged on a hurdle (a wooden frame) to the place of execution. (This is one possible meaning of drawn.)
2. Hanged by the neck for a short time or until almost dead (hanged).
3. Disemboweled and emasculated and the genitalia and entrails burned before the condemned’s eyes.
4. The body divided into four parts, then Beheaded (quartered).

Typically, the resulting five parts (i.e. the four quarters of the body and the head) were gibbeted (put on public display) in different parts of the city, town, or, in famous cases, in the country, to deter would-be traitors who had not seen the execution.

Traitors being taught a lesson

Even in the unstable times and despite the many conspiracy theories suggesting Guy Fawkes was framed the Plot was a shock and impacted on the popular imagination as can be seen from the popular rhymes still extant.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Or this more robust number is truer to the original Anti-Popery of Bonfire Night celebrations.

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A fagot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah

In these days of diversity and inclusion it serves to remind us of a certain institutional prejudice on the part of the British state. The Statute Law of England, in the Act of the Williamite Succession, describes the Pope as “An Anti-Christ and Object of Perdition” – In this of course it is repeating the words of the same King Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up along with his parliament, James VI of Scotland and I of England in his preamble to the official bible of the Church of England, the “King James” Bible. His mummy, Mary Queen of Scots, would have been very cross with him if she had not been beheaded by his predecessor, Elizabeth I.

The Pope being carried to his just deserts on the bonfire at Lewes, Sussex

More seriously, the same act prohibits both the Sovereign or their Consort from being Catholic or the heir to the throne and their Consort. It goes further and says that neither the Sovereign’s First and Second Lords of the Treasury (namely the Prime Minister and The Chancellor of the Exchequer) nor The Lord Chancellor (The head of the English legal system and successor in office of Sir Thomas More) can be Catholics thus institutionalising sectarianism at the very centre of the British state and legitimising the somewhat snide anti-Catholicism still fashionable in some quarters. They of course can be any other religion or indeed none but they cannot be Catholics.

It is not, one suspects that the Royal Family particularly identifies with this sectarianism. The Queen has shown herself immune to such instincts over the years meeting with Popes on several occasions, her husband was reared as Greek Orthodox and his mother became an Orthodox nun, Prince Charles has often signaled that he feels he has a wider brief than as a defender of the State Church of England and a senior member of the family, the widely admired Katherine Kent, has converted to Catholicism with no signs of family disapproval.

Their Non-Catholic Majesties

So where is the agenda for maintaining this sectarianism at the heart of the British state? I suspect there is no agenda here and it is a bit like the embarrassing drunken uncle at the family wedding, all are agreed it needs to be evicted but are not sure how it should be done.

So next week another Sovereign will arise in the Houses of Parliament, but not before the Serjeant at Arms and his men have searched the basement, and she will deliver the programme of “Her Government” for the next year, The Queens Speech. Whilst delivered by the Queen it is somewhat misnamed as it is written by “Her Prime Minister”. So perhaps that son of the manse, Gordon Brown, will take this opportunity to remove this unpalatable anomaly from the heart of the British Constitution and give a clear lead on diversity and inclusion, two highly fashionable causes close to the heart of New Labour. I suspect as the Queen delivers the lines abolishing The Act of Succession with her famous deadpan delivery she will give a wry smile and be relieved that this embarrassing uncle, who is well past his sell by date, is being removed from the proceedings, never to return. It can only lead to better humour all round.

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