Guy Fawkes Night: Who, what, when, where, and why

November 5 is Guy Fawkes Night, when people across most of Britain (we’ll get into the most part eventually) light bonfires and burn a long-dead Catholic plotter in effigy.

The only time I went to a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, all we burned were some potatoes (and we did’t burn them well enough, if memory serves), but we did at least light a fair-size fire. In other places, they go all out, shooting off fireworks, tossing the effigy into the fire, and (according to what I read) chanting bloodthirsty rhymes. (I’m not really sure if anyone chants it on the spot, but I’ve heard people quote a line or two, so the rhymes do circulate.)

All this dates back to 1605, when a plot to overthrow James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland; same person; same name; it must’ve been confusing for him) failed.

James was the son and successor of Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic) and the successor of Elizabeth I of England (a Protestant). Elizabeth—being the Virgin Queen and all—had no kids. That’s an occupational hazard of being a virgin queen: Kids are hard to explain. And if you take truth in advertising seriously, they’re even harder to produce. So a successor had to be brought in from another branch of the family, and he had to be a Protestant.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. And what’s worse, I’ve forgotten the name of the thing. It’s a wildflower, and I should know it.

Luckily for Liz, when Mary was de-queenified, James was just thirteen months old. He was crowned in a Protestant church and raised as a Protestant. How he felt about that I don’t know, but I doubt the people in charge cared much. What mattered was what he did, and he didn’t rock the boat.

The powerful weren’t an overly sentimental lot back then. Whether anyone else was, I don’t know.

Why did Liz need a Protestant heir? Because as far as the English Protestants were concerned, Catholics were the boogeyman. The Catholic Church had done what it could to suppress Protestantism, and Protestantism responded by doing the same to Catholicism. No one gets the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in any of this, Although after Henry Kissinger was awarded one, you have to wonder what the prize is worth. And we’re not even going to get into Aung San Suu Kyi’s.

Besides, Alfred Nobel hadn’t been born yet, and I’m not sure peace was even considered a possibility, never mind a goal.

So both sides did their damnedest to stamp out the other religion on whatever soil they controlled, and whichever side was out of power favored freedom of religion. The minute it got power, it used that freedom to stamp out the other religion.

Three cheers for freedom of religion.

Let’s take a break here for a brief (and largely irrelevant) summary of English attitudes toward a couple of non-Christian religions. Grab a cup of tea, okay? Just a small one, because it won’t take long.

Jews had been run out of England in 1290 and weren’t allowed back in until 1656. They were probably still the boogeyman of popular and churchly imagination, but in the absence of any actual Jews that was sort of a sideshow. I don’t expect they generated a lot of passion.

In contrast, after the Pope excommunicated her in 1570, Elizabeth was free to send diplomats and merchants to the Muslim world and to invite Muslims to England, and she took full advantage of that freedom. (The Catholic Church forbid any contact.) Chalk up a win for the law of unintended consequences. According to the BBC, “From as far away as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims from various walks of life found themselves in London in the 16th Century working as diplomats, merchants, translators, musicians, servants and even prostitutes.” It’s an interesting story but this isn’t the place to get into it. Hold onto that for another post and I’ll see what more I can find out.

Finished with your tea? Good. Let’s go back to Christians fighting each other.

In suppressing whichever religion was out of power, torture was a powerful tool–at least as much to spread fear than to extract information. In fact, fear may have been the more important of the two. Burning people was another important tool. Holding to the wrong religion in the wrong place was a dangerous business. Most people switched allegiances as needed and kept their misgivings to themselves, but not everyone did or could or would. They genuinely believed they’d suffer an eternity in hell if they didn’t do what their religion demanded. So some people took the dangerous route of holding on to their beliefs publicly, while others kept them private—or tried to. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Catholics needed priests if they were to follow their religion, and some of the great houses in Britain still have priest holes—hiding places, usually very small, where a visiting priest could be concealed from the priest hunters who scoured the country. If a priest so much as entered England, it was high treason (see below for the explanation of how much fun it was to be drawn and quartered).

After Elizabeth died, English Catholics—or at least some of them—hoped James would introduce a more tolerant climate, allowing them to practice their religion openly, and when he didn’t thirteen of them plotted to blow him up when he opened the next session of Parliament.

