November the Fifth has been celebrated with bonfires and fireworks in England every year for four centuries. It celebrates the failure of the attempt of Guy Fawkes and his friends to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 at the moment when the entire government, King James I and his wife and elder children would all be present. The burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes in the back garden or on the public common is the highlight of the annual English bonfire night.
British history books mention this attempt laconically as ‘ Guy Fawkes was the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions,’ but then British humor is notoriously difficult for other English speaking people to understand.
Every British schoolboy and girl for centuries has known the little rhyme that begins the movie V for Vendetta:
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot
I can count on the fingers of a mutilated left hand the number of people I have met in the last, coming up to eighty years, who know the rest of the little song. For the benefit of those who might be interested I shall dump it at the very end of this article.
Now the Catholic explosives expert Guy Fawkes and his Catholic friends had managed to pack 36 barrels of black market gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, that’s about 5000 pounds of gunpowder. If that lot had exploded it would have pulverized everything within forty yards, flattened walls up to a hundred yards and caused structural damage up to five hundred yards from the center. And hundreds of people would have been killed, including the king, his eldest son, the Commons and many nobles. What possible motive could anybody have for doing such a thing? It’s an interesting story that I’ll summarize for those who are interested.
It all started with Henry VIII and his many wives. His first wife was Catherine of Aragon who gave him a daughter, Mary Tudor, in 1516. Mary was pretty, talented, and as Princess of Wales had her own court at Ludlow Castle and was brought up by the Countess of Salisbury, the mother of Cardinal Pole. Note that carefully, Mary was brought up as a devout Catholic.
Catherine of Aragorn had three stillborns and two infants who died early deaths. When she went through menopause after eighteen years of marriage it was clear to Henry that she wasn’t going to give him the male heir he desperately needed. Back at the ranch Henry had become enamored with Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting and petitioned Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage with Catherine so that he could marry Anne. He gave scriptural reasons based on Leviticus, like a lot of other spurious reasons nowadays.
Pope Clement prudently delayed ruling in Henry’s favor because at the time he just happened to be a prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who also just happened to be the nephew of Catherine. After waiting for seven years Henry got what he wanted by breaking entirely with Rome and declaring himself the ‘only supreme head’ of the Church of England, which status Parliament quickly made into law. Since 1534 the English monarchs have been titular heads of the Church of England, the Anglican Church. The state religion became a form of Protestantism. In this country the nearest thing to the Anglican Church is Episcopalianism.
Henry also closed down and confiscated the property and land of all the Catholic religious houses and monasteries, assuming that they would remain faithful to the Pope whatever he said. The thirty richest monasteries were as rich or richer than the wealthiest nobles in the land. This wealth had been acquired over the centuries. People hoping to bribe their way into Heaven had bequeathed to the monasteries much of the land that the monasteries owned. For many lay people the work of monks and nuns was an accepted and normal part of life – few knew anything different. Henry effectively destroyed the power of the organized and endowed Catholic institutions by confiscation. This gave him lots of money to do the things he wanted to do. Two birds with one stone.
Anne Boleyn, for whom all this was started, became pregnant in 1533 and Henry married her secretly to avoid having his son born out of wedlock. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the clerical head of the Anglican Church, Thomas Cranmer, declared that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was null and void, and that the one to Anne was good and lawful.
A word about Thomas Cranmer. He hired Miles Coverdale to publish the ‘Great Bible’ in 1539 at the request of Henry VIII. It was the first Bible in English authorized for use by the public. A copy was given to every parish church and it was chained to the pulpit. A reader was provided also so that the illiterate could hear the Word of God spoken aloud. This was different from the Catholics who were not encouraged to read or know the Bible.
Henry had Parliament pass laws that confirmed the succession through the children of Anne Boleyn. Princess Mary was declared illegitimate since Catherine’s twenty four year marriage had never been lawful.
Anne unfortunately for her gave birth to a baby girl named Elizabeth. Mary who was seventeen was stripped of her rank as Princess of Wales and her helpers were dismissed. Anne continued trying to have a baby boy. She knew that without that her life was at risk.
She lasted three years. Henry was very taken by her with her almost black eyes and six fingers on the left hand and lots of moles in interesting places. We know this because Henry hated writing letters, and very few documents in his own hand survive. However, 17 love letters to Anne remain and are preserved in the Vatican library like so many other interesting documents.
But having a male heir was always top priority to kings. Anne as you probably know was executed later for adultery. As her marriage to the king had been annulled she could not actually have been guilty of adultery, but she had bad karma with logic and law. She was beheaded with a sword instead of an axe because of her slender neck. Very thoughtful of the king who hired an expert swordsman from Calais, France to do the deed with one stroke.
Then Henry married Jane Seymour who gave him the son he needed, Edward in 1537. But Queen Jane died of childbed fever shortly afterwards.
