Remember, remember the fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot.
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Most people in Britain have a vague awareness of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, something along the lines of a man called Guy Fawkes was caught in the act of trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and was executed. That it is so vague is down to the fact that the details of the man, the incident and the situation in the country that led to the plot aren’t generally taught and/or discussed. The fact that the incident is given so little detailed attention is in itself suspicious. Over the years my suspicion has deepened to a point where I’m now convinced that the subject has been the victim of a long-running psychological operations (PsyOps) campaign designed to minimise the political lessons of the story. (PsyOps, for those of you who missed that class, have been defined as ‘the planned use of communications to influence human attitudes and behaviour … to create in target groups behaviour, emotions, and attitudes that support the attainment of national objectives…disseminated by face-to-face communication, television, radio or loudspeaker, newspapers, books, magazines and/or posters’.)
An example of the process in connection with the account of the Gunpowder Plot is how in the UK in the 1970’s the 5th of November was still known and referred to as Guy Fawkes night. By the 1990’s the collection by children of money for a straw-filled dummy wheeled around the streets prior to the 5th, the ‘penny for the Guy’, and the burning of the Guy on the bonfire, had been banned and the night no longer called Guy Fawkes Night but referred to by the establishment and media as Bonfire Night. Nowadays the night is called Fireworks Night and public celebrations are often just fireworks demonstrations. Bonfires are discouraged to a point where in recent years in London some people have gathered around a virtual bonfire projected onto a screen.
On hearing the night referred to as anything but Guy Fawkes night I usually object and remind the speaker that the night commemorates an important occasion in British history and the death of a political martyr. As I’ve said in the article ‘Suicide Bombers and the Promise of Heaven?’ I am, very strongly, against the killing of innocent people, non-combatants, in the course of political, ideological, or any other kind of conflict. It is a fact that innocent people, non-combatants, would have been killed had the Gunpowder Plot been successful. That such an attempt was tried, and the socio-political situation that led to it, should not be forgotten though, particularly as it can help us to understand similar events and actions taking place around the world today.
Born in April 1570 Guy Fawkes was the only son of Edward Fawkes, proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and advocate of the consistory court of the Archbishop of York. At around twenty-three years of age he left England for Flanders where he enlisted in the Spanish army under the Archduke Albert of Austria, Fawkes held a post of command when the Spaniards took Calais in 1596 under the orders of King Philip II of Spain. He was described at the time as a man “of excellent good natural parts, very resolute and universally learned”, and was “sought by all the most distinguished in the Archduke’s camp for nobility and virtue”. Tesimond also describes him as “a man of great piety, of exemplary temperance, of mild and chearful demeanour, an enemy of broils and disputes, a faithful friend, and remarkable for his punctual attendance upon religious observance”. His extraordinary fortitude, and his “considerable fame among soldiers”, perhaps acquired through his services under Colonel Bostock at the Battle of Nieuport in 1600 brought him to the attention of Sir William Stanley in charge of the English regiment in Flanders, Hugh Owen and Father William Baldwin. Fawkes severed his connection with the Archduke’s forces on 16 February 1603, when he was granted leave to go to Spain on behalf of Stanley, Owen and Baldwin to “enlighten King Philip II concerning the true position of the Romanists (Catholics) in England. England at that time was a society seething with sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church over matters both political and marital. That break had led to the growth of Protestant power in England, particularly in the cities. The more rural areas of England were less inclined to enjoy the change, and violence followed as first one side, then the other, gained the upper hand. After Henry’s death in 1547, according to historian F.E. Halliday, “There followed a disastrous decade, a violent oscillation impelled by greed and fanaticism, out to an extreme Protestantism and back to a medieval Catholicism. Discord in religion and its exploitation for political ends were now to make the creation of order still more difficult.”
By the time James I ascended to the English throne following Queen Elizabeth’s death, the kingdom was populated by a large minority of Catholics who felt themselves unjustly oppressed, mixed amongst a Protestant majority almost paralysed by fear of Catholic intrigue from within and invasion from without. Unfortunately James’ attitudes only made things worse. James was an aspiring dictator, a man who believed himself to be an all-powerful monarch, justified in his regal splendour by the divine right of kings. “Kings are justly called gods,” he wrote, “for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth.” Like God, he said, kings “make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only.” This belief that he was as a god within his kingdom, accountable to no man or law save himself, was a spark almost certain to set off a social conflagration.
James deliberately antagonised the Catholic minority. A new peace with Catholic Spain may have initially provided a fleeting sense of hope that conditions for Catholics would improve, but that turned out not to be the case. The continuing practice of recusancy, compelling Catholics to attend Protestant services or pay a steep fine, brought about great financial hardship as “farmers and laborers who decidedly preferred the old forms of worship, were deprived of their rites and ministers, and ruined by spies, pursuivants and bad neighbours, who carded off their goods under cover of collecting recusancy fines, till one by one they gave up the struggle and conformed.”
Catholics lived through an ongoing and fluctuating persecution. Priests said Mass secretly at times, more openly at others. For a time it would be dangerous to be a Catholic. At other times, and sometimes in other places, it was a mark of distinction and honor. Embodied in the Penal Code, the persecution was irregular in its working. “It was at no moment … completely enforced…. The degree of its enforcement varied continually in respect to persons, places and times.” wrote the British historian Trevelyan. Catholics, Trevelyan noted, “were made to confine their activity and influence to their own estates, by laws which excluded them from any post in national or local government, and even forbade them to travel five miles from their place of residence without licenses signed by neighbouring magistrates.” Intrigues developed including a radical party, led by the Jesuits, seeking reconversion of the kingdom, by the sword if necessary.
