Understanding Guy Fawkes

November 5, 2011

by Martin Odoni

Let me just mention before I start that I do enjoy Guy Fawkes Night. At a dark time of year we get a bit of colour and spectacle for everyone to share, and I think that’s grand, so by all means let’s keep it going. But it is doubtful whether people understand what they’re celebrating, because the prevailing attitude to the occasion always seems so contradictory.

On the one hand, we have many people (not just kids) putting together their own effigy of Fawkes, taking it out into the streets and calling “Penny for the Guy!”, before burning the effigy on a bonfire on the big night. But on the other, there always seems to be a great sympathy for the Gunpowder Conspirators among the exact same people, an affectionate shout-for-the-underdog. This always strikes me as mildly ridiculous. Burning-in-effigy is supposed to be a gesture of hatred, not affection, a half-conscious belief in sympathetic magic. The more you study these attitudes, the more you begin to realise that the people who hold them know almost nothing about the Conspiracy beyond the rough order-of-events, and never even think about them in any detail.

The whole business of burning-in-effigy is harmless, if rather tasteless, and doubly so when the man being symbolically slaughtered has been dead for centuries. I mean, talk about kicking them when they’re down and are definitely staying down! But I doubt that many people recognise the implication of it.

So I thought I’d offer a gentle de-bunking of a few of the myths I’ve heard surrounding this business. (Some of these myths have perhaps been brought to life by the recent movie of V For Vendetta, but whatever caused them, let’s get the story right.)

1. “Guy Fawkes was a leading freedom-fighter and a visionary.”

Well freedom-fighter is probably a fair description, perhaps (perhaps) fairer than accusations that he was a terrorist. The freedom he wanted was the freedom to practise his religion in his own way, nothing more, but that’s still freedom of a kind.

But leading? Visionary? Firstly, Fawkes was not the leader of the Gunpowder Conspiracy, he wasn’t even a deputy of any description. The leader and figurehead was Sir Robert Catesby, a minor Catholic nobleman who was lionised as the finest swordsman in England at the start of the seventeenth century. Fawkes was an important member of the Conspiracy in that he was the only one who had real military experience (from fighting on the continent for the Spanish as a mercenary), allowing them to put their plans into practise. But being crucial to the Plot didn’t make him its leader.

Second, could Fawkes be described as a visionary? In the movie V For Vendetta, Fawkes is hailed by V as some kind of Early-Modern-Era Vladimir Lenin. A hearty freedom-lover with a daring and intricate plan to end Government oppression and to build a new society, freer and with power vested in people rather than Royalty. Was this Fawkes’ real vision? Far from it – his ‘vision’, such as it was, was largely the work of Robert Catesby, and it was entirely backward-looking; a wish to see England restored to the authority of the Pope. Politically, that was pretty much it. There was nothing new in his ideas at all, and there was no noticeable increase in freedom by being subject to the Bishop Of Rome instead of an Absolute Monarch.

2. “Guy Fawkes was burned at the stake for his crimes.”

Not quite. This appears to be a false impression that people get from the way Fawkes’ effigy is burned on the bonfire every November 5th. Burning alive was certainly a horrible death, especially in Britain, where the damp climate really slowed down the process of dying and so prolonged the agony, sometimes for as much as eight hours.

However, the execution of the Conspirators was arguably even more hideous. They were hanged by the throat until not quite dead, then tied to running horses and drawn along the ground, had their entrails cut out of their bodies and burned in front of their still-living eyes, and then their bodies were cut into quarters.

People really knew how to make others suffer before killing them back then.

3. “The Gunpowder Conspirators were high-ranking political masterminds.”

The Gunpowder Conspirators were, in fact, a bunch of unimportant, half-mad imbeciles; tragicomic young gentrymen with dreams that hadn’t a hope of coming true, shunned even by their fellow Catholics who regarded them as embarrassing cranks. That Catesby was the leader and brains of the outfit says a lot about the general mental state of the likes of Thomas Wintour, Francis Tresham, Ambrose Rookwood et al. Most of the Conspirators were emotionally unstable, few of them were in a sound financial position, hardly any of them had expertise in the murky fields of ‘assassincraft’ or statecraft, and only a couple of them (Catesby and Thomas Percy) had any kind of status in the nation’s hierarchy at all.