What could possibly be more fun? Well, you could toss some potatoes on the fire.

They stashed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords and waited for their moment. They were hoping the explosion would lead to a Catholic uprising. But somebody wrote to the fourth Baron Monteagle, telling him to stay away from the opening of Parliament on November 5. The somebody was probably Monteagle’s brother-in-law, who was one of the plotters. On top of that, the government’s spy network was already sniffing after the plotters. So word got out and when the basement was searched, there sat Guy Fawkes, bored silly and wondering why the i-phone hadn’t been invented yet. In its absence, he had nothing to do than worry about being discovered while he waited for the right moment to touch a match to the fuse.

Or whatever they used instead of a match back then. A Zippo lighter. Or a flint and a bit of steel. We’re not big on historical accuracy this week. One of the sources I read actually did say “a match,” but the great Googlemeister tells me “self-igniting matches” were invented in 1805. This was 1605, so our dates are off a bit, even if they do have a nice symetry.

And what’s a non-self-igniting match anyway?

Guy was caught and tortured but managed to throw himself off the ladder he had to climb in order to be hung, which allowed him to die before he could also be cut down, drawn, and quartered. The goal of hanging, drawing, and quartering is to keep the person alive while it all happens, inflicting the maximum amount of pain and horror.

But for the people who weren’t about to be hung, drawn, and quartered–at least those among ’em who did’t want the Catholics back in power–Guy getting caught was endless fun, so they lit bonfires and generally whooped it up.

In fairness, I can see where Protestants would’ve been relieved not to be back under Catholic rule. I can also see why Catholics wanted to be out from under Protestant rule. The brutality of both sides was a perfect justification for the brutality on both sides, and there’s a lesson for us today in there somewhere.

In response to the plot, the laws against Catholics were tightened. As was the law of unintended consequences.

According to one theory, the gunpowder that the plotters used wouldn’t have blown up Parliament anyway—it had passed its sell-by date. According to another theory, it was enough to blow up everything within 500 meters. Take your pick, because Guy never got to light that match and we can’t know for sure.

The cellars where Guy and his match and his gunpowder hid are still searched in advance of the Queen’s Speech at the opening of Parliament each year. Just in case. Even though the cellars no longer exist. Even though gunpowder wouldn’t be anyone’s weapon of choice anymore. Yes, kiddies, that’s the way things work here in Britain. We don’t care that the cellars were wiped out in a nineteenth-century reconstruction of the building. We’ll search those suckers anyway, because—. Well, as they used to say on 75th Street, where I grew up, just because.

Everyone but me considered that a good enough explanation. For anything. So it’s not just England that works that way.

In Northern Ireland, the various shades of Christianity are still highly charged, so anyone who celebrates Guy Fawkes Day there is (a) Protestant and (b) knowingly getting up the nose of Catholics.

Elsewhere, as far as I can tell, the night’s just an excuse to light fires and shoot off fireworks, but I know how easy it is for a majority group to say, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s all just a good time,” while cluelessly offending the hell out of a minority, so I asked a Catholic friend about her experience.

She’d never given it a moment’s thought before I asked, she said. She went to Catholic school, and neither her school or her church ever took a stand against Guy Fawkes Night. By way of contrast, her kids’ Catholic primary school wasn’t shy about telling the students that Halloween had satanic overtones. So if the church had an opinion of the event, we can assume they wouldn’t have been shy about saying so.

When she was young, she and her friends used to sit on the street (this was in London) with a guy–basically a scarecrow made of old clothes and whatever the kids could get their hands on–and ask passersby for “a penny for the guy.” They’d buy fireworks with whatever they collected. And the bloodthirsty rhyme? She remembers it as part of an ad for fireworks.

I don’t know how typical she is of British (or English) Catholics. If anyone else wants to weigh in here, I’m interested.

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Scotland and Wales as well as in England and Cornwall, and I’m not sure what it means to people there, since both places have a conflicted history with England (she said in a masterpiece of understatement). Again, if you’re from there, or from Northern Ireland, I’d love to hear what you have to say.