Guy Fawkes has become an internationally-known symbol of protest.
'A penny for the Guy?' We used to make a fair old haul in the week up to Bonfire Night, years ago. We'd create a not-very-lifelike Guy Fawkes and lug him around in a wheelbarrow before he met his incendiary fate on a huge bonfire created by all the neighbourhood roughs.
In recent years, Guy Fawkes night has been eclipsed by Hallowe'en. The change has been driven by marketeers, who find that imaginary forces of darkness offer them more opportunities than real ones.
I think it's a pity. The story of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot isn't just a gripping bit of history, but it has exact parallels with so much of what's happening 410 years later that we really ought to recover it.
The Plot was discovered on the night of Monday November 4, the day before Parliament was to be opened by the King. It was leaked by an unknown member of the conspiracy who warned Lord Mounteagle against attending the opening. Mounteagle took the letter to the Earl of Salisbury. The King, James I and VI, had the Parliament cellars searched and 36 barrels of gunpowder were found. Modern calculations indicate that they would have done their job very effectively, demolishing the building, the assembled Parliament and the King.
Ah, yes: it isn't always remembered that this was an act of religiously-motivated terrorism. We burn Guy Fawkes in effigy, but we used to burn the Pope. The plotters, led by Robert Catesby – we remember Guy because he was captured, while Catesby fought it out and died – were fanatics, opposed to the Protestant settlement established by Queen Elizabeth. Fawkes told James that "a desperate disease required a desperate remedy". They wanted to open the way for the restoration of a Catholic monarchy. They were thwarted through a combination of luck and good intelligence.
We may joke about Guy Fawkes being the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions, but this was the real deal: a deadly terrorist blow at the heart of the State, which could easily have resulted in regime change and the return of the bonfires to Smithfield.
The result was an intensification of anti-Catholic feeling that lasted for centuries. Catholics were all potential traitors. They were un-English, owing loyalty to a foreign power. Any attempt to relieve the discrimination they faced was doomed. They were the enemy within and they were not to be trusted.
To be fair, there were reason for this, and not just Catesby, Wynter, Fawkes and the rest of the gang. Catholics were responsible for the massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572, when the Huguenots of France were slaughtered. In the same year the Catholic Duke of Alva was responsible for countless atrocities in the Netherlands, on one occasion killing every man, woman and child in the town of Naarden. Most of all, in 1570 Pope Pius had V issued a bull entitled Regnans in Excelsis declaring Elizabeth excommunicated and giving her subjects the right to depose her. While most Catholics remained loyal in spite of the low-level persecution they experienced, the idea of an armed insurrection was not purely a fantasy.
The aftermath of the Plot saw the surviving conspirators executed in beastly fashion. What's interesting, though, is that James and his government appeared to want to damp down general anti-Catholic feeling. James Sharp, whose Remember, Remember the Fifth of November is the standard work on the subject, writes: "In this, James and his ministers showed more restraint than many modern regimes faced with similar problems."
November 5 – Guy Fawkes Night – is more relevant now than it has been for centuries, for two reasons.
First, we face terrorist threats now quite as grave as we did then. We too rely on good fortune and good intelligence to defeat them. We have to be lucky all the time; the terrorists only have to be lucky once. We were lucky in 1605. Until 1859, prayers of thanksgiving for deliverance from the Plot were said every year in Anglican churches by law. There couldn't be a better day to focus the prayers of the nation for deliverance than this day.
But second, we face a much more insidious threat: the demonization and marginalisation of a whole group of believers. It is not Roman Catholics whose loyalty is suspect this time, but Muslims. A few fanatics have done terrible things in the name of their faith, just as a few Catholics attempted to do. A loyal Catholic – Mounteagle – helped foil them, as loyal Muslims do today. But just as the Gunpowder Plot arose from frustration and resentment at the suspicion and hostility faced by Catholics then, one of the things that radicalises modern plotters now is the sense of being set apart and discriminated against. If you are really part of society, you don't want to harm it.
Forgetting the Gunpowder Plot – as we show signs of doing – doesn't just mean losing a bit of tradition. It means losing the ability to learn from the past, and this piece of the past has an awful lot to teach us.