Of course, such inaccuracy is, to my mind, completely inline with the whole event. As I’m sure you know, Fawkes, though often wrongly thought of as the principal conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot, was in fact a minor cog in the wheel, more of a mercenary than a mastermind. A man who endured three days of royally sanctioned grotesque torture before yielding the names of his 12 co-conspirators (amongst them the brains behind the operation, the rather less infamous Robert Catesby) only to find that those he spoke of who had not already been killed were already hanging by their ankles in the cell nextdoor. Tsck. Those crazy C17th torturers. What were they like? "We knew all along! We were just playing wiv ya, Guy!"
And so, in view of such oversights and folly, who am I to be a stickler for detail?
Okay, for those of you who don’t know what this whole shebang is about, we’d best go back in time. For those of you who do (or those who really don’t care) you can probably skip this bit. Don’t worry, I’ll give you some sort of sign when it’s over.
- Rolls out flashback device. Picture, if you will, some sort of shimmer effect -
1603 looked like it might herald a new era for the Catholics of England. Since 1570 when the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth I, Catholics in the country had faced an increase in persecution and were left with little option but to conceal their faith. Matters were not helped, of course, by the Spanish Armada in 1588, which served to make Catholicism, seemingly allied to foreign powers, even less agreeable to the English palate. But 1603 saw the passing of the childless Elizabeth I, and she was succeeded by James I, the son of Elizabeth’s archenemy Mary Queen of Scots. In Catholics’ eyes, Elizabeth was never rightly the Queen to start with (as she was the result of Henry VIII’s second marriage to Anne Boleyn, which Catholics deemed to be illegal), and this honour should instead have gone to her closet relative Mary. And so, in their minds, the ascension of the Protestant James to the throne seemed like a return to natural order. And things seemed to bode well; James’ wife had recently converted to Catholicism after all.
The crowning of James did indeed herald a more lenient and accepting climate for Catholics initially. However, as Catholics’ confidence and power increased, so did their visibility and voice, and soon James found himself having to carry out the impossible task of keeping everyone happy (a juggling act he had long been struggling with in Scotland for some time). As a Scotsman ruling over the English, he was already victim to much discontent and slander from the direction of powerful (Protestant) English Lords, and accordingly it was very damaging to be seen as being too sympathetic towards the Catholics. To confound matters, any sympathy James had was eroded by a number of barmy Catholic-led plots against him which were uncovered shortly after he came to power. And so, no doubt despairing at the fact he was getting it from all sides, in January 1604 - less than a year after he came to the throne - James dashed Catholics’ hopes when he denounced the religion and reintroduced many of the measures he had previously lifted.
Presently, in May 1604 a group of Catholics led by the gentleman Robert Catesby formed and began hatching a plan to blow up Parliament House*. The detonation was to take place on State Opening day, when James I, his closet relatives and the majority of England’s government and aristocracy would be present in the Lords Chamber. In March 1605, the group began leasing a storeroom which lay partly beneath the House of Lords, and over the following 9 months they deposited 36 barrels (or around 2 tonnes) of gunpowder in it: some 25 times more gunpowder than that which would have been necessary to do the job, and which would have caused widespread devastation.
It was during this period that one of the number, Guy Fawkes, travelled to Flanders in an attempt to gauge European support for the plot. Fawkes’ trip didn’t go so well: not only was the response decidedly lukewarm, but his movements and questions also caught the attention of English spies, and slowly the trail began leading back to Catesby. A further error of judgement occurred during this period. Catesby, eager to find more people sympathetic to his cause (powerful allies would be needed if all went to plan), recruited his cousin Francis Tresham. Tresham was the brother-in-law of the Catholic peer Lord Monteagle who was due to be present at the House of Lords on that fateful day.
On the 26th of October, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter (widely believed to have been penned by an anxious Tresham, although some suspect Monteagle heard of the plot and penned the letter himself to give credence to his suspicions) ominously warning him to avoid the opening of Parliament. Monteagle, understandably, did not keep quiet about this letter, and so a game of cat and mouse ensued over the next few weeks. Although the plotters had been made aware of the letter by one of Monteagle’s servants, they could detect no indications that it was being taken seriously, or that security was being tightened. This was because Monteagle had passed the letter onto the shrewd and cunning Lord Salisbury, Robert Cecil, the King’s most valued minister, who was waiting until the last possible moment to strike so as to have the best chance of capturing those involved. A search of Westminster just before midnight on the preceeding day of the planned explosion was undertaken, and Guy Fawkes, who had been set the task of igniting the explosives was discovered, his lantern - displayed at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum - in hand, and arrested. Initially, he resolutely refused to confess or betray his accomplices, but ways were found at the Tower of London to make him talk... One needs only examine the difference in the legibility of his handwriting from one day to that of one day later to begin to imagine that which he was put through.
Guy's signature on the 8th November 1605
The eight of the thirteen conspirators who had survived their arrests or subsequent stay in the Tower of London (Tresham died there, supposedly through illness) were put on trial on the 27th of January 1606, and executed on the 30th and 31st (with Fawkes, still so weakened by his torture from some months before having to be carried to the gallows, supposedly begging for the King’s mercy). The preferred method of execution for those committing treason was the rather gruesome punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered (although many were clamouring for an even more excruciating method to be specially devised), and various decomposing body parts of the conspirators were then publicly displayed around London, until the bird population removed the last trace of them.
