“Remember, remember the 5th of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night, more widely known as Bonfire Night, where people up and down Britain gather in the frosty blackness of a November night to celebrate the joyous relief of an event that never happened.
The story in a nutshell is this; in 1603 a group of conspirators got together and planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London by stacking barrels of gunpowder in the cellar. The fuse lighter-to be, one Guy or rather “Guido” Fawkes, was caught, tortured and while scheduled to be hung, drawn and quartered, managed to jump to death from the steps of the gallows. Everyone involved was gathered up and a major act of terrorism was averted. Phew!
However, as a few of the juicier details of the foiled plot come to light (no pun intended), it will come as no wonder why over 400 years later people are still marking this day with celebration. Here is what went down, even if you have no interest in history whatsoever most people will be vaguely familiar with this lady, Queen Elizabeth I of England.
For quick recap, she was the daughter of Henry the VIII of England and his second wife Anne Boleyn. Now, I want everyone to take a good look at her and understand three main things of great importance.
1.) This is the very LAST person to exclusively hold the title of Queen of England, from this point onwards the crowns of England and Scotland are joined in the United Kingdoms of Britain and Ireland. The current Queen Elizabeth IS NOT the Queen of England, rather her title is Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and it irks Scots tremendously when she - and any other British monarchs after 1603 – are referred to as such, particularly by news media, politicians and in films.
2.) Henry the VIII ditched the Catholic religion in England to marry Elizabeth’s mother Anne (she is the one who Henry later had beheaded – lovely) thus rendering England a Protestant country. Unlike many other European countries at the time England did not abandon Catholicism on the grounds of a deep theological revolt a la Martin Luther in Germany, rather Henry just want to dump his first wife but the Pope wouldn’t let him.
And finally, 3.) Queen Elizabeth I dies childless (i.e. without and heir).
So say it with me, Queen Elizabeth I was….ENGLISH…..PROTESTANT…..CHILDLESS.
Now, here we have Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin. The two Queens had a long and tense relationship which ended in Mary’s imprisonment and ultimate execution by Elizabeth on the count of high treason. Obviously there is a whole lot more to both Mary and Elizabeth’s lives, realms and interactions with each other but will wrap things up by stating that,
Mary was…SCOTTISH…..CATHOLIC……..HAD A SON ON THE THRONE OF SCOTLAND.
This is Mary’s son James VI of Scotland. He is SCOTTISH….but PROTESTANT…and THE CLOSEST HEIR TO THE THRONE OF ENGLAND.
While James had been on the throne of Scotland since 1566, he did not know if he would definitely gain the crown of England until after Mary’s death in 1603. If you have 3 minutes our ubiquitous voice of Scotland, Neil Oliver can explain way better than I can just how big of a deal this is, if you click right here on James IV Becomes King of England. (Just be sure to click on the reverse arrow to return here.)
If you don’t have 3 minutes James IV of Scotland becomes the FIRST JOINT MONARCH of the UNITED KINGDOMS OF BRITAIN and IRELAND . He was crowned as James VI of Scotland but as James I of England (and Wales) and Ireland. So in this moment the concepts of ”UNITED KINGDOM“, “GREAT BRITAIN” and even soon after the “UNION FLAG” come into being, remember this is 1603. The crowns are joined by peaceful succession NOT conquest.
James I & VI (just the First as far as the English are concerned) is welcomed warmly in England and pledges to relax some of the persecution that the Catholics had suffered under Queen Elizabeth. The Gunpowder Plot comes into being just two years into James’ rule in England in 1605, and the vast majority of accounts of this plot state the main (and only) motivation was along Catholic and Protestant lines.
True, the new King did falter in his balancing act of appeasing the more Puritanical of the Protestants of his court by heating up the trouble with Catholics, particularly at the Hampton Court Conference of January 1604. It was here that he began to openly express hostility towards Catholicism and by February all of the previous priests had been expelled and recusancy fine were reintroduced.
Some folks began to snap.
Here is a very well-known engraving of the conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot. Some had money, some access, some brains but they were all….ENGLISH…..CATHOLIC….and HATED THE NEW KING.
The plot was to wipe out the King and his entire court on the opening of the House of Parliament and install his ten year old daughter Elizabeth on the throne to be dominated by a new Catholic power structure. But as in most big moments in history, the Catholic/ Protestant divide may not have been the whole story.
This clip is just under 6 minutes long but will highlight a totally different dimension of this age old plot. Just click of the BBC Scotland link above to access and don’t forget to hit the reverse arrow to return to this post. If you don’t have viewing time, suffice to say that Neil Oliver puts forth the theory that this plot was nothing short of an attempt at complete ethnic cleansing of Scots in London. (I bet you can find those six minutes now, huh?)
Whatever the motivation be it religious, political, tribal or all of the above, thankfully a serious bloodbath was thwarted. (Except for the conspirators who ended up plenty bloody indeed.) The immediate legacy of the averted crisis was that as the news of the plot spread people were encouraged to light bonfires to celebrate the King’s foiled assassination, and that an Act of Parliament designated the 5th of November as a day to give thanks to “the joyful day of deliverance” from the near disaster.
On the first anniversary of the the plot in 1606, a sermon of thanks was held at the court of King James VI & I (later of the King James Bible fame), that was to become the origins of the “Remember, Remember the 5th of November” nursery rhyme.
Know let’s be honest, whenever anyone hears that rhyme today the immediate trigger is an image Natalie Portman’s shaven head, the above mask and masses of swarming crowds gathering outside the (current) Houses of Parliament. The chilling film “V for Vandetta” came to the screens in 2006 and portrays a masked terrorist combats the totalitarian regime of a futuristic London. This film used this Guy Fawkes riff to great effect, and up until very, very recently the mask of “V” was a bit of a cult movie thang….until the recent Occupy movements began in New York and then in London.
The “V” mask has now been adopted as a symbol of the Occupy London protest in response to what is seen as the new tyranny of the markets and the general lack of accountability of their corporations.
What is particularly eerie is when huge amounts of people wear these masks backwards covering the rear of their heads. Whilst this leaves their faced free for things like breathing and chanting from behind the photos show a just a sea of masks. Very effective in its unnerving visual.
But here is a crucial point, the plot didn’t succeed and “V for Vendetta” is a work of fiction. There has been much debate throughout history as to whether the gunpowder would have worked even if it had been lit, and even then, would it have killed the King and achieved its goal? Well for the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, Richard Hammond of “Top Gear” fame goes on an absolutely AMAZING journey of exploration to answer that question.
Part history, part techie thriller this program (which can be seen in its entirety on YouTube in 8 segments of about 8 – 10 minutes a piece, see above link for the first of the instalments) does an amazing job of researching just what would have been the destructive and subsequently human toll had this plot succeeded. I found this thrilling and humbling to realise this could very easily have been the moment that altered the British History more monumentally than anything else – and was really only just narrowly avoided. Really fantastic information that will shake you up for sure. (Think 9/11 and the French Revolution in a one stop shop)
So for the 405th time since the day the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, join all of us around the country in blasting our skies full or fireworks in commemoration of the blast that never was – whether you are in London,
a village green
or just waving some sparklers in your local park or back garden (safety tip: fleece mittens melt when in close contact to sparks),
Have a Safe & Happy Bonfire Night!