Their plan was so naive that if it were invented for a novel, critics would pan the book as laughable. The Conspiracy’s hope was to blow up Parliament, taking King James I and the political establishment with it, then to swoop down onto Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire and capture the King’s daughter Elizabeth, putting her on the throne as their new puppet Monarch, forcing her to declare for the Pope, before stirring up an uprising by English Catholics to secure the rest of the country.

In practise, the chances of successfully blowing up Parliament were actually fairly good, but the rest of the idea was insane. What chance was there of getting into Coombe Abbey to capture the Princess when it was heavily-guarded night-and-day? What chance was there of them stirring up an uprising amongst English Catholics when none of the Conspirators were part of the Catholic ‘mainstream’? Even if they could, the Protestant majority in the country outnumbered them by at least ten to one, probably far more. How could the Catholics hope to beat odds like that?

Such was the incompetence of the Plotters that when news reached them that the plan had failed, instead of running for the nearest port and getting out of the country, they decided to “hide” at Holbeche House, a mansion belonging to one of the Conspirators. (Yeah, that’s the last place the authorities were going to look…) With battle inevitable, the Conspirators found their stash of gunpowder had become damp, and decided to try and dry it out, by leaving it to stand in front of an open fire. The inevitable flash-flame that followed nearly killed half of them.

Masterminds? The Gunpowder Conspirators, masterminds? They were idiots!

4. “Contemporary English Catholics supported the Plot, and were distraught to learn it had failed.”

No. No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no. There isn’t a sufficiently powerful negative in the English language to cover this idea.

Hardly any English Catholics knew anything about the Plot until after it had been foiled. And most of them were appalled, not that it had failed, but that anyone had attempted it at all. The reason they were distraught was they knew full well that the Conspiracy was going to trigger a fresh wave of anti-Catholic suspicion around the country, a wave that they were likely to experience the full force of themselves.

Also, most of them were in fact loyal to James I. It is true that they felt let down by him when, having initially relaxed the anti-Catholic Laws of Elizabeth I (the so-called ‘Recusancy Laws’), after about a year he started to enforce them again more strictly than ever. But even so he was still their King, and the thought of a bunch of insignificant young tearaways daring to attack his person offended their whole understanding of the relationship between the Crown and its subjects.

5. “Guy Fawkes fought with the Royal guards when they found him with the gunpowder.”

This is purely a Hollywood invention from V For Vendetta. It makes the moment of Fawkes’ arrest look very vivid and dramatic, but it is nevertheless completely inaccurate. In reality, Fawkes did not make a single move to resist capture when he was found (not by Royal guards, but by Lord Monteagle and Lord Southwark). Instead, he gave the pseudonym of ‘John Johnson’, claiming to be a servant of Thomas Percy (the Conspirator who had rented the undercroft that the powder was stored up in), and he was then marched away without a fight to be interrogated by the King himself.

6. “The whole Plot was a setup by the Earl Of Salisbury!!!”

(Rather than not knowing about the Treason, this myth is usually a sign of people thinking about it so much that they get carried away.)

The Gunpowder Treason, down the centuries, has in many ways been the precursor of 9/11. One of those ways is the conspiracy theories that surround the Conspiracy. Many people believe the US Government was ‘in on’ the attacks on Washington and New York. By similar reasoning, the popular myth about the Gunpowder Treason goes (and has done for over four hundred years) that it was all just a massive set-up by King James’ Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. The notion is that Salisbury was looking to curb the King’s would-be Catholic sympathies, and that he ‘provocateured’ Robert Catesby and his men into attempting the attack on Parliament in order to trap them and to smear Catholicism.

The theorists point to suspicious details; –

a) How did the Conspirators manage to obtain so much gunpowder and march it into the cellars of Parliament without being noticed?

b) How did they manage to secure a cellar directly beneath the House of Lords?

c) The tip-off the Government received (the Monteagle letter) seems highly doubtful, given that no one has ever been able to establish who wrote it.

d) Why, on receiving the letter, did Salisbury choose to wait five days to bring it to the King’s attention?

e) Isn’t it a bit lucky for the King that the gunpowder the Conspirators were planning to use ‘just happened’ to have spoiled?

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with these kinds of theories, application of common sense soon knocks it into the ground.

For a start, if you look at the nature of the plot itself, it’s clearly the product of an unstable mind. Purely as a straight-on terrorist attack, the act of blowing up Parliament and wiping out the entire ruling class would be madness. To set it up merely to frame someone is overkill on a ludicrous scale. Catesby was, if not mad, then clearly unstable enough to dream up such an attack, and he didn’t need anyone else to put the idea in his head.

