HERITAGE - 5: 'SOME GUY* THEY CAUGHT IN THE WESTMINSTER CELLAR...' - What's Behind the Story of November 5th?
As the instructions say on the fireworks: 'Light the blue touchpaper and retire' ...well away, there's a boatload of gunpowder in that cellar!
In the darkness, lit by his own torch, the culprit who calls himself John Johnson
Run-up to blow-up
'Remember, Remember the Fifth of November Gunpowder Treason and plot -' *
*Nobody else I know celebrates executions as well as we do in England. What with William Wallace and countless others meeting their end gruesomely before a massed crowd on onlookers near St' Bartholomew's church at the 'Smooth Field' (Smithfield, London EC1), we must have the longest list of traitors going. I suppose that goes along with having such popular monarchs as we have been stuck with - like Henry VIII and Mary Tudor or Charles I and James II - and the fact that those being executed were the well-off and landed gentry come down in the world. Most of the watchers were the poor and disenchanted or disinherited there to gloat: 'Here is someone come down in the world, lower down in the world even than I am!'
Let's look at one unfortunate who was found with the taper, 'red-handed', in a cellar crammed-full of gunpowder. This was just before James, the first of our Stuart kings was to perform the state opening of Parliament, traditionally in late autumn.
Acting on an anonymous tip-off (they usually are anonymous, even now) about midnight on November 4th, AD1605, the Yeomen of the Guard were dispatched by the king to search the cellars of Westminster, beneath the House of Lords in fact. In a dark store-room they found a 'very tall, desperate-looking fellow' lurking, surrounded by thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. This fellow who gave his name as 'John Johnson' was escorted to the Tower of London - around five miles away - where after two days of torture he admitted knowledge of what became known as 'The Powder Treason'. Our 'tall, desperate-looking' friend gave his name finally as Guido Fowkes. We know him better as Guy Fawkes.
He and a few others of the dozen or so, he revealed, were Roman Catholics who had hidden the gunpowder barrels to blow up Parliament with James I - hitherto James VI of Scotland - making his opening speech to both houses. The aim was to put the Roman Catholic Prince Charles on the throne and end national persecution of the Roman Catholic minority.
The king and English secret service already knew of the plot. They merely wanted to 'put a face to it'. The architect of this hunt was the crafty Earl of Salisbury, who had word from an 'informer'. A letter had been intercepted from one of Fowkes/Foulkes' co-conspirators to the Roman Catholic Earl Monteagle to give Parliament a wide berth. The pomp of the ceremony was about to be shattered.
Modern-day historians are convinced the letter was a forgery, created by the secret service to hide the identity of Salisbury's Catholic informers. Conspiracy theorists are convinced the whole thing was made up to discredit the Catholic aristocrats. Was it a conspiracy made up by Salisbury and his team, or were Catholics really out to blow the king out of this world and into a better one?
Guido Fowkes was born the son of a lawyer in 1570, in a large house - now a small hotel with a blue plaque on the wall - near the corner of Low Petergate, opposite the cathedral we have come to know as York Minster. His schooling was undertaken not far away, literally round the corner at St Peter's School on the Monkgate side of the cathedral. He made the conscious decision to convert to Roman Catholicism - a dangerous move in itself in the days of Queen Elizabeth I - and fought in Spain against English forces. Robert Catesby recruited Fowkes to his cause, a discreet and brave fighter with a deep dislike of King James, and in his bravery Fowkes was broken by torture. He was dangled, wrists manacled, from the ceiling and very likely put on the rack. By the time his torturers were done with him most of the plotters had been taken. Four, including Catesby, were slain resisting arrest (the clumsy constables would have been instructed to take them alive for 'interrogation').
Fowkes and seven others went to the scaffold after about two months of 'process', due to be executed in the manner then reserved for traitors:
Hanging for long enough just to feel the weight of the rope around their necks, they would be taken down still (just) alive; bound (face up) to a bench, their arms wrenched backwards and bound behind their heads on a wooden bench about six feet long (about 1.79 m), the executioner would draw a large scraper from bowels to chest, digging out the innards; finally - still alive - their hearts would be ripped out and held high for the onlookers and the executioner would call out, 'Here is the heart of a traitor!' before burning it publicly. [In earlier times their corpses would have been quartered, one quarter each to be nailed to a cathedral door in one quarter of the kingdom with a copy of the traitors' execution writ nailed on with them].
According to tradition one of the 'executed' men in January,1606 shouted out 'Thou liest!' before succumbing to his injuries.
Two centuries of Catholic persecution followed. King James ordered England and Scotland to celebrate Parliament's delivery from the plot annually on November 5th, writing an anti-Catholic prayer still used in churches until 1859. Guido Fowkes was not by any means the plotters' leader, but he personified the plotters. we think of him in a black cloak and tall, wide-brimmed hat, clutching a candle-lantern for light to touch the fuse by with his burning taper. Public imagination was readily gripped. However the first recorded time his effigy was put on a bonfire was in 1806.
