Let us celebrate the one-year anniversary of Early Modern Times with fireworks and a bang! Or, failing that, a potentially explosive whimper. For as the folk-song goes, ‘Remember, remember! / The fifth of November, / The Gunpowder treason and plot; / I know of no reason / Why the Gunpowder treason / Should ever be forgot!’ November 5, also known as Guy Fawkes Day in the UK, is the anniversary of the thwarted Catholic plot to blow up parliament in 1605. Today it is remembered through annual bonfires, burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, and in the anarchist graphic novel / action movie V for Vendetta (as well as the Season 3 opener of the TV program Sherlock and many other references in popular culture); but in the early modern period, it was mythologized as the victory of English Protestantism and of the stuffy, autocratic, and unpleasant King James I as a sort of folk-hero (at least initially). In the eighteenth century, David Hume (who was more successful in his time as historian than philosopher) reflected Scottish Enlightenment principles in his characterization in his History of England of the Gunpowder Conspiracy as ‘containing at once a singular proof both of the strength and weakness of the human mind; its widest departure from morals, and most steady attachment to religious prejudices.’ What, then, actually happened–or rather, didn’t happen, such that it may be the most celebrated non-event in British history?
‘Guy Fawkes and his companions / Did the scheme contrive, / To blow the King and Parliament / All up alive. / Threescore barrels, laid below, / To prove old England’s overthrow. / But, by God’s providence, him they catch, / With a dark lantern, lighting a match!’
After the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, English Catholics were hopeful that their new monarch–her Scottish cousin King James VI of Scotland–would bring Britain back into the papal fold. After all, he had been raised by his devoutly Catholic mother Mary, Queen of Scots (whose death warrant had been (reluctantly?) signed by Elizabeth). And after accession to the throne in 1603, his securing of peace with Spain as well as the conversion of his wife Anne of Denmark to Catholicism were interpreted as signs of his secret Catholicism and at the very least willingness to tolerate Catholics in Great Britain. They were cruelly mistaken, as James’s administration intensified the policy of his predecessor of rooting out and persecuting Jesuits and adherents to the Papal See. Various plots were hatched in their disappointment and rage, including plans to assassinate or kidnap the king (the ransom being parliament’s toleration of the Catholic religion). A band of conspirators led by Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy, including one Guido Fawkes (who had fought in the Netherlands on behalf of Spanish forces), settled on blowing up parliament at its opening session in 1605, thereby killing the king and his son Henry as well as the Lords and Commons. They would set up James’s daughter Elizabeth on the throne–who, it was thought, would be swayed by her mother to favour or at least tolerate Catholics.
One of the Lords, however, was sent a letter warning him not to attend the session, which he then forwarded to the Crown. Moreover, the plot may have already been detected by the extensive spy network set up under Elizabeth and commanded by her (and now James’s) ruthless and capable chief minister, Robert Cecil. In any case, Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar rented by Percy and directly below the House of Lords along with piles of wood, over thirty casks of gunpowder, and matches. Other conspirators were hunted down, and died either during the crackdown (as were Percy and Catesby) or after torture and execution. As Simon Schama colourfully puts it, ‘Fawkes and the rest were hanged very briefly, then, still living, had their hearts cut out and displayed to the appreciative public.’ November 5 became a holiday, English Catholics were not amused, and James was praised as ‘the most great learned and religious king that ever reigned.’
‘A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, / A penn’orth of cheese to choke him, / A pint of beer to wash it down, / And a jolly good fire to burn him. / Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! / Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! / Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!’
Why would Fawkes et al. attempt such a heinous and treasonous deed as blowing up king and parliament? Clearly they were swayed by the ‘fiery rhetoric’ of Catholic priests, and had a ‘burning zeal’ to ‘shake things up’ (to put it mildly) with the rallying cry, ‘power to the Papal!’ Could we imagine what Britain and the world would look like had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded? Agents of Early Modern Times’s Department of Counterfactual Histories have recently travelled to Parallel Universes in which November 5 is celebrated as the day when Catholic Britain was reborn. They report that the Fifth of November is commemorated every year with Percy-parties, performances of the popular musical ‘Kiss Me, Catesby’, flash mobs of people dancing the ‘Fawkes-trot’, and a period of ‘Fawkes-hunting’ using ‘Fawkes-hounds.’ Furthermore, a web-browser was invented on the 400th anniversary of Gunpowder V-day with exclusive web-pages devoted to the destruction of parliament and the victory of the British Papal: Fire-Fawkes.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Fawkesy Studies Program