The Gunpowder Plot and My Uncomfortable Feeling

I know I’m in a minority and that I will also be called a killjoy, but I actually find aspects of Bonfire Night a wee bit sick.

I mean, what exactly are we marking here? What are we celebrating? There are bonfires in Autumn across the globe to get rid of waste- but that isnt the main reason here. That waste burning has been incorporated into an event I am not totally on board with. Guy Fawkes Night.  One reason it is so prominent in our calendar is because James I (VI) insisted on making it a public holiday (and it remained “on the books” until 1859).  Showing his survival and defeat of the plotters.  Only a short jump form there to gloating- but then James was an arrogant, demanding man.

I’m sure we all know about the Gunpowder plot in 1605. A group of (mainly) well to do Catholics set out to overthrow the Protestant led English Parliament and James I (VI). Bear in mind over the previous century whichever of the two lines of Christianity were in power, the others got the short end of the stick – Mary Tudor isn’t called “Bloody Mary” for nothing – and this continued well into the 17th Century and later would have a huge impact on Scottish politics with the Covenanters. It could even be argued that this animosity lead to the English (though all Britain was affected) Civil War. The great thing about history is it is all linked.

Without Henry VIII breaking with Rome this situation may not have occurred, Elizabeth may not have insisted on the Protestant James succeeding her, without Henry VII defeating Richard III at Bosworth we’d have not had the Tudors. If Richard had been successful we would in all likelihood be living in a very different Britain. Different people would have lived and died, different descendents born. The further back we go, the more important individuals become. Removing one person – whose line continued to the present day – from 1485 would wipe out a large chunk of people and replace them with others. One of my ancestors is a 16th century man called Vincent Saxton. If he was never born, thousands of people would not be alive now. He fathered a lot, and they fathered a lot, even if every generation only had 2 children that would mean there are around 2000 people alive today that wouldn’t exist if Vincent was killed before having children or never born at all. And that’s just him, it ignores his own siblings and wife and, well, you get the picture. That I have around 2000 distant cousins out there alone is fascinating to me.

This is how one man or woman can change the world. But lets move away from that tangent and back to the plot.

The plotters came together over a period of time, their goal to over-throw the Protestant regime and replace it with a catholic one recognising the Pope as head. Robert Catesby is very much the instigator of the plot in 1603. Catesby was a fierce Catholic, even going to the lengths of attempting to convince Phillip III of Spain to launch an invasion. Over the course of two years the plot developed and the number of plotters increased. It was in 1604 that Guy Fawkes was brought on board to act as, essentially, the weapons expert in relation to the gun powder. In March 1605 they bought a building that gave them access to the underground beneath Parliament.

The plot was set, Fawkes would light the powder whilst the other plotters kept their distance. It would have all gone off without a hitch… if they were halfway decent plotters. One of the plotters, never revealed, tipped off a member of parliament, Baron Monteagle and on top of that the gunpowder was damp and would not have lit anyway. Fawkes was discovered ready to light the gunpowder and arrested, he held his silence and insisted he worked alone, but the other plotters didn’t sit still after his capture. They raided a local castle for supplies and retreated to Holbeche House near Staffordshire where they held their last stand.

In an ironic twist of fate, Catesby had laid out the damp gunpowder to dry and a spark from the fire ignited it, badly burning Catesby and several others. Shortly after, 200 soldiers descended upon them for their last stand. All but four plotters were killed, the survivors arrested.

But then the really sick part comes- Fawkes is tortured to such an extent he cant even write his own name by the end of it. Defiant to the end he is taken out to be Hanged, Drawn and Quartered (Hanged until unconscious, revived, genitals cut off and burnt, innards removed, then limbs torn off). However, in what is really a bit of a bad ass move Fawkes denies them this justice by taking a leap off the scaffold when being hanged and breaking his neck. The other surviving plotters were Hanged and then simply quartered missing out the vile part.

And so a plot that centred around religious conflict, a vile King (James was a bit of a cockwaffle to be polite to him), poorly thought out planting of powder, a turncoat in the ranks and severe torture all over which version of the same bloody God is the right one. And we celebrate by burning the effigy of a man who went through something no one should ever have to.

Guy Fawkes has long been held as “the last man to enter parliament with honest intentions”. Not sure mass murder, replacing government with a more direct theocracy with the Pope at the top, and lying and deceiving really counts as “honest intentions”. In recent years Fawkes has become a symbol for rebellion, forever leaving a mark on pop culture due to Alan Moores graphic novel “V for Vendetta”. Fawkes was not the same man as the character “V”, even the opening of the movie version gets his death wrong- not sure why they left out the badassery.

I know it’s evolved (much as Christmas has) but I still find celebrating to be a little off putting. What exactly are we marking? The failure of the plot? The execution of Fawkes and the other plotters (who survived the shoot out and were caught)? It is an amazing story we should all remember, but the way in which we do remember it feels a little cruel. Fawkes is neither the hero he is held up to be nor the pantomime villain history has made him.

If we no longer burnt a “Guy” I might be a little less bothered, but Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot are so central to it that we cannot shy away from its direct influence. We can debate around Christmas due to its linkage with many other celebrations, but Guy Fawkes Night is about a very clear incident in English History (Pre Treaty of Union). And much of the secondary celebration involves burning effigies- such as in Sussex they are burning an effigy of Alex Salmond (and have burnt other effigies too- I might not like Cameron, but burning an effigy is a bit off). I feel a little cold toward Guy Fawkes night. Celebrate it if you must, let off fireworks. I love fireworks. But for me, I just feel very uncomfortable about the whole thing.

There is that famous poem:

Remember, remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Read that again, there is something worryingly imperialistic, scarily threatening in there.  Talk of treason- well, if the plotters had not lost, if the powder had exploded, we would see a very different version of the Gunpowder plot.  We would see a heroic over-throw of an evil regime and the plotters as heroes of England.  History is written by the winners.

History is a mess, but something feels- to me at least – very wrong with Guy Fawkes Night. Enjoy it, celebrate if you wish, have firework displays- I’m sure many do so not even thinking of why we do – but knowing the history behind the celebration leaves me feeling uncomfortable. I’m not writing this to be a killjoy or say you shouldn’t celebrate- you should, do so. I’m just saying, that for me personally, I have such mixed emotions regarding the gunpowder Plot and what happened to very real people within it, and the state of the country at the time and everything that would come from this and the ridiculous notion the Stewarts had about the divine right of Kings, that all of this just makes me sad more than celebratory. The plot was a mess, and I don’t think I can look at a burning Guy with anything other than sadness and fear that our country once had the power and ethical stance that torture of Fawkes magnitude was acceptable. It makes me look at other countries that today have similar set ups.

Sparklers are cool though.  Except the whole hand burning thing.

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