Around this time of year, my American friends ask me about Guy Fawkes night. What’s that all about, they want to know? Is it really a big thing over there in England?
Well, I am totally out of touch, but when I was a kid, Guy Fawkes Night–November Fifth–was a huge thing, second only to Christmas on the fun scale. There were fireworks; there was a bonfire; on top of the bonfire was a Guy–a dummy, of course, not an actual person–who got burned up when you lit the bonfire. In the days prior to the Fifth, you trundled your Guy around the neighborhood in a wheelbarrow for the appreciation of passersby, appreciation expressed by the giving of “pennies for the Guy.”
When we were tots, the actual burning was done in the family backyard. Catherine wheels were nailed to the clothes-line posts, rockets were fired off from empty milk bottles, and we little ones were given “sparklers” to hold–wires coated with something like magnesium, that burned with a fizzing white brilliance for a minute or two. The fireworks were sold in boxes at the local store, the same store we got our newspapers, candy, and soda from.
When we were older, enjoying the liberties that older boys enjoyed then–the liberties boys had enjoyed forever, back through Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, to the beginning of time, but which were abolished around 1980 as part of the general girlification of postindustrial society–the focus was the neighborhood bonfire, a 12-foot pile of old wood, painstakingly gathered over several weeks, and jealously guarded, so far as supper-time and bed-time rules permitted, against the danger that some sociopath, or a commando squad from some envious other neighborhood, would torch it prematurely. On the great night the whole thing would burn gloriously, with us boys standing round tossing squibs at each other, trying to smoke cigarettes, and failing to make ourselves appealing to the few girls present. Older yet, we made general civic nuisances of ourselves, as teenage boys always will, by roaming the streets in small packs, singing bawdy songs, and throwing fireworks into people’s front gardens.
From the surge of excitement when, sometime after supper, you heard the first fireworks go off, to the sight of burned-out rockets littering the streets on our way to school the next morning–I remember it so well. I hope it still goes on in some fashion over there; though I am sure that the new, lawyered-up England does not permit barely adolescent boys to buy boxes of minor munitions for their own amusement, or to assemble great towers of waste wood for combustion in public places. But what was it all about, actually?
Guido Was the Guy
Guy Fawkes–his baptismal name was Guido–was one of a group of plotters who, in 1605, schemed to blow up the House of Lords while the king was in it. The cellars and basements of the House were used for storage of firewood and coal. In among all this, the plotters hid 36 barrels of gunpowder, to be ignited by Guy Fawkes when the king arrived. These plotters–there were at least 13 of them–were, in short, terrorists. (Though Fawkes was no suicide bomber. The gunpowder was to be ignited by a slow fuse.) To give the thing an even more contemporary cast, they were inspired by religious zeal, or at least were disgruntled because of religious persecution.
The persecution was real. The plotters were Roman Catholics, at a time when England’s throne, parliament, and most of her people, had turned away from Rome. Many English people had gone all the way to Puritanism. Others had accepted, and got used to, Anglo-Catholicism–the Old Faith, but minus allegiance to the pope, and with the great monastic orders broken up and dispossessed.
There were still a good many Englishmen in communion with Rome. It wasn’t actually illegal (though public celebration of Mass was). In fact, there were many Lords still adhering to the Old Faith. That was what led to the discovery of the plot. The plotters sent a letter to one of these Catholic peers, Lord Mounteagle, to warn him, and to tell him to pass the warning to his coreligionists. The peer, a patriot, showed the letter to the King’s Privy Council, and the uncovering of the plot followed.
Though legal, however, the Roman faith was deeply unpopular. This was a legacy of the previous 70 years, from the time of King Henry’s break with Rome in the 1530s. Those decades had seen the brutal campaign of dimwitted Mary Tudor (reigned 1553-58) to return her country to the Old Faith, the consolidation of Anglo-Catholicism under Elizabeth (who was circumspect about her own beliefs, but was none the less excommunicated by the pope), the plotting to replace Elizabeth by the Catholic Mary Stuart, the attempts by Philip II of Spain, one of history’s greatest troublemakers, to annex or destroy the English monarchy, the Irish rebellion (with the assistance of the Catholic powers, including a body of 4,000 Spanish troops) of 1601, and the terrible religious wars and persecutions in France, England’s ancient enemy–most especially the St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre of Protestants by Catholics in 1572.