By the time Edward was six Henry had married again, twice. Anne of Cleves was too ugly to last and Catherine Howard was executed for adultery. Then in 1543 Henry was lucky and became the third husband of Catherine Parr who became Queen Consort of Henry and stepmother to Edward and his half sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. This Catherine was very well educated and made sure that Edward knew history, geography and languages that would help him become an efficient monarch. Others taught him fencing, horsemanship and music, all considered kingly activities. It was Catherine’s diplomacy that persuaded Henry to reconcile with his daughters.
Henry eventually died in 1547 and Edward became king Edward VI at age nine. He was a keen supporter of advanced Protestantism until his death from tuberculosis in 1553 when his half sister Mary Tudor quickly became Queen. She married Philip II of Catholic Spain and set about the re-Catholicization of England. This didn’t have to be a difficult task. Much of the population was Catholic or in sympathy with the Catholic way of doing things. But Mary and her advisers set about the return of the old faith by burning heretics. And here again we encounter Thomas Cranmer, one of her many mistakes, this one major.
After Edward VI's death, the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer supported Edward’s cousin Lady Jane Grey of the Tudor family as successor, as the will of Edward VI suggested. She was said to have the finest mind of any female in Europe. She took up residence in the Tower of London as monarchs did. But Mary Tudor managed to scupper her plans. Queen Jane reigned only nine days, the shortest reign of any English monarch. Then Mary took over.
Jane was beheaded at age 16 because she wouldn’t convert to Catholicism. Quite committed compared with some 16 year olds I know today who would change their mind about anything for a new model iPod or a Corvette. Different priorities, different times. Her nine-day reign was followed by that of “Bloody” Mary, who of course immediately tried Cranmer for treason. After a long trial and imprisonment, he was forced to proclaim in writing his error in supporting Protestantism, an act designed to discourage followers of the religion, since he was the cleric in charge.
This retraction did not however excuse him from execution in 1556. Then in public he withdrew his forced confession, and proclaimed the truth of the Protestant faith. He placed his right hand in the fire, the hand with which he had signed his renouncement of his beliefs, and said, "This hath offended!" That hand burned first as he held it in the flames and with that dramatic gesture, the government's hope of quelling the Protestant Reformation was lost. Mary’s advisers however didn’t stop believing in the burning of heretics.
From 1555 to November 1558, when Mary died, an answer to Protestant prayer according to many, 237 men and fifty-two women had been burned at the stake and several hundred Protestants had been sent into exile. Had she lived longer her method might have worked better, we all know of people who have been in power for decades who keep power by fear. But at her death there came a new Protestant regime with her Protestant sister, now Queen Elizabeth, at its head in what became a Golden Age for England, and the history of Mary’s reign was written and published by fervent Protestants who were definitely not her fans.
The famous Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was published with true but horrific details of the torture and burning of various Protestants during the reign of Mary. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were a definite persecuted minority in England, subject to laws levying heavy fines if they refused to attend Protestant churches, oaths which made them traitors to their monarch or the Pope depending on whether they swore or not, and criminals if they harbored the priests needed for their masses and confessions. Even the Mass itself was banned.
With a different government which also considered religion intimately tied into political loyalty, and continuous, vehement verbal attacks on the Pope as a Satan, the climate was one of harsh, often outright bloodthirsty, repression. Simply writing an opinion unfavorable to the Monarch or being a priest could result in your execution.
You might like to compare the climate of the times with what has happened since the 9/11 incident, and how being a Muslim has become disadvantageous in many ways. You hardly ever hear or see the word Muslim without the word terrorist nearby. Now you can get suspicious looks if you have a darkish skin and a black beard. Or even if you are a three year old arriving at an airport and have the same name as a listed terrorist. And the fundamentalist treatment of abortion clinics and the teaching of science is another indication of what happens when religious extremists of any kind get into power. Ignorance and force reign.
Things got worse because in 1568 Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic ruler with a genuine claim to the English throne arrived in England as an exile. Mary made no secret of the fact that she thought that with the help of the northern Catholic English nobility she could set up a monarchy in England. She was under house arrest for 19 years during which many petitions were made to Elizabeth to have her executed for her continuous plotting. Eventually she gave permission and Mary was beheaded in 1587.
Very significant nobles re-converted to Catholicism after Mary’s arrival in England, and when they were ordered to London to explain their actions they raised a rebellion, the Northern Rising of 1569.
This rebellion was crushed by the government. Some 300 or so villages were burned to the ground and fifty northern castles were razed. Almost immediately the situation was made even worse for Catholics by the action of the Pope. In 1570 the papacy issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis, excommunicating Elizabeth and 'freeing' Catholics from her rule. Suddenly, as far as the government was concerned, all Catholics had just been ordered to commit treason, or at least had Papal permission to so do without sinning.
