In the late evening of 4th November 1605 a group of brave men had assembled in a large cellar directly beneath the House of Lords. They were young, idealistic, tough and (as they saw it) true lovers of their country. They were also devoted to their religion – the Roman Catholic Faith – which had been persecuted with increasing severity, ever since the Protestant Elizabeth I succeeded the Catholic Mary Tudor on the throne, over the past forty years. The next morning the new Protestant King, the Scottish James I, was due to deliver his Speech from the Throne to the assembled Lords and Commons in the Lords chamber, directly above their heads. The half dozen men gathered in the cellar had come together with one single, simple and amazing idea. They would finally put an end to the intolerable persecution of Catholic England by blowing the King, his evil heretical counsellors and his Parliament into eternity with gunpowder.
The conspirators were all well-known for their fighting prowess. They included Robert Catesby, a fine rider and excellent swordsman, who had been involved in the mad, failed rebellion of the Earl of Essex against Elizabeth, who had once been in love with him. There was Thomas Percy, a big, handsome man with aristocratic connections, but poor, desperate and fired with religious zeal. And there was their charismatic leader, Guy Fawkes, a Yorkshireman, a soldier of fortune who had been involved in many plots to lighten the burden of the English Catholics with the help of arms from Catholic Spain. After a brief prayer for help to Our Lady, the other conspirators separated each to his assigned place, leaving Guy Fawkes alone.
John Casey is lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College. He writes and reviews frequently in newspapers and journals. Among his books are Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics (Clarendon Press, 1990)
His essay on the Tridentine mass, "Rediscovering Traditionalism", was the most read piece on openDemocracy in 2008
(With thanks to Jerome di Costanzo for the picture of Pope Harold)
Guy Fawkes is now one of our great national heroes – in fact he seems certain to be voted the BBC’s Greatest Briton – and everyone knows what he looks like from the portraits and statues of him that abound in all our town halls and public squares: a tall, powerfully-built, resolute man with reddish brown hair, full moustache and beard. But on that 5th November he was completely unknown – which made it easy for him to avoid the guards and Government spies. Security was so lax that no one bothered to ask Fawkes what he was doing as he transported thirty six barrels of gunpowder – up to 10,000 lbs weight of the stuff - to the cellar under the Lords from a house he had rented next door. If each had had “gunpowder” printed on it, still no one would have noticed. The barrels contained enough gunpowder to blow the Houses of Parliament sky-high – which they duly did.
After his companions left him, Guy Fawkes lurked on in the cellar overnight 4th-5th November. He had even been seen – a tall, stooping man in a large hat. He was waiting to light the fuse the moment he guessed the King had begun his speech. It was a very long fuse – about fifteen minutes – so Fawkes had just enough time to leave the building and take a boat across the river to meet his fellow conspirators before the gunpowder exploded. He was half way across when the building went up. Then he and the rest set out to mount their coup d’etat.
That gigantic explosion – never to be forgotten by any who heard it – destroyed James I, at least eight hundred members of the Lords and Commons, nearly all the Bishops of the Church of England, and the sinister head of James’s secret police, Lord Salisbury. It left the country incredulous, astounded and terrified. It seemed like the end of the world, the overthrow of all order, the day of doom.
Yet people should have guessed that something of this sort was bound to happen. Fawkes and the others were all zealous Catholics, and the English Catholics had been having a bad time. It was no fun for them to be forbidden rosaries and crucifixes. It was even less fun for a priest to be hanged, cut down before he was dead, and have his bowels drawn out in front of him, just for saying Mass. This did slightly offend the English sense of fair play and taking the side of the underdog. After all, Catholics were obliged by their religion to go to Mass every Sunday. Not being allowed to educate your children as Catholics, and having to pay huge fines if you refused to attend the Anglican Church, hardly sent the right signal either. James had promised a tolerant Third Way in religion, and this heavy-handedness seemed too Old Protestant. The last straw was the idea of some spin-doctor at James’s court (later disowned) that Catholics should all have their children taken away from them and be forced to wear red hats like the Jews at Naples.
No wonder Fawkes and his friends were sure that theirs was a Holy War against an infidel, that in blowing up James they would be heroes, and that if they failed they would go straight to Paradise as martyrs.
And James was not personally popular. His legs were so weak that he had to lean on people’s shoulders when he stood up, and he spent too much time slobbering over good-looking young men. In fact one of the conspirators, the handsome Thomas Percy, had actually interviewed James in Scotland about toleration for Catholics before he became King of England, but James had spent the entire interview in making sexual advances. There was a feeling he had something or other coming to him.
Over the next few weeks,Fawkes and friends, with the help of the powerful pro-Catholic Earl of Northumberland, consolidated their power. They called in Spanish troops, seized the infant sons of James, brought them up as Catholics and officially restored Catholicism in this country. It proved quite easy – there were lots of secret Catholics, and anyway Spanish troops were a strong argument for conversion.
