I was driving home from Newbury on Saturday night, and passed literally dozens of Bonfire Night celebrations. Fireworks lit up the roadside as I bypassed towns from Berkshire to Cambridgeshire. The focus of these displays was the distant memory of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
The 16th and 17th Centuries were a time of religious turmoil across Europe, and no less so in England. The Elizabethan religious settlement had been an attempt to reach a compromise between the Catholics and traditionalists, and the Protestant reformers. Devout Catholics (as well as extreme Puritans) faced severe penalties for non-conformity. With the ascension of James I, who had a more profound Protestant leaning, many Catholics felt increasingly oppressed.
In 1605, a plot was hatched to remove James, his lords, and the House of Commons by an act of terrorism. The plotters were going to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the state opening, when the entire governing body would be under one roof.
Put simply, the plan failed. Guido Fawkes (known as Guy) was caught in the act of attempting to detonate barrels of gunpowder in cellars under the building. He confessed under torture, and his alleged co-conspirators were arrested and executed.
Confession under torture was well part of the criminal “justice” system of the time. In addition, the plot led to more restrictions on Catholics, and public backlash largely made the life of non-Protestants more difficult.
In some ways we have parallels with Islamophobia in the post 9-11 world, or the recurrent rise of Antisemitism. The result then was among other things to mark the event with an annual remembrance in which “The Guy” is burned in effigy, as sign initially of anti-Catholic hysteria, and now of mere tradition.
It is interesting to me to reflect on our modern approach to this. There would be some who would take the view that the Catesbys (fellow conspirators and ring leaders) and Fawkes were “freedom” fighters. Others would call for even more sanctions against “the out group.” I imagine some newspapers and social media groups taking the stand, “Free the Westminster 13.” Headlines might read “Guido was framed,” or “Justice for the Catesbys.” Rival political comment might call for mass expulsion of “Romanists.”
What should we then remember of “the Guy?” Firstly, religious toleration is not a given. “In” groups, and “Out” groups are often defined in imprecise terms. Whatever our denominational backgrounds, there is more than unites us than divides us. It is often the politics of the situation, or the media spin that is the true issue.
Fireworks and bonfires are festive, but let’s remember the issues behind them.