Friday, November 05, 2010

7 Quick Takes: 5th November

Please to remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot.
We know no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

As today is November 5th and I have been reading Gunpowder Plots: a Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Night (various authors) this week, I'm going to make this seven quick Bonfire Night takes:

1. Bonfire Night commemorates the failure in 1605 of a plot by Catholic conspirators to blow up the House of Lords during the opening of parliament, when the King and Queen, their oldest son, and the entire membership of parliament (lords and commons) would have been present.

2. The conspirators hid 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar underneath the House of Lords. Estimates of the amount of gunpowder range from 2,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds, but as Antonia Fraser puts it: "no one has ever disputed that this was more than enough to blow the House of Lords and its wretched denizens sky-high". This was would-be terrorism on a grand scale, which would have killed hundreds (or thousands if the fire spread) and would have wiped out the entire English government in one stroke.

3. Guy Fawkes (or Guido, as he was known after living in Spain for many years) was caught in the act of laying a slow fuse which would have allowed him to time to escape between lighting the fuse and the subsequent explosion. His capture earned him a fame (or infamy?) that has lasted to the present day, and made him one of the best known names in English history. The custom of burning an effigy of "the Guy" on bonfires appeared in the eighteenth century and still continues.

4. The plot was discovered after Lord Monteagle, who had Catholic connections, showed the king's chief minister Robert Cecil a letter he had been sent warning him not to attend the opening of parliament. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that Cecil was aware of the plot from early on, but there is no good historical evidence for this. It is considered likely, however, that Lord Monteagle had been told about the plot, and actually wrote the letter himself as a way of winning favour at court.

5. Perhaps the most unfortunate figure of the whole sorry episode was Henry Garnet, a Catholic priest and leader of the Jesuits in England. Father Garnet became aware of the plot when he was consulted by a priest who heard the confession of one of the conspirators. Horrified by what he heard, he tried to make clear his disapproval of the treason that was being planned, but bound by the seal of confession he could not disclose the plot to the authorities. In the aftermath he was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering.

6. Dramatic as the events were at the time, it is odd on the face of it that "Gunpowder Treason Day" has survived so long as a public celebration, when other equally dramatic events did not (why no Armada Day celebrations, for instance?). In the book David Cressy argues that it has survived because it has adapted to changing political and cultural needs. At various times it has been a celebration of the survival of the Stuart monarchy, a justification of the Church of England, an outlet for anti-Catholicism, a worthy communal celebration, an opportunity to vent political feeling, an excuse for a riot, and an opportunity for boys to play with fireworks.

7. The Yeoman of the Guard (the Queen's ceremonial bodyguard) still carry out a search of the cellars of the Palace of Westminster before the State Opening of Parliament, a duty dating back to the late seventeenth century when there were rumours of a second gunpowder plot.


Jennifer said...

I was going to comment this morning asking you for more info on Bonfire night. From the outside, it seems rather anti-Catholic so I was surprised to hear that it is still celebrated (Not that I'd want the entire English government killed). I was just a little confused. Thanks for all the information.

Lucy said...

We do not celebrate it as we believe it is anti=Catholic. I am glad the plot (if indeed it was ever a viable plot and not a useful device for the government of the day which was never going to be allowed to succeed - lots of conspiracy theories on that one!) did not succeed in murdering lots of people, but to commemorate the awful deaths suffered by those poor foolish men (and the innocent Fr Garnet) by burning a guy seems really offensive to me - the victims saw their own internal organs and genitals burned - and I have complained locally to the council organising a burning of the guy - but they say it is fine.

Theresa said...

Fascinating! Thanks for that clear, concise, and readable history lesson! When does your book come out? I'll take a first edition, please!

The Bookworm said...

Lucy and Jennifer ... one of the articles in the book is very forceful in condemning Bonfire Night for being anti-Catholic, but I think it is more nuanced than that. It has been (and is) anti-Catholic at certain times and places, but taken overall it is less of a theme than you might think.

Lucy ... I'm with you on the guy. I don't like the idea of burning effigies of anyone, nor do I like 17th century methods of punishment. I don't go with the "Cecil as mastermind" theory though. There doesn't seem to be any real evidence for it, just extrapolation - reading an awful lot into very little. I don't have any sympathy whatsoever for the plot or the plotters, and nor did most English Catholics at the time (like Fr Garnet, who knew that it was likely to significantly worsen the position of Catholics in England, besides being plain wrong). It was would-be terrorism on a grand scale which could conceivably have led to a similar number of deaths to 9/11, but would also have wiped out of the entire political leadership of the country.

Like sunshine in the home said...

I meant to write about Bonfire night but haven't had much bloggy time.

I haven't seen a 'Guy' effigy burned for quite a while. You used to see children going door to door asking for 'a penny for the Guy'.

There is something icky about burning effigies. I think one place burned an effigy of Wayne Rooney!

I don't think the celebration of Bonfire Night these days as a whole is anti-catholic (just my opinion) I think it is anti-terrorism and an excuse to set fires and blow up fireworks. Of course, it is clear that 17th century life was very anti-catholic. But I suppose had we been a Catholic country then 17th century life would have been very anti-protestant! :) There was no room for anyone who disagreed with the monarchy for in those days!

I really feel for that poor priest, I didn't know that story.

Why it has survived? I reckon we just secretly like to burn stuff, brings out the primeval instincts or something! :)