The reign of James’s son, Charles I, is famous as being a period of peace and prosperity. At the beginning of his reign Charles had to crack down on a small sect of Protestant fanatics, called ‘Puritans’, who hated the arts and the theatre, and wanted to substitute something they called ‘bank holidays’ for the numerous saints’ days on which we are all let off work, and to do away with the May Poles, the Church Ales and all the paraphernalia of Merrie England. Those who were not eliminated by the Holy English Inquisition fled to America.
Charles and his successors filled London with gorgeous churches and public buildings in the Roman baroque style, as befitted their status as absolute rulers. Every November 5th, the streets of all our cities were filled with great processions of prelates, monks, priests nuns and laity, with tapers, incense and hymns to the Virgin Mary, celebrating our Great Deliverance. England, in alliance with Spain, became a great European power. Charles I sent General Cromwell to get back Bordeaux and other old English possessions in France, and to drive the Protestants out of Holland and parts of Germany. So English power on the Continent became a main stay of the Catholic Church.
Indeed so close were the popes to the Holy Anglo-Irish Empire (which soon outstripped that of Spain) that they were widely regarded as English puppets in what was known as ‘the Westminster Captivity.’ Popes always spoke of their ‘special relationship’ with England- the “favourite daughter” of the Church. For two centuries,it was a tradition that only an Englishman was ever elected to the Papacy.
It was an Anglo-Irish empire because, following Fawkes’s success, Catholic Ireland remained intensely loyal to the English Catholic kings, even after the Stuartline died out and the German Hanoverians (having been compelled to convert to Rome) came in. But Protestant Scotland along with several Protestant counties in the north of Ireland broke away to form a Calvinist republic. Since southern Ireland is intensely conservative politically (unlike Scotland) their seats at Westminster ensured that we never had a socialist government.
The English Catholic Church soon became quite liberal, in a thoroughly English way – assisted by the fact that the pope was always an English aristocrat who was more interested in hunting and shooting than in making a theological nuisance of himself. (It was Pope Harold I who famously proclaimed the doctrine of Papal Fallibility in 1870.) The intolerant Spanish never liked this anglicisation of Rome,but there was nothing they could do about it. All of Europe admired England with its love of philosophy and theology, its mixture of French witty intellectualism and English commonsense, its excellent wines from its French possessions, its Anglo-French cuisine. The famous television chef, Jacques Oliver, is equally at home in haute cuisine, as a writer of poetry in the Japanese haiku style, and as an expositor of the difficult German philosopher, Wittgenstein. The beer swilling, xenophobic yobbery and football hooliganism that afflicted Scotland and other Protestant countries of northern Europe were unknown here. Our national passion – bullfighting– which we took from our Spanish allies, does not encourage mere random thuggery. London, a city filled with gorgeous palaces built by our many English popes in tribute to their native land, having at its centre the great Cathedral of Our Lady of the Flowers, built by Sir Christopher Wren, but also a place of la dolce vita and every sort of sophisticated decadence, has long been the most truly European city in the world.
The Victorian period was a great one for the English Catholic Church. There was Father Charles Darwin’s great book on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. (After he came back to the Faith he is reported to have destroyed the manuscript of an unpublished book that allegedly claimed that human beings descend from marmosets – although such obvious nonsense seems hard to credit in so intelligent and pious a man.) Mr Disraeli caused real trouble, though, when he announced that India was to be consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It caused a second Indian Mutiny which had to be put down with much bloodshed. The English monarchs have always been very devout, so it was no surprise when Queen Victoria retired to a nunnery after the death of her beloved Albert, later to be joined by Sister Florence Nightingale. Both have since been canonised by the pope.
Catholic England avoided the extremes of religious bigotry which deformed Spain, and the kill-joy Puritanism and priggery that made life dreary in the Paisley dynasty’s Calvinist federation of the North of Ireland and Scotland. The English Catholic Church, confident and worldly, encouraged in the nation an ethos of genial scepticism and tolerance. No public figures were ever hounded because of their private sexual failings – for humbug and hypocrisy never became English vices. At the same time people knew how to keep up appearances. English women became famous for concealing unbridled passions beneath a demure exterior – an art they were taught by French and Italian nuns in the convent schools. England remained one of the most devout nations in the world. Nearly everyone went to Church on Sunday before spending the rest of the day enjoying themselves – often at the many subsidised bullfights.
Some are troubled by the oath that the monarch still swears at the Coronation to “uphold the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome and all his works and all his pomps.” There are rumours that the Prince of Wales (assuming that he does not retire to a monastery) may wish to modify this when he becomes King to satisfy various ethnic groups, as well as the small Protestant minority, but tradition will probably win out.
As the Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury said the other day: “Let us all enjoy our fireworks, and the burning of effigies of Luther and other heretics, this November 5th - especially the kiddies. But let as many of us as possible go to Mass as well, to remind ourselves what the day really is: the Commemoration of St Guido Fawkes, who saved England for Holy Mother Church.”