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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Remember, remember, the 5th of November: Folklore and History


Remember, remember the Fifth of November,the Gunpowder Treason and Plot, 
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent to blow up King and Parliament. 
Three score barrels were laid below to prove old England’s overthrow;By God’s mercy he was catch’d with a dark lantern and lighted match. 
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring. Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King! 
Hip hip hoorah!

This is a pretty well-known poem detailing the events of the Gunpowder Plot,  and remembered every November 5th in England, on Guy Fawkes Day. (There is a second verse to this poem, not as popular these days, that goes into killing and mutilating the Pope. Music and poetry is full of so many forgotten verses like that.) Guy Fawkes day has become a time to have an excuse for some fireworks, a bonfire, and some fun. 

But that's not how it all began.

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by a group of Catholics intent on unseating King James I from the English throne, so that his daughter, Elizabeth, could be put on in his place, and usher in a return to Catholic power in England.

Going back to King Henry VIII, there was a back and forth struggle on whether the state religion would be Anglican or Catholic. And after years of Anglicanism under Elizabeth I and James I, some catholic leaders were eager to revert back. 

So, on the day of the State Opening of Parliament, in 1605, when the nobles and king all came to the House of Lords to have their bit of pomp, outside their lives of pomp, barrels of gunpowder were secreted under the parliament.

36 barrels were placed. It was enough to destroy the House of Lords, at least. So have theorized how much more of the area around would have been destroyed as well, and how many more would have died that day.

George Cruikshank's illustration of Guy Fawkes
published in William Harrison Ainsworth's 1840 novel
Guy Fawkes was the member of the conspiracy tasked to oversee the barrels under the streets. And when information was passed of the threat to parliament and king, a search was made, and Fawkes was caught, sitting on the evidence. 

Fawkes was an English Catholic who had gone on to served Spain as a soldier in war. He returned to England eager to overthrow the government. His efforts led him to join this plot. And that led him to be hung, then drawn and quartered.

The focus on Fawkes seems to come from his being caught in the act, drug from beneath parliament. It must have caught the imagination. Others fled London, and died fighting. 7 others survived to be tried along with Fawkes, and suffered the same fate. 

But Fawkes became the focus, with a holiday, a poem, and a level of praise and infamy that has lasted 4 centuries.

But the audacious plot he was involved in, a massive bomb to wipe out the monarchy and government of a major nation, seems to have gotten the historic blur.
It's like people talking about raping and pillaging. It sounds all old timey. But it means women were raped, people were murdered, homes were burned down, crops destroyed, and valuables and goods stolen. Their is nothing nice, fun, or funny in the term. But it's old timey, so...What the hell!


So consider Fawkes and King James. 

Guy Fawkes was clearly a amazingly pious person. After his mother married a Catholic man, he converted to the faith. And he left the country to fight for the strongest of Catholic nations against Protestant ones. Then he embraced the idea that his homeland needed to be brought back into the True Faith by any mean. The result of this was his agreement to a plan in which the government, the king, the queen, the princes, their servants, and anyone within range would die. It was a holy duty, to kill the Protestant king, and anyone who got in his way.

That is horrific. Magnitude of the slaughter. Not hard to feel how people were stirred to rage at the very idea of this destruction. The assault on the state, to wipe it out, and install a new ruler and a new religion. Not hard to appreciate the horror at how close they were able to get to destroying one's state and leaders. This was a monstrous plan.


But what of James? King James is a piece of work. If you've heard of or read the King James Bible, you know a small bit about this man. He was a very pious and worried man. He faced repeated attempts on his life as king, not just the Gunpowder Plot. And before that, all that back and forth plotting in Scotland, lead to his mother, Mary, being exiled, and his father, Darnley, suffering a suspicious death. He was treated as a pawn, to be shaped to act as a King of Scotland. And then, he was made the English King. 

Through his study of his Protestant faith he was drawn to become increasingly concerned of the threat of the Devil, and witches. He became convinced witches were acting to murder him, and was at one trial of a woman accused of such an attempt. He also personally oversaw the torture of women believed to be witches. In this time he wrote a book on witches for people to use, Daemonologie. It explained witches and advised on the hunting of them. These ideas also made it into his version of the bible, with a change to one passage to say, "Thou shall not suffer a witch." 

As King of England, James was interested in fully joining his Scotland and England. He also wanted to bring peace to England and Spain. Though he still maintained a religious and legal hostility to Catholicism. Still, in 1604, the war between the 2 nations ended. Then the plot came in the following year.

James can be a troubling figure, in how he was drawn into fear and paranoia of witches. His engaging personally in the torture of women is disturbing. His work has gone on to be used to bring a lot of suffering. 

But in the end what Guy Fawkes was doing was not to free England, it was a Mission from God, it was for the sake of God's Will, and that of the Church.


November 5th celebrates an almost successful mass murder and regicide by a group of religious fanatics.


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