The Gunpowder Plot: history's present

About the author
James Sharpe is professor of history at the University of York Among his books are Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) and Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman (Profile, 2004). James Sharpe’s latest book is Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (Profile, 2005)

Tomorrow, 5 November 2005, Britain remembers the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. On the night of 4-5 November 1605, a red-bearded York-born man in his mid-30s, Guy Fawkes, was caught in a storeroom under the Palace of Westminster.

Beside him were thirty-six items of damning evidence: barrels of gunpowder, which he was planning to ignite when parliament met later on the morning of 5 November, and blow to smithereens the foundation of the English state along with its leading personnel: the Houses of Lords and Commons; King James I and his wife, Anne of Denmark; Prince Henry, the heir to the throne; and England’s most prominent state officials.

Fawkes was one of a body of thirteen Catholic conspirators angered by the treatment of their religion in the Protestant England of the time. English Protestantism existed in a state of fear and loathing of Catholicism, and hence Catholic worship was forbidden. Catholics who did not attend Church of England services were fined, while English Catholic priests operating on English territory, along with those who abetted them, could be executed as traitors. As Robert Catesby, the leader of the conspirators, pointed out when the inner core of the plotters first met in May 1604, parliament was a legitimate target because it was from there that the penal laws against Catholics emanated.

James Sharpe is professor of history at the University of York

Among his books are Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) and Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman (Profile, 2004).

James Sharpe’s latest book is Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (Profile, 2005)

(In the US, the book is called Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day [Harvard University Press, 2005])

But the plot was foiled. Some of the conspirators died after a shoot-out with government forces, but eight survived to be tried and publicly executed in January 1606. In that same month, a grateful parliament passed a statute, one that would be repealed only in 1859. It enacted that every 5 November, in every parish church in England, there should be a service of thanksgiving that God had delivered the English from Catholicism – just as he had in 1558 when the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor died, and again in 1588 when the Spanish armada was defeated. Londoners were already celebrating their deliverance from Catholicism with bonfires on the day the plot was discovered, and ever since then 5 November has been a day of celebration in Britain.

The nature of that celebration has changed. Around 1680 there was a major crisis occasioned by the prospect of another Catholic monarch (James II) inheriting the throne, and 5 November became an occasion for displays of popular Protestantism, with effigies of the pope burnt on London’s streets. By the 1750s the pope-burning ceremonies had crossed the Atlantic, and 5 November was celebrated as “Pope Day” in Britain’s north American colonies.

In 1850 the reintroduction of a Catholic hierarchy in England produced a new wave of anti-papal demonstrations on 5 November, although by that date, more prosaically, the Fifth had also become a day on which urban mobs regularly took on the police and borough authorities in an annual attempt to seize control of the streets. On this popular level, it was the effigy of Guy Fawkes rather than the pope which was most likely to be burnt, and this continued when the Fifth became domesticated, and most people celebrated the day around bonfires on street corners, or at home with bonfires and fireworks in their back gardens or backyards.

One of the fascinations of researching the history of Bonfire Night is realising just how much it has changed over the four centuries since 1605, and how the date has been appropriated for so many different purposes, and how it has assumed so many different resonances. But one is left wondering what its significance is in a modern, multicultural, and largely secular Britain.

For most people, attending a 5 November celebration is simply an excuse to go out and watch the spectacle of both a bonfire and fireworks. Anthropologists, despite the central importance of ritual to their discipline, have not really got to grips with popular ritual in post-industrial societies, and so we don’t really know what, if any, deeper meanings should be read into this annual festival. What we can suggest, however, is that the continuation of events like this into the 21st century raise questions about the uses of history in modern Britain.

The return of history

Some thirty years ago I was stopped in the street by a young girl who asked me for a penny for the Guy, the “Guy” being a fairly basic effigy she had propped against a nearby wall. I replied, jokingly, that I wouldn’t give her anything as I had been baptised a Catholic. “What’s that got to do with it?”, she asked. The old rhyme exhorts us to “Remember, remember the Fifth of November”, but some fundamentals about the Gunpowder Plot had clearly been forgotten – or never learned – in this urchin’s cultural milieu. This year, with the media attention which the anniversary has been afforded in Britain, there may be a heightened awareness of the story of what happened in 1605. But despite Guy Fawkes’s status as an iconic figure, one doubts if most of those attending bonfires on 5 November will have much idea of the origins of Bonfire Night.

Does this matter? I would argue that it does. Britain (and I guess much the same will be true of other western countries) is becoming an historically illiterate nation. History ought to be something which addresses complexities, forces us to examine uncomfortable topics (and hence encourage us to ask uncomfortable questions about ourselves), helps hone our critical edge as we confront modern political issues, and gives our culture depth and maturity.

But for most people such contact with the past as they experience comes through what the anarchist writer Colin Ward (in a 1985 review of a seminal book by the cultural historian Patrick Wright, On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain) called the “heritage industry”.

This flourishing industry – unkindly, but not totally inaccurately, described as “history through dressing up” – is evident in a proliferating number of television programmes where presenters frequently see themselves as more important than the topic in question, through popular biographies of monarchs or members of the upper classes, and through the superficial retelling of familiar stories using modern gizmos that function more to distract than to educate and inspire curiosity.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of memory in Britain:

Patrick Wright, “The stone bomb” (April 2003)

Neal Ascherson, “Victory’s lost sister – the wreck of the Implacable” (October 2005)

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The Gunpowder Plot is one of those episodes from the past which, despite its chronological distance, helps us hone that critical edge, and makes us aware that history – real history, not the saccharine or formulaic pap that constitutes so much of its popular and media presentation – ought to be put back on the agenda as a focus of social concern. Contemporary events and processes in Britain underline that history is directly relevant to far more than those with a professional interest in the subject.

The 1605 plot happened, after all, because extremist members of a religious faith felt that the political system they lived under was so oppressive that it needed to be overturned. This is, presumably, what motivated the suicide-bombers who struck in London on 7 July 2005. We inhabit a culture where, for most people, there is little place either for a strong religious faith or for ideological politics more generally. This is why acts of terror (whether the July bombings, 9/11, or the IRA bombings in several English cities in the last three decades) seem so incomprehensible. If nothing else, the history of the Gunpowder Plot provides a shortcut to understanding a world where people were willing to die, and kill, for their religious faith.

Moreover, religious faith is something which promises to become more important in Britain. If events follow their predicted course – and in the absence of a republican revolution – the British will within the next decade or two be ruled by Charles III. Our future king will be head of the established Church of England and “defender of the faith”, but he claims that he wishes to be the “defender of faiths”, that is to say all faiths.

It will be interesting to see how Charles reconciles loyalty to the official, legally-sanctioned Anglican church with support for the many other religions present in modern British society. In a world and a country where the passions of faith are entering and influencing the political realm in new and challenging ways, one can only hope that he – and the political system he crowns – will take the lessons of November 1605 to heart, and take steps to ensure that no adherent of any faith feels permanently excluded from Britain’s cultural and political mainstream.