The fifth of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Earlier this week we ‘celebrated’ Halloween. As I said then, this is largely imported to these shores from the US, in its current form, although parts of the British Isles do have a tradition going back many hundreds of years. Our real celebration for this week comes tomorrow, when we mark what is known as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, if you prefer. This is such a big night in the UK – still, after all those years, despite predictions of its demise. Understanding of it is perhaps declining, but it marks a momentous event in British history. Bonfires will be lit all over the country, and thousands will attend to watch them and the accompanying firework displays. Why?
As the majority of readers here are based outside the UK it would be presumptuous of me to assume that you would know why we do this. A brief history lesson is in order, perhaps. On 5th November 1605 a man called Guy Fawkes was discovered in the vaults of the House of Lords guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was there to blow the place up during the State Opening of the English Parliament, as part of a plot by Catholics to murder the King – James I of England and VI of Scotland – and install his 9 year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as a Catholic monarch. The details of this are well documented so I won’t bore you with them here, but if you want to know more there is a good article in Wikipedia which draws on a number of authoritative sources to give a full description of the plot and its aftermath, which resulted in trials for those who had not been killed as they tried to make their escape, and subsequent executions by the now barbaric method of hanging, drawing and quartering. Perhaps ironically Guy Fawkes managed to escape this end – weakened by having been tortured during the investigation into the plot he jumped from the gallows and broke his neck. All very gory!
In the following years the foiling of this plot was celebrated on its anniversary by the ringing of church bells, special sermons and the lighting of bonfires, and it became a part of traditional British culture as a result. This tradition included the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes on top of the bonfire, although in recent times there have been occasions when masks of modern political figures have been put on the guy – we may love our democracy but it doesn’t stop us hating the politicians! Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have been popular choices for this in the past, although I’d prefer to see Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage up there this year. When I was growing up it was commonplace to see groups of children on the streets with their guys, asking for a ‘Penny for the guy, mister’ but this is seen much less nowadays. In our current Health and Safety conscious era I guess they are likely to be arrested for begging! All the same this is still a big deal for us – very few in this country weren’t taught the little rhyme at the top of this piece while they were in primary school, although that may have changed since I was there.
These events took place 411 years ago. But there are, sadly, echoes in modern day life: religion as the basis for differences and even violence; a threat to democracy from those who want another form of government and are prepared to go to illegal and destructive ends to attain it. Sound familiar? We don’t learn as much from history as we would like to think, do we? The US Presidential election is four days away, and it is the great fear for the rest of the world that they might elect a man who is so inexperienced in politics that he might be likely to hit the destruct button without realising that his actions have consequences – he hasn’t shown any evidence of understanding this so far in his campaign. But at least he would have been elected by public ballot, rather than by blowing up the seat of democracy. And we here in the UK know how well the public ballot can result in the correct decision, don’t we? Er, maybe not…..does anyone have any dynamite they don’t need? (Only joking. I think) 😉