By contrast, whatever else Salisbury was, he was never mad, and if he wanted to stir up anti-Catholic feelings, all he had to do was provoke them into assassinating a few officials inside the Government (maybe one or two of his rivals, thus killing two birds with one stone). Instead, the conspiracy theory requires him to rig a plot on this wild a scale, taking well over a year to progress from start to finish, and with no way of controlling the outcome. He was far too intelligent a man to take such a brainless risk.

Also, if the idea for the plot was given to them by an outsider, why is it the Conspirators never mentioned it during the weeks of interrogation, or at their show-trial? If they’d been set up, surely it must have occurred to at least one of them. So why did they not announce it to the gathered crowds as they were led to their executions?

As for the doubts raised above, all can be answered; –

a) This is a question that is asked from a modern perspective, a perspective that sees today’s attitudes to, and methods of, security. To understand where the powder was obtained, and why it was so easy to get it into the Houses Of Parliament, it’s important to keep the circumstances of the era in mind.

The Anglo-Spanish War had been raging from 1585 until shortly after the succession of the Scots King James VI to the English throne in 1603. During the war, gunpowder was being regularly manufactured in large quantities. With the end of the conflict, demand for gunpowder went through the floor – the army and the navy no longer needed anywhere near as much. So there was a sudden glut of powder on the market in London, and vendors had to cut their prices drastically to sell off their stocks and break even. There were absolutely no vetting procedures back then. So long as he could afford it, any customer could buy as much powder as he wanted, no questions asked. So it was easy and inexpensive to obtain the powder in the amounts the plotters needed.

As for getting the powder into the cellars of Parliament undetected, there is nothing suspicious about that. Yes it would be difficult to do that today (partly as a consequence of the Plot), but back then merchants were regularly renting rooms below Parliament for storing up their wares, and every day it was perfectly commonplace to see hundreds of civilians coming and going, hauling barrels on their shoulders.

b) (It was actually an undercroft, not a cellar.) As I said above, not difficult at all. There were numerous cellars and undercrofts below Parliament, and these were being rented out all the time. Given that the plot took over thirteen months to reach fruition, a suitable cellar was bound to become available at some point.

c) Actually no it isn’t doubtful, at least not in the sense that it must therefore have been a Government forgery. There’s no doubt that Lord Monteagle passed the letter to Salisbury, and there’s also little doubt that this is the first solid lead that the Government had found to the plot. (It’s possible that Salisbury had heard something on the grapevine about the Conspiracy quite early on, which is what he always claimed subsequently, but there’s no evidence that he did.)

The only doubt about the letter is over how Monteagle obtained it in the first place. His claim was that his servant was given it during the night by a dark stranger. The likelier explanation is that Monteagle wrote it himself. There is strong reason to suspect that Monteagle (being a prominent Catholic and a close friend of Catesby’s and several of the other plotters) learned of the Conspiracy, was against it, and decided to warn the Government, but in such a way that there could be no way of becoming implicated in it himself. Whatever the case, it is very doubtful that the letter was the first Monteagle knew of the Conspiracy, but that is the very clear implication of what he had to say.

d) At first, this certainly looks remarkably casual on Salisbury’s part, taking risks with the King’s life – which it was his first duty to protect as the Government’s chief ‘spymaster’ – and of scores of other peers including his own, by not moving with any urgency to inform the King. That can suggest he wasn’t worried because he himself engineered the situation.

But in fact, the exact opposite explanation is every bit as probable; Salisbury kept the letter under his hat, not because he was confident, but because he was terrified. Imagine if he had taken the letter to James and declared, “Your Majesty, I have just learned about this conspiracy that aims to murder you, your family, and all the lords of the English aristocracy. It has been developing for over a year, but this is the first I have heard of it, and the only information I have is in this cryptically-worded letter.” Given James’ notorious obsession with his own safety, Salisbury would likely have been fired on the spot, and possibly imprisoned. Therefore Salisbury’s best bet was to keep the letter quiet until he had gained more solid information to present to the King.

