Cast your mind back. Back. Little bit further. Good. Elizabethan England. Henry VIII and his split from the church in Rome wasn’t all that long ago. Catholics v Protestants in fanatical ideological struggles (you would be passionate too if your immortal soul was on the line), and the Catholics had definitely got the shitty end of the stick. They had been fiercely persecuted under Elizabeth I, though not without provocation, as a series of plots and attacks – among them the war with Spain – sought to oust her and bring Catholicism back to Britain. The declaration that Catholic Mass was illegal though, predates the Spanish Armada.
When she died in 1603, English Catholics hoped that her successor, James I, would be more forgiving. His mum, after all, was Catholic. They were wrong though (it’s more complicated than that, obviously, but read this to find out more), and a group of 13 men came together under the leadership of Robert Catesby to do something about it. Their plan? Blow up the House of Lords. They’d get James I, a whole bunch of MPs who hated them, maybe even the Prince of Wales too for good measure.
Does this ring any bells? It should. Religion polarising people to such an extent that a fanatical, disaffected group comes together to make a stand – violence their final recourse. It could be modern-day London, Washington, you name it. Then they were conspirators, today they’d be terrorists. But it’s hard not to have some sympathy for their cause.
The conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to pulverise the House of Lords, and stored them in a cellar just under the building. Guy Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting in the Spanish Netherlands in suppression of the Dutch Revolt, was given charge of the explosives. But as the group worked on the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack, including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members even sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th (though this may have been a fake).
The warning letter reached the King, and the King’s forces made plans to stop the conspirators. At midnight on 4 November, 1605, they stormed the cellars and caught Fawkes. Most of the conspirators fled London, trying to enlist support along the way. Several made a stand against the pursuing Sheriff of Worcester and his men at Holbeche House; in the ensuing battle Catesby was one of those shot and killed. At their trial on 27 January 1606, eight of the survivors, including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
The Gunpowder Plot struck a very profound chord for the people of England. In fact, even today, the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called “the State Opening of Parliament”. Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. Nowadays, the Queen and Parliament still observe this tradition. On the very night that the plot was foiled, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. The thwarting of the event was for years commemorated with church services, bell ringing and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire – hence today’s Guy Fawkes Night.
Are we partying in support of Fawkes’ execution or honoring his attempt to do away with the government? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter any more – politics have always been best sanitised by masquerading as a celebration.
In Lewes, fireworks night is a bit darker than at other paces. Bonfire societies parade down the streets in costumes, lighting fireworks, burning crosses and effigies as they go, all under the “no popery” standard. The event’s roots commemorate the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs by Catholics in the 16th century. Now, as well as the Pope and Guy Fawkes, you’ll see tableux and effigies of modern day baddies being burnt – George Bush, Saddam, even John Prescott. It’s an annual day of misrule, the costumes were originally to stop participants being recognised. Of course, while it’s not exactly politically correct, it’s hugely popular. If it does get shut down, it’ll probably because so many people go that Lewes can’t cope, not because we don’t want to see Iranian presidents being chucked on bonfires.
Now watch this, it’s worth it: