Monday, November 06, 2006

Fifth of November

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot ...

Yesterday was Bonfire Night, when bonfires and fireworks mark the anniversary of the failed attempt by Guido (Guy) Fawkes and his fellow Catholic plotters to blow up the Houses of Parliament and its occupants. Appalled by King James I's failure to reverse the policy of Queen Elizabeth I and at least tolerate Catholic worship, they decided to take action and blow up the king along with his government. The ins and outs of the plot, which may or may not have been partly fostered by King James' spymaster Robert Cecil, are still something of a mystery. From the point of view of the beleaguered English Catholic community, the Gunpowder Plot was a disaster. The leader of the English Jesuits, Father Henry Garnet, knew about the plot in advance and tried to prevent it. However, he was bound by the seal of confession and therefore unable to act against the plotters. After the plot was discovered, he was martyred. English Catholics were tarred with the brush of treason and suffered greater persecution than before. A national day of celebration was decreed to mark the failure of the plot.

So what did we do to mark the day. As Catholics, did we - should we? - avoid Bonfire Night celebrations? Er, no ... we went with friends to a firework display at the school in a nearby village, then back to their house for drinks, eats, and the opportunity to let off rockets in their garden. These days many people have no idea of the origins of Bonfire Night, and even those who know that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament have no idea of the religious impetus behind the plot. With one or two rare exceptions (the town of Lewes in Sussex still burns an effigy of the pope on a bonfire) there is absolutely no anti-Catholic sentiment or Protestant triumphalism involved. We just enjoy the fireworks and the tradition of sharing the evening with friends - we have spent Bonfire Night with the same family for the last ten years, and it is one of the highlights of the girls' year. I take the view that it offers an opportunity to remember the tragic history of Catholicism in this country ... that done, we go along and have fun.


Theresa said...

Thank you so much for the history lesson!

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the poem! My sister (the one who went to Manchester U) and I were just trying to remember how it went.