During his interrogation, Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates, under torture, admitted he had told a priest of his knowledge of the plot during confession, and it is largely believed that Catesby also confessed to the Jesuit priest Henry Garnett, who was later executed due to his claimed association with plot. The Catholic church was now, by proxy, implicated. Resultantly, the actions of a group of men numbering thirteen caused Catholics in what was to become - largely due to James I - the United Kingdom much misfortune. Stigmatised and marginalised for centuries afterwards, Catholics found themselves destined to get the hard of the bargain for sometime to come, not being allowed to vote until 1829 and even facing attempts to blame them for the Fire of London in 1666 (see the west side of Monument onto which the words "the most dreadful Burning of this City; begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction" are inscribed).
Had the Gunpowder Plot been successful though, we’d probably have seen a wave of even greater Catholic persecution – you may have picked up on some telling 9/11 parallels here already – as people sought vengeance against a group they felt needed eradicating before it did any further harm. As it was, the failure of the plot and the shame it brought upon them by association led to Catholics in the country striving to make themselves less visible, which in turn may have led to the Protestant-Catholic issue ever so slowly lessening.
Monteagle came out of it rather well though: as a reward for passing his letter on, he was paid the considerable sum of £700 a year for the rest of his life.
As for the Houses of Parliament, Guy Fawkes’ job was eventually done for him by an overheated stove: on the 16th October 1834, Westminster’s ancient Parliament buildings were largely destroyed by fire (although with no loss of life), hence the extravagantly gothic building that occupies the space now.
As a result of the Gunpowder Plot, today the Houses of Parliament are searched by the Yeomen of the Guard just before the State Opening, although one assumes and hopes this is largely symbolic. This ritual together with tonight’s celebrations are all that mark an event which has now become pretty meaningless to British society. Britain is, I’d say, largely what you might call a post-Christian society now, where age old divisions between Protestants and Catholics are relegated to minorities to pointlessly pursue amongst themselves, and recollections as to why we let off fireworks and burn effigies of some Guy on the 5th of November are either wildly inaccurate or hazy at best.
Naturally though, a staunch Monarchist like myself can’t help but get stuck in…
*There are some who claim that Fawkes and co were framed, and the entire gunpowder plot was down to agents provocateurs, intended to further discredit Catholics and ensure that their lowly position in English society was cemented.
OK!!! The boring history lesson is over!
Late yesterday afternoon I headed to the Holloway Road to stock up on my Arsenal for the evening. For once Holloway Road disappointed (clearly they are nowhere near as Fireworks mad here as their cousins on the Roman Road are, where one finds oneself ushered into the back room of even the most auspicious newsagent to look over their selection of not quite legal fireworks), but nonetheless the wailing ambulances were already out in force, ferrying those who hadn’t been paying attention to all those safety videos you were forced to study back in the day (I could always see the appeal of returning to a firework that had failed to go off, but carrying one in one’s pocket? I never understood that one: surely it’s just uncomfortable?). Examing the display outside of my chosen shop, I was accosted by some youths, of thirteen years or so, who desired that I bought some fireworks on their behalf, a transaction I declined.
"You’s taight mun."
"Beg your pardon?"
"You’s well taight."
"Ah, tight. Well, perhaps, but I’ve spent the best part of the last month fearing for my safety thanks to the likes of you chucking fireworks all over the place," I generalised, "and I’ve no intention of fuelling your errant ways further."
"Quite," I nodded, entering the shop.
Upon selecting my selection, I paid at the counter, and noticed the vendor prudently neglecting to hand over my receipt. Should things take an unfortunately nasty turn, I could prove nothing. Sack full of explosives, I turned and exited the shop, only to find myself surrounded by the small gang of youths from before, who eagerly tried to delve into my bag and pinch themselves a couple of my Whistling Space Probes. Their greedy eyes were for my fireworks only though: naively they hadn’t clocked the piping hot tea which I held in my other hand.
"Unhand those rockets!" I scolded as I scalded. "You look like a bunch of would-be Republicans if ever I saw some anyway. Clear off!"
Such barbarity. I blame the parents, I really do.
Returning home, The Rocket Man found that none of his biscuit tins were big enough to store his purchases (curse those sloppy safety films) and so instead headed onto the roof of Tufnell Park Towers, which affords excellent views of the surrounding environs, together with those of Hampstead, Archway, Highgate, Finsbury Park and beyond, and in turn the multitude of firework displays that were launching into the sky from all around, both near and far.
Presently the flatmates returned home and our evening’s entertainment could begin. After Housemate Reggae had dazzled us with his remarkable Sparkler juggling skills, I began launching my seemingly endless supply of rockets skyward. Cat lover that I am, I must admit I took a little pleasure in the anguish I must have been causing in the Lynne’s eight feline inhabited abode.
For my grand finale, I launched a volley of low flying rockets into the girls' prison nextdoor. Giggling feverishly, and a little afraid that the authorities might be after us, we retired to the roof once more, with cans of strong lager to watch the sparkles and fizzes cracking and glittering across North London.