“Remember, remember/ The Fifth of November /Gunpower, Treason and Plot/ I see no reason/ Why gunpowder treason/ Should ever be forgot!”
This traditional comic verse, in progressive modern times sadly forgotten (if they ever knew it) by English children, is four hundred years old. It commemorates a Catholic plot to assassinate King James I of England (and VI of Scotland) with his entire Parliament at the State Opening on 5 November, 1605.
The main plan of the conspirators was to blow up King and Parliament using gunpowder; in the confusion that would surely follow, they would mount a nation-wide Catholic uprising and thus seize power. It is the same rather upsetting story again and again in European history – Protestants ranged against Catholics or vice-versa, murder, mayhem, robbery, plots. What a rent Christianity has had to pay in terms of human lives destroyed, and all in the name of religion.
The offending Catholics were what is called recusants, that is Roman Catholics reduced to hearing the Mass in secret, often hiding priests inside the thick walls of old houses in the North, Midlands and the West Country. That is the origin of the phrase: Priest’s Hole – a tiny chamber hidden away inside a building probably hundreds of years old, with walls sometimes six feet thick. In these cubby-holes lived the pathetic priests, knowing they would be quickly killed if found, such was the animosity shown by those of the Protestant persuasion towards Catholicism.
A group of recusants led by Robert Catesby, was blind enough to see that the only way to gain tolerance for Catholics in Britain was through violence. Not all Catholics felt the same way though, and many disowned the revolutionary conspiracies led by men such as Throckmorton, Ridolfi and Babington.
Politicians were no different in those days than they are now, and it is strongly suggested by some historians that the Gunpowder Plot was in fact planned and orchestrated by none other than the Chief Minister, Robert Cecil, in order to bring maximum discredit to the Catholic cause when it was discovered, as inevitably it would be.
This theory is not so crazy as it sounds: news of the Plot (and a list of the plotters) was brought to Cecil by a Catholic peer – Lord Mounteagle. Whatever connection he had with the Plot, Cecil played a waiting game, having noted the names of all those involved in it. Arrests would be made, estates and properties confiscated, heads would fall, children would be orphaned. Wives would become widows. Everything as per usual.
On the eve of the Opening of Parliament, a Catalan living in London called Guido Faukés (or Guy Fawkes as the English call him) was ‘discovered’ in the massive cellars of the House of Lords, guarding several barrels of gunpowder, and several lines of fuses. Fawkes realised the game was up and surrendered immediately. At the same time other plotters were arrested in the Midlands and the West Country, though not without a brief fight. Courts were hastily summoned, and the plotters sentenced to death for treason. The King and his ministers pretended to be shocked, but that did not prevent Fawkes and the others suffering a traitor’s death, that is hanging, drawing (of intestines and genitals) and quartering.
When the plotters’ suffering was over, and their remains impaled on poles, Catholics across England trembled. They were right to do so, because Parliament stiffened even more the penal laws against them. They were forced to sign an Oath of Allegiance (in effect a denouncement of their form of Christianity), but the new draconic laws were later observed by the once-jubilant Puritans and Anglicans to become weak, and finally discarded.
But a great new tradition which lasts to this day had been created. On November 5 every year, right across Britain, in towns and villages the people burn huge bonfires prepared weeks ahead, explode fireworks, and toss a mannequin made of inflammable rags and wood on to the fire. This is the ‘Guy’, named after the Catalan, who despite extreme torture never confirmed a single name thrown at him as fellow conspirators. “Remember, Remember . . .!”