Probably most English people who clung to the Old Faith were, like Lord Mounteagle, patriotic and harmless. Many kept very quiet about their faith, worshipping in privacy and secrecy. Some scholars believe, on circumstantial evidence, that William Shakespeare, 41 years old at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, was one such. (According to our best guesses about when the plays were written, the Gunpowder Plot probably came in between King Lear and Macbeth.) At any rate, there were severe laws–the Penal Laws–restricting the activities, property, and careers of citizens unwilling to swear allegiance to the national Church. Some of these laws were specifically anti-Catholic. Some applied to Puritans as well as Roman Catholics–that is why the Puritans eventually left for the New World. Heavy fines were imposed on these “recusants,” and some of the November Fifth plotters were well-born gentlemen who had been bankrupted by these fines.
When Elizabeth died in 1603, King James of Scotland came to the English throne. He was a clever man–an intellectual, in fact, author of several books. Unfortunately, like many intellectuals, he was seriously deficient in common sense and what we would nowadays call “people skills.” The Spanish Ambassador came up with a tag that stuck to James because it fitted so well: “the wisest fool in Christendom.” James had no grasp of political science, and could not understand the function of England’s parliament, once opining: “I am surprised that my ancestors should have allowed such an institution to come into existence.” He was foul-mouthed, had a speech impediment, and was physically unattractive. (He was, for example, extremely hairy, and had his clothes made a couple of sizes too big, so that their looseness would permit him to scratch freely. The early 17th century was not a high point in the progress of English personal hygiene.) James was also a homosexual, and his court degenerated at last into a whispering, bickering nest of favorites.
James’s defects did not really show up until later in his reign, though. For the first few years, the masterly statecraft of Elizabeth’s court survived, most notably in the person of the brilliant Robert Cecil, son of the equally gifted William Cecil, a remarkable case of great political wisdom running in a family. Unfortunately, cold Cecilian statecraft was at odds with the intellectual idealism of the new King. James was sympathetic to the Old Faith. His wife and his mother were both devout Catholics. He personally favored relaxation of the Penal Laws, and made this known. His advisers dissuaded him, believing–probably correctly–that the religious situation was not stable enough to permit open toleration without major problems of public order arising. The hopes of English Catholics, briefly raised, were dashed. The Gunpowder Plot was a natural consequence.**
The uncovering of the plot led to a surge of anti-Catholicism. New life was given to the suspicion that every Catholic was a traitor. The first “Guys” burned were actually effigies of the pope. (This was still the case in some parts of England well into the twentieth century.) These prejudices echoed down through the centuries in England and her offspring nations, like the U.S.A. They could be heard in the 1960 presidential campaign, when it was wondered aloud whether a Catholic like John F. Kennedy, owing allegiance to a large international church, could be a true patriot. A character in one of Evelyn Waugh’s novels (Waugh was a Catholic convert) grumbles that still, in the 1940s. English Catholics dwelt under the suspicion of being spies.
By the middle 20th century, though, anti-Catholicism already seemed a little quaint in England. English Catholics had redeemed themselves in the eyes of their fellow-countrymen by good citizenship and dogged patriotism, with particular attention to serving, like Waugh’s Guy (!) Crouchback, in England’s wars with valor and distinction. (Perhaps with this as their model, English Jews followed suit, so that England is now one of the least anti-Semitic nations in the world.)
Today & Tolerance
Does any of this offer lessons to the many Muslims now living in Britain and America? Some commentators think so. Writing in the London Daily Telegraph a few days ago, Philip Johnston drew a parallel between the English Catholics of 1605 and the Muslims of present-day England. He congratulates his countrymen on their refusal to follow the jihadist bombings in London this year with a general persecution of Muslims: “As we remember once more the Fifth of November, let us also not forget what a frightened and intolerant society we once were and how far we have come in the intervening 400 years.”