High ranking Catholic clergy left England and began to train priests and clergy in Europe for the possible take over. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign some 450 priestly agents had entered the country from schools in Rome and Spain. Just over 130 were executed on discovery, along with some sixty or so of the people who sheltered them. They died for treason, not their religion, according to the government.
Another thing that raised bad feelings even more was the fact that the Jesuits were taking a stronger and stronger part in the English mission. Priests were bad enough, but knowing that the highly trained and totally fearless storm troopers of the Counter Reformation were in the country made the authorities even more nervous and trigger happy.
Then of course King Philip II of Spain, brother in law of Elizabeth through his marriage to Mary, Henry’s first daughter, thought that his own daughter the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia had a better claim to the throne than Elizabeth, and began work on the Spanish Armada to ensure that Britain would become a Catholic nation again by conquest. He sent a fleet of 125 huge ships carrying 19,000 troops into the Channel to invade England. He also planned that they would ferry across his Army of Flanders, probably the best troops in Europe. That hope was crushed in 1588 by the destruction of the Spanish Armada by the vastly outnumbered English navy with much smaller ships.
Doctor Dee, Elizabeth’s court magician and astrologer was busy raising up a storm to help the more seaworthy English fleet. However it happened there actually was a severe storm that helped the English and hindered the Spaniards. The Protestants of course took it as a sign from God, rather like the early death of Mary Tudor. Everyone assumes that God is on their side you may have noticed. Rather as if you were supposed to have taken sides in a quarrel deep in an ant hill in Australia.
Warnings of what England could have expected if the Armada had succeeded were provided by stories of Catholic atrocities in France, the 10,000 Protestant Huguenots killed around the St. Bartholomew’s massacre for example. The killing of every man, woman and child in the Dutch Protestant town of Naarden by Philip’s envoy the Duke of Alva was another example.
All over Europe too Catholics had assassinated some very highly placed people. The bogey man aspect of Catholicism was pretty clear to the Protestants.
Many British Catholics had gone abroad to Spain and other countries and had joined little groups of malcontents all anxiously plotting for the death of Elizabeth and the induction of a Catholic king on the throne of England.
When Elizabeth died it was James VI of Scotland, a Protestant with a Catholic wife, whose campaigning won the day. He became James I of England and promised total religious tolerance and for a while removed the fines that Catholics needed to pay if they didn’t attend Church of England services. Then a few impatient Catholic clerics organized rebellions that failed and James became less forgiving. This is the James who encouraged the translation of the Bible that we now call the King James Version, KJV of 1611. Many Christians still use it. It was one of the first books I read, and I still love the English of it.
Then it was, apparently that a group of Catholics considered that their only chance to get back a Catholic monarchy was to kidnap the youngest daughter of James, whose children were becoming more numerous and obviously Protestant, and also get rid of the rest of the royal family and government in one go. The youngest daughter would then be put on the throne as a Catholic Queen.
One of the people due to be in Parliament on that November 5th in 1605 was warned by letter not to go. The letter moved on up the command chain and resulted in an inspection of the cellars of Parliament on the day before the meeting. Guy Fawkes was found there, at midnight, fully clothed, booted and spurred as if he was going to do something then make off on a fast horse. He was arrested, and further examination of the area discovered the 36 barrels of gunpowder.
During torture Guy Fawkes disclosed the names of other conspirators who were arrested or killed and those not killed were all tried, hanged, drawn and quartered in January 1606. No ten year delays on trials in those days to benefit lawyers. To be accurate, Guy Fawkes alone was not drawn and quartered. He was in such bad shape that he had to be helped up the ladder to the gallows, and the fall broke his neck, so he didn’t endure the mutilation and torture of the others.
One consequence of this failed attempt was that an Act of Parliament was passed that every year on November 5th there was to be a service in every parish church in England where the congregation would offer thanks for the deliverance of England from the Gunpowder Treason. Attendance at the service would be compulsory. The service of course entered into the Anglican prayer book and was not removed for more than two centuries, until 1859.
The evening itself became an annual occasion of feasting and rejoicing with bonfires and the burning of an effigy of the Pope. After a couple of hundred years the bonfires and explosions got out of hand all over as gangs began to take over the ceremonies and fought over the turf. It became pretty dangerous to be outdoors on November 5th in the evening as gangs of hooligans rolled blazing barrels of tar down main street and smashed the windows of people who didn’t have a light on in honor of the occasion. Remember there was no police force in those days.
When police forces became organized and public safety could be enforced, and a little more religious toleration began to emerge, it was Guy Fawkes who was burned in effigy every Bonfire Night. Only one town in England still burns both Pope and Guy at the same time. When I was a kid children used to set up their scarecrow-like guy leaning up against a wall in the street and petition passers by for “A penny for the Guy.” The accumulated pennies were spent on fireworks at the bonfire in the back yard at home.