Early on, James had appeased the Catholics by renewing diplomatic ties with Rome. Many Catholics viewed this as a promise of toleration. Maybe the recusancy fines would no longer be collected. Such hopes, however, were dashed and even a group of moderate Catholics, feeling betrayed, hatched a plot to abduct the new king. The plot was relayed to the king by none other than the Jesuit faction in both a betrayal and a stroke of subversive genius. James, thinking as a result that he could trust the Jesuits, did finally implement a plan of toleration in response. Catholicism would be tolerated, so long as Catholics pledged their loyalty to the king and their numbers kept in check.
The Jesuits, for their part, had no intention of declaring their loyalty to the king. But more alarming to the Protestants was the sudden rush of formerly hidden Catholics flocking to services and gatherings that were no longer suppressed. “Whole neighbourhoods were alarmed,” Trevelyan noted, “by great gatherings of Catholic devotees…. James, terrified at the phantoms his first stroke of kingcraft had conjured up,” abruptly reversed course in his policies. “In February 1604 a proclamation appeared ordering all priests to quit the country; in August several were hanged by judges on the circuit, though without instructions from the government; in November the levy of fines from lay recusants was vigorously resumed; in December five men were mining a tunnel from a neighbouring cellar to the wall of Parliament House.”
The Catholic rebellion was hatched by Robert Catesby. Intelligent, industrious, and well educated, Catesby came from a notable family. A distant ancestor had served as councilor to King Richard III. When, with other Catholics, his final hopes for tolerance under James were dashed, he resolved to lead a plot to overthrow the government for good. This would be accomplished beginning with one remarkable act of violence by destroying Parliament and the king in an instant with a gunpowder-fuelled explosion. According to the Gunpowder Plot Society, an historical society dedicated to researching the uprising, “Catesby felt that ‘the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy,’ and that the Plot was a morally justifiable act of self-defence against the oppressive rule of a tyrant.”
Of the co- conspirators Catesby gathered, Trevelyan retrospectively judged that their motives were pure. “They were,” he said, “pure from self-interest and love of power. It is difficult to detect any stain upon their conduct, except the one monstrous illusion that murder is right.” Among the men was one Guy Fawkes who, after serving with other English Catholics in Flanders, was skilled at siege warfare, and how to tunnel safely and accurately. Following his direction, the conspirators began tunneling toward the foundation of Parliament from the cellar of a nearby building.
The rest, as they say, is history, but still worth looking at in detail.
Modern day phraseology would describe Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators as terrorists. There is, however, another view that questions the old, simplistic one. Author Scott Horton notes in Harper’s magazine that, “Today Guy Fawkes is increasingly viewed as the heroic figure prepared to stand against an unjust and oppressive state, as a martyr and a victim of torture.” Dennis Behreandt comments in The New American that, “Until recently, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were viewed with scorn as traitors and criminals. But were they really? We should deplore the means they chose to effect their planned revolution, but we should use care in our criticism of them lest we indict ourselves. After all, less than 200 years after Fawkes, men like George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin did themselves first plot, then carry out, treason against the British king, and their violent revolution brought forth something unprecedented in history: a new nation uniquely conceived in liberty.”
Personally I can’t agree about the ‘conceived in liberty’ bit given the genocide of the American Indian and the condoning of slavery by the Pilgrim Fathers, but that’s beside the point being made here. Others described as terrorists today would consider their actions, as Catesby did, morally justifiable acts of self-defence against oppressive rule. indeed, the situation described by Trevelyan where people “were made to confine their activity and influence to their own estates, by laws which excluded them from any post in national or local government, and even forbade them to travel five miles from their place of residence without licenses signed by neighbouring magistrates” accurately describes the current situation for Palestinians in their own country. I see it as no coincidence then that people in Palestine are reacting in the same way as other “men of great piety, exemplary temperance, mild and chearful demeanour, and punctual attendance upon religious observances”
This thought-provoking article, an excerpt from 9/11 Synthetic Terror by Webster Griffin Tarpley, discusses the Gunpowder Plot in the context of other state-sponsored terrorist actions, and identifies Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators as unwitting patsies in a larger, successful conspiracy.
More people these days will be familiar with what has become an iconographic image over the last couple of years, the of the ‘V for Vendetta’ mask. V for Vendetta, the Wachowski’s screenplay adaptation of the graphic novel written and illustrated by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Set in a near-future Britain under an oppressive right-wing government, the story centres around a mysterious revolutionary called ‘V’ whose identity is concealed behind a Guy Fawkes mask he permanently wears. V’s reaction to the fascist state is to try to waken the population up to their personal responsibility with a series of high-profile actions. I’m not a fan of the Hollywood film production model, and V has its share of cringeworthy Hollywood aspects. These are more than made up for though with some excellent acting from notable British actors, and some inspired dialogue that is spookily relevant today. Below is an example:
As Moore asked in an interview in The Beat:” …What do you, the reader [of the graphic novel], think about this? Which struck me as a properly anarchist solution. I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements, which nevertheless do recur fairly regularly throughout human history.”
If there is one film you should put on your To See list it’s this one. V for Vendetta has been, to my mind, suspiciously under-marketed. This fits, as I see it, with the subtle moves over the years to distance the real story of the Gunpowder Plot from the public’s consciousness, moves I described at the beginning of this article as PsyOps manoeuvres.
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.