There is little left of the anti-Catholic origins of the festival. Nevertheless the spirit survives in Lewes in East Sussex where seventeen Protestant worthies were burnt at the stake during the reign of 'Bloody Mary', Queen Mary**, Henry VIII's daughter by his divorced wife Catherine of Aragon. An effigy of the Pontiff is still burnt on the pyre on Bonfire Night, as we know it. Now and then contemporary politicians such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson or other 'undesirable' personalities such as ex-PM Margaret Thatcher. In 1999 a Muslim cleric denounced the Lewes Bonfire Night as 'stupid, pagan and harking back to the Dark Ages'. However the local Catholic priest dismissed it as harmless high spirits. There are still the 'No Popery' banners, and the aggressive bombardment - with lit fireworks at times - of effigies of local dignitaries (disliked councillors?) dressed as the Pontiff.
In 1888 the Sussex Daily News reported a 'fearful noise right up to midnight' in Lewes. 'One noticed that the [Bonfire] Boys behaved with commendable courtesy to the women who had ventured out on this wildly hilarious night and there seems to be only one incident of a masquerader disgracing himself by bawling an improper song ...everybody seemed to think themselves chartered libertines'.
*The rest of the poem runs:
'I see no reason,/Why Gunpowder Treason/Should ever be forgot./A penny loaf to feed the Pope,/A farthing o' cheese to choke him,/A pint of beer to rinse it down,/A faggot of sticks to burn him!/Burn him in a tub of tar,/Burn him like a rising star/Burn his body from his head/Then we'll say old Pope is dead!'
It's a gruesome tradition. To outsiders it may seem monstrous; even to many in England it will seem outlandish, but it's not personal. It happens one night in the year, and that's it, over for another year. Just the remains of the bonfire and assorted rubbish to clear away the next day.
**Mary was the original 'stalker', pursuing Philip of Spain to the point of marrying him in a secret ceremony and then persuading herself she was pregnant by him. He only had eyes for Mary's younger - and much prettier - half sister Elizabeth, who spurned him. Mary had several of her brother Edward's Protestant bishops of the time burned at the stake, and sought the 'repatriation' of England to the Church of Rome through alliance with Spain.
This act sparked off large-scale hatred of and reaction toward Roman Catholicism in England and Wales. Scotland was split between the largely Roman Catholic Highlanders in the north-west, the Calvinist Covenanters in the east and Edinburgh and High Church devotees in Edinburgh. There was a phobia of the Irish harbouring Spanish and French invaders and the Earl of Essex had been sent to Ireland by Elizabeth half a century earlier to root out support for a Spanish-French invasion of England across the Irish sea through Wales, Cornwall or Devon. It would be James II who sparked off a large-scale Puritan exodus from eastern and south-western England to the Netherlands, eventually across the Atlantic to New England.
When James VI of Scotland succeeded to his cousin's throne in England he would be henceforth known as James I. He also foreswore Roman Catholicism. Many in England saw this as a backward step, a betrayal of his real beliefs and plotted his downfall at the State Opening of Parliament. Guido Foulkes (Guy Fawkes to you), an experienced mercenary with experience in the Thirty Years' War in Europe, offered to do the deed but was found out by the king's soldiers in the basement of the Palace of Westminster (where the Houses of Parliament were erected after a catastrophic fire in the mid-19th Century).
The Gunpowder Plot
An age of violence...
and violent reaction.
We had 'Bloody Mary', daughter of Catherine of Aragon, after the death of the reasonably moderate Protestant-oriented Edward VI, only son of Henry VIII by Jane Seymour. She is thought to have slowly poisoned her half-brother with small doses of arsenic (physicians of the time swore by it as a remedy for many illnesses) and then as queen sought to avenge herself on the clergy, whom she thought had betrayed the old values of the Roman Catholic faith. There were many minor English noblemen who wished for Philip of Spain to rule England, although he would have only been consort (as Albert was to Victoria and Philip is to Elizabeth II). These were adherents to Mary's warped ideas of church and state that harked back to the early middle ages, when William's family priest Lanfranc came to England in 1071 to his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury and reformer of the 'heathen English'.
Elizabeth succeeded Mary and England lurched the other way. Plotters there were, many wished to bring England back to 'the fold'. When Elizabeth died childless her cousin James VI of Scotland (son Mary queen of Scots) swore to uphold his position as head of the Protestant Church of England and maintain its values. Plotters again, etc. England wasn't a safe place to be for non-conformists or Roman Catholics, nor could they (after Mary Tudor) hold public office until the late 18th Century
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