I think Mr. Johnston’s self-satisfaction is misplaced. Muslims in present-day Britain enjoy full civil rights, and always have. The plotters of 1605 came from a background of decades of persecution, when Catholics had been dispossessed, exiled, hanged, and burned at the stake. Whatever you think of religious terrorism, Guy Fawkes’s grievances were real.
Those grievances were more intense, too, from being nursed against the plotters’ own fellow-countrymen. Religion aside, there was no difference between a Catholic Englishman and a Protestant one. So far as the Church of England was concerned, in fact, even the doctrinal differences were trivial–the supremacy of the pope and the use of Latin in liturgy being the only points of any substance so far as non-intellectual worshippers were concerned. Roman Catholic Englishmen and Anglo-Catholic Englishmen looked the same, dressed the same, spoke the same language, practiced the same folk customs, ate the same food, shared the same national memories and culture, and worshiped the same God in very similar styles. Not uncommonly they were spouses, or siblings. It is a remarkable thing, in fact, that even with these advantages, it yet took three hundred years for English Catholics to convince other Englishmen that they were worthy of full citizenship and respect. The introduction of large colonies of third-world Muslims into Anglo-Saxon societies is a phenomenon of a completely different kind, bringing a degree of foreign-ness that simply was not present in the religious divisions of 1605 England, and leading to psychological tensions of the sort described by Theodore Dalrymple.
On the other side of the balance, the patriotism of an island nation like Britain defines itself in part by strong opposition to old and familiar enemies. From the point of view of an Englishman in 1605, these enemies were all colored purple. They were Catholic powers. Most hostility was directed at Spain; Anglo-French relations were actually going through a sunny spell (though this did nothing to prevent Shakespeare filling his plays with traditional anti-French quips); the Hapsburg (i.e. Holy Roman) Empire was too distant to occupy much space in English minds. Anti-Catholicism could be justified by an appeal to patriotism. Real nations, peer powers, were intent on bringing England back into the Papal fold. This was not paranoia; they really were.
This does not apply to the Muslims of today. Nobody, in England or America, takes Muslim nations that seriously. We regard them as backward, corrupt, unstable, and militarily insignificant. Jihadist terrorism is a great nuisance, of course; but no Englishman of 2005 envisages a Muslim fleet sailing up the Channel in Armada style, to put a Muslim ruler on the throne of Westminster. The thought is absurd. Even less do Americans fear forcible incorporation into the dar al Islam. An American Muslim may fall under suspicion of working for a nuisance terrorist group, but he can’t plausibly be seen as a spy for a peer nation, one that might overthrow and occupy our own. The only real Muslim nations are Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. The first two are friendly, or at any rate non-hostile. Iran is too far away, and too poor, for Americans to perceive her as a real nation-scale threat. The rest are pseudo-nations, ramshackle no-account tribal condominiums of no importance to us, except as suppliers of oil.
In respect of Iran, this may change. If that nation becomes a nuclear power, that will be one big step closer to peer status in the American public mind. Like the handguns of the 19th-century American frontier, nukes are “equalizers.” If it sinks in to the minds of Englishmen, or Americans, that some Muslim power, or powers, is a real threat to our nationhood, the tolerance that Philip Johnston boasts of so proudly may undergo some slippage. Jihadist terrorism has not seriously upset our modern national ethic of infinite tolerance. A Muslim Guy Fawkes, seen as the agent of a hostile peer nation, might do so.
** There is, inevitably, a revisionist theory about the Gunpowder Plot, arguing that it was all, in fact, a frame-up by Robert Cecil to stop the liberalizing pro-Catholic trend. My own opinion is that this is Grassy Knoll stuff, but there is a substantial literature on it. Interested readers could do worse than begin with the Wikipedia article headed Gunpowder Plot, with the usual caveats about Wikipedia taken as understood.