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Remember, Remember the 5th November – Gunpowder “Treason” and Not Being All That Bright

November 5, 2013


A few seasonal reflections – inadequately joined up…

“Treason doth never prosper – what’s the reason?
For if it prosper none dare call it treason.”

The idea that the Guy Fawkes mask/face has become identified with subversive people power is somewhat paradoxical.  Whatever the Catesby conspirators were – they weren’t democrats.  Mind you – “thinking things through” was never their strongest suit.

Had everything about this conspiracy “worked”, Catesby’s boys would have masterminded  the most dramatic terrorist attack in history.  As well as killing thousands of people, they would have effectively decapitated England (and much of Scotland).  They would have removed the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government as well as the governors of the state church.  That’s the king, the senior aristocracy, members of parliament, judges and bishops.  You’ve got to give them marks for effort.   Their next step would have been to have proclaimed the young Princess Elizabeth as a Catholic Queen.

Had this best case successful outcome been achieved, they could then have looked forward to a bloody civil war.  Since Catholics were very much outnumbered in England by this time, the result would have been a wholesale massacre of their co-religionists.

As I say, Catesby’s boys do not score highly in the “thinking things through” department.  No wonder that when important English Catholics were sounded out about the plot in advance the unanimous response was “get away from me you loons”.

Now it there’s one thing that doesn’t come naturally to me, it’s praising monarchs.  However, it has to be said that by the standard of early seventeenth-century despots, James I (VI) had a few points in his favour.  He didn’t like fighting very much and kept Britain and Ireland out of the Very Horrible Thirty Years War.  He was a far better patron and friend to Shakespeare than Elizabeth had been.  And, unlike most European rulers at the time, he was not a sadistic religious bigot.  He had quite an ecumenical imagination – believed in theological dialogue with Catholics and was strongly disinclined to set fire to people over small points of doctrinal disagreement.  (Witches were another matter, mind.)

Catesby’s geniuses were therefore committed to killing one of the more reasonable kings in Europe without a very considered sense of how governance was to be reconstructed.  Furthermore, following the plot’s discovery, James went out of his way to prevent pogroms.  He did not want a Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in England and announced that this plot was the work of just a few people and that most Catholics wanted nothing to do with it and should be left unmolested.

The role of Robert Cecil is always interesting of course.  In a sense he was a sort of J. Edgar Hoover figure – always lobbying for a bigger office and more staff.  He had so much to gain personally from the plot that some have suggested that he actually planned the whole thing.  This theory falls apart when you consider that it’s very difficult to bribe people to be tortured to death.  Furthermore, if Cecil had planned everything, he surely would have implicated rather more people, would have ensured that a few prominent enemies of his was sliced up along with the Catesby crowd.   Now what is possible, of course, is that he had heard something in advance but deliberately delayed things until a melodramatic last moment, in order to boost a sense of national crisis and thus anticipate the award of emergency powers.

Catesby himself got himself surrounded with a few pals and went out guns blazing – surely preferable to the old hanging, drawing and quartering.  It is said that Fawkes himself was deft enough to sort of throw himself onto the noose in such a ways as to break his neck and thus spare himself the agonies of some of the others.  What Catesby’s boys did manage to achieve was the creation of a date in the calendar and a ready made argument for discrimination against catholics that lasted around 200 years.  For 200 years, catholics were penalised in Ireland and England and “Catesby” or “Guy Fawkes Night” or “Gunpowder Plot” were the terms used to justify this persecution.

Of course, it was a big part of my childhood.  Much bigger than Halloween.  It was the only date in the calendar deemed suitable for fireworks, and bonfires and certain kinds of food.  Old clothes would be draped around crude mannikins and a shapeless felt had would be procured and for just one day in the year we were allowed to beg for money outside tube stations.

When November the 5th disappears, it will not be because of any ecumenical or secularist wisdom that consigns all potentially sectarian anniversaries to an atavistic scrapheap – it will, rather, be going the way of Opal Fruits and the Marathon Bar.  A holiday so close to the globally marketable Halloween is less than completely efficient from a multinational corporate perspective and streamlined advertising demands the obliteration of purely local celebratory occasions.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reblogged coz tis the season…

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