Then, after WWII the bureaucrats of the insurance industry began interfering with the celebrations and charging such high premiums that many of the villages where the custom had been followed since 1606 could no longer afford the insurance, and some public celebrations had to be canceled.
According to reports I hear and read, those long established customs are becoming swamped in the much more commercially profitable celebration of an American type Hallowe’en, about which I knew nothing at all until 1970 when I encountered it in Canada. And of course, since New Age yuppies are now prevalent in England as here, a new legend has arisen, that actually the first week of fireworks and disguises in November is the old Celtic fire festival to celebrate the New Year. Funny how what goes around comes around.
Lots of people don’t know anything about the four centuries Guy Fawkes ritual now in the seventy plus years since I touted my ‘Penny for the Guy’ pitch. History changes constantly. Remember that when you talk to your grand-kids in a few years and you realize that they don’t know ANYTHING about what was once so important to you when you were their age. Don’t expect them to understand you.
Catholic apologists had their own version of the story of course. It says that the whole Gunpowder Plot was a sting set up by some of the noblemen who hated Catholicism and was organized to be nipped in the bud at the last minute to prove how evil the Catholics were and how much better England would be without them. Having read about the numerous entrapment sting operations of the FBI and the CIA, I think it’s worth mentioning. Nothing is really new. Inhumane behavior by religious extremists, usually fundamentalists, is the cause of a huge percentage of the current troubles of the world. The Protestants were no better than the Catholics in this regard, though less organized in their persecutions having had centuries fewer to hone their skills.
Just consider for a moment how massive areas of the world today are affected by religion based conflicts between: Hindus and Moslems, Moslems and Christians, Jews and Palestinians, fundamentalists and the facts of science, Muslims and Communists, Christians and Communists, one Christian sect with another, one Muslim sect with another….or maybe even the insistence on ineffective methods of birth control by the Catholics when the world is teetering on the verge of catastrophe because of over population. All based on religious dogma.
And now a current news flash connected to our topic that you can explore if you want to. The present dogma and doctrine loving Pope Benedict issued a document in October designed to make it easier for Anglicans to convert to Catholicism. It’s obviously aimed at those who think that their Church is too liberal and who are uncomfortable with female bishops and gay prelates. Apparently those Anglican priests who are currently married will still be able to remain married if they convert, though Catholic priests are still forbidden to do so.
There is a clear plan set out by which some ‘leaders’ who are Anglican can bring groups into the Papal fold. Tony Blair the former British Prime minister recently converted to Catholicism, though he wasn’t Anglican. This document isn’t for those who really want to do it like Blair. It’s for those who are discontent with where they are and can’t see a clear way out. People who constitutionally prefer to have their thinking done for them will welcome the news.
It’s the first real attempt to deal with such issues since Henry VIII threw out the whole idea of the supremacy of the Pope in 1534 so a mention of it belongs here. Congratulations to Benedict on his acute Machiavellian awareness of divisive actions, group politics and the emotion of discontent. He has thrown a very energetic feral cat among lots of malcontented pigeons. I shall watch the feathers fly with great interest.
Incidentally, since I’m sharing more of myself these latter days…I’m in favor of what Henry VIII did because he did it for a pretty woman, courageously defying the greatest power in the world at the time. The consequences are a different matter and hind sight is 20/20, but the reason for his action has my approval. The only war in history that I favor was the Trojan war because the Greeks and Trojans fought over someone thought to be the most beautiful woman in the world. If men are going to be so stupid as to kill each other over some reason I reckon that a beautiful woman is the best of all the lame excuses. Even if, as in the case of Helen of Troy, she was only twelve years old at the time. Maybe Cleopatra would probably fit in there somewhere too, but I always get her mixed up with Elizabeth Taylor.
And now there is a severe King James I problem for the fundamentalists who believe that the King James Bible is the literal word of God. All of the morons who believe that are also enemies of gay people, and of Jesus who said “Love your neighbor…God is love” and other totally ignored statements. Historians have recently proved that King James I was bisexual at least and had several male lovers from the nobility.
The historical ignoramuses who think that God spoke and wrote Elizabethan English have a problem now. Will they drop using that elegant but inferior translation made at the express order of such a sinner. I am watching those feathers too, with similar interest. Maybe the latest attempt of Republicans to rewrite the ‘liberal’ passages of the Bible will be involved.
Happy Bonfire night on the 5th…even if you don’t do it. Fascinating history is everywhere…if you look.
Here’s the whole song as promised for history buffs who love completion:
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,
'Twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Poor old England to 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!
Hip hip hoorah! Hip hip hoorah!
A penny loaf to feed ol’ Pope,
A farthing cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot 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!