Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot…
Who doesn’t enjoy a good conspiracy? They’re endlessly entertaining because no matter what evidence is produced, discussed, dissected and dismissed, there’s always someone who’ll pause, shake their heads and say “Ah, but…” The attraction of the conspiracy theory is that no matter what, you can reject all rational argument and reserve the right to your belief that there must be more to it, must be an undiscovered nugget of information, that coincidences simply can’t happen…and what about that shape of the Twin Towers that appeared in the tea-leaves of a government secretary in Washington DC on the morning of 11th September 2001? If that wasn’t the accusing finger of God then what was? It’s all the evidence needed to convince us that the attack was surreptitiously planned by a secret sect of the American establishment!
There are, of course, some well-loved favourites…did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone in 1963 – and have recently released American records shed any light or confused the issue even further? Did Apollo 11 really land on the moon in July 1969? Or was the whole thing staged in a film set hidden in the Nevada desert? And we’ve all heard the particularly deranged theory that Prince Philip arranged for the assassination of Diana Spencer…
The most topical, this being the first weekend of November, is the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Throughout all my days I’ve assumed that the intention to blow up Parliament (with James I inside) was down to Guy Fawkes and a group of like-minded thugs. I’m intrigued now, to find that there may be more to it…and that the entire episode may have been the result of a scheme to flush out the more fanatical English Catholics so that they could be done away with once and for all. Entrapment 17th century style – with the executioner’s platform awaiting the unhappy victims.
Effigy of Guy Fawkes being paraded through the streets of Lewes, Sussex Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005.
Poor old Guy Fawkes. For centuries he’s been remembered as a villain, the very worst of mankind; generations of Britons have made effigies of him that would be ceremoniously burnt on the evening of 5th November, to commemorate the night in 1605 that he was found hiding beneath the Houses of Parliament with dozens of barrels of gunpowder. By some extraordinary stroke of luck, royal agents discovered the presence of Fawkes and his explosives and were able to prevent the annointed King from being blown to smithereens.
Fawkes and seven others were arrested before being put to death three months later. Robert Catesby and another conspirator, Thomas Percy, died in a shoot-out with the authorities on 8th November at Holbeche House in Staffordshire (which, bizarrely, is now a care home). Although Catesby and Percy were buried nearby, their bodies were later exhumed so that their decapitated heads could be displayed for public gratification at the Tower of London. Despite all of this, it is Fawkes who has been etched into our collective memory and the others have been mostly forgotten. Though with the BBC drama Gunpowder currently on our screens, maybe a few more names will stick. The programme has been criticized by some people for its violent scenes, but the writers are simply portraying the reality of the period. We all know that torture and brutal methods of execution were the coin of the day, but being confronted by the details whilst curled up in an arcmchair in the living room is seemingly too uncomfortable for most of us.
In the spirit of conspiracy theories the BBC didn’t stop short of implicating Robert Cecil, the King’s minister, of conniving with the Spanish to flush out the would-be bombers. The particularly odious Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, was most eager to bloody his hands. Even so, the events portrayed the discovery of Fawkes et al as a stroke of luck. Imagine my surprise when I read around the subject a little and found that for decades (if not centuries) there have been accusations that the whole matter was engineered by the King’s men. The easy procurement of the gunpowder, the sudden availability of the undercroft beneath the Parliament buildings, the mysterious letter to Lord Monteagle warning him to stay away from the building on the day in question, and the fact that of the eight men apprehended only Fawkes was tortured…all have been cited in the argument to demonstrate this as a cunning scheme by Cecil to rid England of some prominent Catholics. Cecil came from a long line of resolute Catholic-haters. The name at the top of his ‘to do’ list would have been Robert Catesby, whose influence was crucial in the recruitment of other known troublemakers. In order to achieve these ends, Catesby had been subjected to prolonged harassment in which his family, beliefs and estates had been targeted. In tandem with persecution of members of the Catholic faith, this had been enough to tighten the noose, as it were.
What this all reinforces is that it’s easy to view the Gunpowder Plot as an isolated event – if you have little interest in history then that’s probably the case; but this was the third plot to kill James that had been foiled in the space of two years, and his own father had been murdered when his lodgings were blown up almost sixty years before. Seen in context, as part of a violent, ever-changing political and religious time-line, the conspiracy of 1605 becomes more fascinating and much, much less simple to place the blame. Though on that January day in 1606 at the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, the crowds enjoying the grisly spectacle probably didn’t care one way or the other! Crowds at Lewes, Sussex, for the annual jamboree
Life goes on, and many of our long-held traditions are based on things we’d prefer not to explore too deeply. The demise of Guido Fawkes has given us one of our favourite early winter festive occasions and if these days we seem to prefer calling it Bonfire Night rather than Guy Fawkes Night, maybe it’s inevitable. Bonfires have probably been lit for as long as man has been able to make fire, either to celebrate, to punish or to warn of impending mayhem. The citizens of Lewes, East Sussex, have taken it to a whole different level but they’re not alone – at Lerwick in the Shetland Isles the late January festival of Up Helly Aa mixes torch-lit processions with burning Viking longboats…hopefully there’s no looting and pillaging! Up Helly Aa
No Viking longboats here now – although one occasionally appears a few miles away at Llangorse Lake, but that’s a story for another time. Bonfire Night was celebrated last night (Saturday 4th) by the town, at the local football club. Mr B and I hadn’t been before but had been told it was very good – and so it was! The fireworks were fantastic and even though the weather forecasters had predicted doom and gloom, it wasn’t too cold and it didn’t rain until hours later.
Post fireworks we all traipsed back to my friend Sally’s house for food and drink. We started with Sally’s chilli and nachos with guacamole and soured cream, before moving on to Jane’s chocolate and hazelnut meringue. On the expectation that we’d all be pretty greedy I’d taken along a plate of Sticky Toffee Pudding cakes – just make your favourite STP mixture but pour into muffin cases and bake as individual cakes. When they’ve cooled, cut out a divot from the centre, spoon in some toffee sauce (not too runny) and replace the fragment of cake, pushing it down so that it sticks (!).
The unusual weather meant that we could spend several hours sitting in Sally’s garden, and enjoy yet another fire…
So now that we’ve exhausted the autumn festivites with Harvest, Apple Day, Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night all come and gone, we can get down to the serious business of preparing for winter, to which end I’ve become involved in organising this year’s town Christmas Fair. More of that in a later post, though. For now, I hope you all enjoy the colder season – wrap up warmly xxx
I enjoyed this – especially the sticky toffee cakes! 😉 Having lived in Sussex for many years, I’m very familiar with the Lewes celebrations. I never went though – a bit too intense for me. We did however, live in a village which was also well known for its bonfire society and held their own parade, albeit on a smaller scale, which we watched every year. Surprisingly intimidating. Great fireworks though!
Having enjoyed all of this for years I now feel myself coming over all politically correct – I can imagine the baying crowds at these executions and it feels a little too close for comfort!
Thank you Chris. I find myself sympathising with Guy, even if I don’t approve of his methods!
Always like the way you contextualise whatever you discuss, and then illustrate contiguity with something local as well as seasonal. And the Plot: I’d forgotten the duplicity that characterised particularly English politics at the time (curious, as the throne had been held by lines of Saxons, Vikings, Normans and most recently by a Welsh dynasty, and now a Scot, with Dutch and German to come). The ruthlessness of those past servants of the Crown rather puts the shambolic efforts of current politicians to shame — thank goodness.