On the other hand, it is true that Salisbury always claimed in subsequent years that he had gotten wind of the plot at an early stage, but allowed it to ripen so that he could amass enough evidence to capture all the Conspirators and be sure of convicting them. This is possible, but beyond his say-so there is no indication that he really did know anything about it until as late as October 26th 1605, and he might just as easily have made the claim to enhance his own profile. It made it look to the King like he was always in control of the situation, and exceptionally good at his job as ‘Chief Intelligencer’, in the best traditions of his father, Lord Burghley.

e) Not particularly. The powder was studied shortly after the Conspiracy was thwarted, and sure enough, the conclusion was that it had spoiled (“deteriorated”/”decayed”) i.e. become damp, and some of the ingredients had separated. However, there is no reason to assume that the powder had spoiled before it was sold to the conspirators – it had been stored up in the vault below Parliament for months, during which time there was ample opportunity for it to become damp.

Furthermore, even if the powder was sold to the Conspirators in a spoiled condition as part of some kind of set-up, it leads to several important problems;-

Firstly, the sheer amount of gunpowder, thirty-six barrels, was enough to blow up Parliament at least five times over. (Depending on the size of the barrels, it might even have been enough to blow it up fifteen times over.) Just because it had spoiled, it does not necessarily follow that it would not explode. ‘Spoiled powder’ simply means gunpowder that forms into large, damp chunks that can’t be easily inserted into a gun-barrel or cannon. It can still burn and explode very violently under the right conditions of containment. While spoiling might have reduced the effectiveness somewhat, when you have enough of it to blow up your target five times over, you can afford some give.

There is also the problem that the Conspirators were going to have possession of the gunpowder for months on end. Selling them dud powder as a safeguard would be another foolish risk, because there would be every danger of them noticing it had spoiled when they had that long to keep an eye on it, whereupon they could just buy fresh stocks. Once again, Salisbury was far too bright not to have thought of that.

In short, a lot like most 9/11 conspiracy theories, 5/11 conspiracy theories just don’t stand up to scrutiny, or a simple application of common sense.

7. “Fireworks were invented for Bonfire Night to symbolise what would have happened to Parliament if the Plot had succeeded.”

I imagine a large number of people in China would raise the metaphorical brow at this idea, seeing fireworks were invented in their country roughly a thousand years before the Conspiracy. “Oriental prescience,” and whatnot? Hmm, if you say so.

In fact, fireworks were seldom used at Guy Fawkes Night celebrations for over a century after the Plot, the practise only really becoming popular from the early eighteenth century onwards. Up until then, the main practise to mark the occasion was simply to light a bonfire.

Given fireworks use gunpowder, there may feasibly be a tribute-link between their use and the details of the Plot, although I’ve never seen any evidence for it, and once again, it does sound a bit paradoxical; the event celebrates the failure of the gunpowder to explode. Why mark such a celebration with exploding gunpowder?

8. “If Fawkes had succeeded in blowing up Parliament, England would be a Catholic country today.”

Fat chance. As I pointed out in my answer to 3, had he succeeded, there would have been a civil war between Protestants and Catholics. The Catholics would have been hopelessly outnumbered, and the Protestants would still have had control of all the financial, military and legal advantages.

What would most likely have happened would have been the nationwide massacre of English Catholics.

Where am I going with all this? Well, addressing the bizarre enthusiasm for Guy Fawkes that’s developed over the last few years (especially internationally), it makes me uneasy when it’s coupled with so little understanding of why it’s there. What I would like is for the rather distasteful side of it to be recognised, its intrinsic anti-Catholic bigotry, and above all, the cold-blooded nastiness at its core. Celebrating someone being barbarically executed by burning them in effigy is utterly medieval, every bit as vulgar as the American celebrations when Osama bin Laden was assassinated in May. The difference is, in the case of November 5th, many people don’t seem completely to understand what it is they are celebrating when they cheer the sight of the effigy catching fire. If they did understand it, maybe they’d stop.

Guy Fawkes Night, as I say, should be retained, and it should be celebrated, but not for the reasons it normally is, nor for the reasons it was originally created. What it currently celebrates is the revenge, the blood-soaked ‘justice’ wrought upon the Conspirators. There’s no worthy reason for celebrating that at all. What should be celebrated instead is simply that the Gunpowder Plot failed.

Had it succeeded, the conflict (and likely extermination) that would have followed would have been one of the darkest periods in British history. When an actual Civil War broke out for unrelated reasons four decades later, the country saw the kinds of horror and misery that such a conflict could bring. That such a war was avoided, at least for a time, is undoubtedly a far happier reason to send up some fireworks and eat toffee apples, than some misplaced sense of satisfaction over Catholics having their entrails cut out.