Friday, November 4, 2011

A Penny for the Old Guy




Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

-English folk verse


The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is a fascinating incident in British history. You're probably familiar with the imagery of the Gunpowder Plot--the Guy Fawkes mask, bonfires, effigies, fireworks. In the United States (and perhaps elsewhere), the details of the plot itself are not as commonly known, so I thought I'd provide a brief and woefully inadequate overview of the Plot.

English Catholics had suffered intense legal and social persecution during the rein of Elizabeth I. When James I succeeded her in 1603, Catholics hoped the new monarch would undo these injustices. The son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, James did hold personal views much more tolerant than Elizabeth, but his administration brought about no official changes. Tired of waiting for a Protestant government to grant Catholics relief, Robert Catesby (who had previously taken part in the Essex Rebellion) devised a plan to topple the British establishment. 

Honestly, that mask could be the face of any one of these guys. Except for metro over there
on the left.


Nine seemed much older back then.
Catesby's goal was simple: Obliterate the Protestant English government and install a Catholic head of state. To achieve this goal, he and his co-conspirators planned to detonate a stockpile of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament, November 5, 1605, when the king and the entire House of Lords would be assembled in one room. With the mass assassination accomplished, they planned to install James' daughter, nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth (Not to be confused with Elizabeth I, who was already deceased. Zombie monarchs rarely work out as well as you'd hope.) as a Catholic queen.


Throughout the spring and summer of 1605, the conspirators set the stage for their coup d'├ętat. They leased an undercroft directly below the House of Lords and purchased the gunpowder required to demolish the building above. Catesby delegated responsibility for the explosives to a devout Catholic and military veteran, a gentleman by the name of Fawkes.

Guy Fawkes is the name most commonly associated with the Gunpowder Plot, because it was his arrest and subsequent torture and interrogation that led to the complete unraveling of the conspiracy. Things went bad when William, Baron Monteagle received an anonymous letter on October 26, 1605, warning him not to attend the State Opening of Parliament. An investigation commenced at once to discover the source of the threat. Just after midnight on November 5--only hours before the scheduled State Opening of Parliament--Guy Fawkes was discovered in the undercroft below the House of Lords, in the company of 36 barrels of gunpowder and a fuse.

In the days that followed, Fawkes and his co-conspirators were arrested, tried, and executed for treason. As I noted previously, Catholic emancipation did not take legal effect in England until 1829. Following the Plot, tighter laws were passed to curtail Catholic religious observance and legal rights. In January of 1606, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605. The Act declared November 5 an annual, public day of thanksgiving for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Initially observed with sermons and other boring services leading up to the iconic Bonfire Night festivities, it has since evolved into an excuse to set off fireworks, hang out around a big fire, and drink with friends.

The sinister smile of freedom.
I would be remiss if I did not point out that the Gunpowder Plot conspirators did not wish to create a religiously tolerant England. Rather, they hoped to revert England to a papist state--essentially turning the persecution tables on the Protestant population. Nevertheless, Bonfire Night was observed with decidedly anti-authoritarian tones in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The Guy Fawkes mask has been adopted as a symbol of anti-establishment sentiment thanks to the graphic novel V for Vendetta and its 2006 film adaptation. Most recently, both the hacking group Anonymous and Occupy protesters around the world have donned the mask as a sign of rebellion and group solidarity.

Like all political movements, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 will continue to take on new meanings and interpretations as time passes. For some, the conspirators were regicidal traitors. For others, they were freedom fighters taking a stand against tyranny.

What would have happened if Guy Fawkes had not been arrested in the early morning hours of November fifth? Would the Plot have succeeded in killing James I and everyone inside the House of Lords? Oh, yes.

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