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In my last post, I mentioned that Halloween was quietly replaced in the seventeenth century by Guy Fawkes Night, because it was seen as suffering from the double whammy of being both pagan and catholic. The fake sacrifice on the Samhain bonfires became an effigy of Guy Fawkes, and the night gradually became nothing more than an excuse to let off vast quantities of fireworks. It currently appears to last from the beginning of October till Christmas.

We all know, of course, that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament on the Fifth of November, but the significance of the event is often misunderstood. It’s jokingly said that Guy Fawkes was the only man ever to enter parliament with honest intent, but the result if he’d succeeded would have been a seventeenth century 9/11 that would have had an even more devastating long-term effect.

The Gunpowder Plot was hatched soon after the death of Elizabeth I and the succession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England. Elizabeth had started out quite religiously tolerant for her time, but decades of catholic plots to assassinate her made her somewhat paranoid. The last years of her reign weren’t easy for English catholics, and they hoped for better from James.

James was the son of the catholic Mary Queen of Scots, but his upbringing had been supervised by the calvinist John Knox. In fact, James followed neither, preferring Elizabeth’s brand of moderate protestantism, and a group of catholics, led by Robert Catesby, decided to act.

Most of the group were minor nobility from the midlands – several, in fact, were distantly related to Shakespeare, and it’s not impossible that the after-effects of the Gunpowder Plot may have contributed to his decision to retire to Stratford. They determined to blow up parliament at the next state opening, wiping out the King and most of his family, along with the nobles and leading commoners.

In fact, they had longer to wait than they’d anticipated, since the state opening was postponed several times due to plague in London, before finally being fixed for 5th November 1605. In the meantime, they’d recruited a gunpowder expert, Guy (or Guido) Fawkes, who had been abroad fighting for the catholic Spanish against the protestant Dutch, and large quantities of gunpowder were smuggled into a cellar beneath the houses of parliament.

The plan was that Fawkes would stay till the last minute to light the fuse before joining the rest of the conspirators in the midlands. They, as soon as they had news of the explosion, would raise a rebellion, seizing the Princess Elizabeth, still a child, who would be used as a puppet queen.

The plot was given away by one of the conspirators writing a warning to a friend to stay away from parliament, although it’s never been entirely sure that this wasn’t an inside job. In any case, the cellars were searched, Fawkes was arrested and the rebellion fizzled out, with the conspirators killed or captured. Everyone who survived was hung, drawn and quartered for high treason.

It’s easy at a distance to feel sympathy for the conspirators as underdogs, but the results would have been catastrophic if they’d succeeded. Though a long way from perfect, England was one of the more religiously tolerant and stable countries of the time, but the new regime would have plunged it into extreme persecution and sectarian conflict, probably bringing in the Spanish Inquisition. It would certainly have snuffed out the first tentative stirrings of democracy before they’d begun.

So, ever since, we’ve burnt Guy Fawkes in effigy every Fifth of November, since he was the most visible perpetrator. It was a convenience, but there was probably also genuine relief that the Gunpowder Plot had failed, and this would have certainly have been encouraged by James, who must have thought back uneasily to the assassination of his own father in an explosion.

Guy Fawkes Night is partly a displaced Samhain, partly an excuse to let off fireworks, but it also commemorates a historical event whose importance can’t be overstated. Remember, remember, the Fifth of November…

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