Civil Liberties

Time to forgive Guy Fawkes?


“Guy Fawkes should be forgiven because he has become a ‘global brand’, says headmaster of Catholic plotter’s old school.” That’s a summary of an inept piece in the Telegraph (churned by the Daily Mail), which simply spouts Leo Winkley’s meandering reasoning without any critical engagement or historical discernment at all.

It appears that Guy Fawkes, having become “an internationally recognised symbol of British culture”, merits forgiveness because “It’s debatable whether he was a freedom fighter or a terrorist”, and:

“Burning a Guy is likely to be seen as an expression of religious intolerance at worst or more likely, an inexplicable historical throwback. Consider this: how would we explain it to a seven year old? If we’re not comfortable explaining it, we shouldn’t do it! Most people call it bonfire night. Time to move on and let the poor soul rest.”

So celebrating Bonfire Night by burning a Guy is an expression of “religious intolerance”. The fact that he attempted to blow up Parliament, assassinate King James I and extinguish democracy is apparently of little importance. Should we pardon freedom fighters Gerry Adam and Martin McGuinness for attempting to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her entire Cabinet? O, hang on..

When does a cursed terrorist become a feted freedom fighter? Nelson Mandela, Yitzhak Shamir, Colonel Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat..

Will we soon see the leaders of the Islamic State on the White House lawn, lauded as heroes and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

We’ve actually largely forgotten the reasons for Guy Fawkes’ execution: Bonfire Night has been subsumed to Halloween, and the fireworks syncretised with Diwali. Far from being a traitor and terrorist, Guy Fawkes is now lauded for his justified political objectives: his image is idolised in ‘V for Vendetta’ and has been transmuted into the ‘Occupy’ symbol of liberty against capitalist tyranny.

Surely the Protestant Reformation was about the ordinary man and woman standing up to corrupt authority and declaring: “Let the people decide!” From that cry came the right to read Scripture in the vernacular and the freedom to approach God through no intercessor but Jesus. We learned what it meant to be individual and equal, out of which flowed the liberties which led to democracy. Surely the establishment of the Protestant Monarchy and the free Church of England is irrevocably fused with our freedoms?

As Daniel Hannan MEP once observed:

People were in no doubt that a way of life had been preserved: our monarchy, our representative government, the things that made us different from Continental despotisms. King James told relieved MPs that, had the plot been successful, “it should never have been spoken or written in ages succeeding that I had died ingloriously in an Ale-house, a Stews or such vile place, but that mine end should have been with the most honourable and best company, and in the most honourable and best place, for a king to be, doing the terms most proper to his office”.

The parliamentarians, delighted to find their sovereign and themselves in one piece, didn’t stop to wonder what His Majesty might have been doing in a tavern of a brothel. They cheered him lustily and voted him a generous subsidy.

What would they say, those brave, drunk, patriotic, quarrelsome MPs, if they could see their successor Parliament surrendering its prerogatives, not as the result of a successful terrorist attack nor a bloody insurrection, not following defeat in war or foreign occupation, but by its own votes? How reduced we are as a people.

And he concluded that today we should be burning the Treaty of Rome rather than its Bishop.

Not, of course, that many places burn effigies of the Pope any more: most of us stick to the terrorist and traitor Fawkes. One has to wonder, though, on the day we commemorate deliverance from a seditious continental terrorist plot and the treacherous subversion of Rome, that the continental powers have achieved the subjugation of England, her Monarch and her Parliament, and the Treaty of Rome has triumphed. The wheel is come full circle.

Before the meaning and significance of Guy Fawkes’ Night are lost forever in historic revisionism and the forgetfulness of time, or eclipsed by sundry multifaith festivals of light with altogether foreign affirmations and commemorations, it is worth reflecting on the value of the remembrance.

Gratitude to God for deliverance is no longer part of the national psyche: there has been no full-frontal attempt at invasion by a foreign power for 70 years, and so our security and liberty are taken for granted by generations who have never experienced the threat of oppression. The exercise of democracy has become a quaint tradition which many are now content to see compromised and diminished, and in which millions no longer bother to participate at all.

The Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries knew what it was to contend for liberty against the oppression of Rome. They also knew how to celebrate and commemorate the deliverance of England with the sort of flame which, by God’s grace, they trusted might never be put out.

Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot failed in its objective to assassinate the Protestant King James, blow Parliament to kingdom come and restore the old religion. And that failure meant the preservation of our liberties and independence from the oppression of foreign princes and potentates. And the King and Parliament decreed that henceforth the 5th November would be remembered throughout history with fireworks, bonfires and feasts of celebration; with gratitude to God, an abundance of joy and thanksgiving, patriotic revelry and not a little drunkenness.

And so a most blessed Guy Fawkes’ Night to all readers and communicants, of all faiths and none. And should you share Headmaster Winkley’s reservations about historic oppression and religious intolerance, please remember that Westminster Cathedral still styles Archbishop Cranmer “heretic”.

True Protestants I pray you do draw near
Unto this ditty lend attentive ear,
The lines are new although the subject’s old
Likewise it is as true as e’er was told.

When James the First in England reigned King,
Under his Royal gracious Princely wing
Religion flourish’d both in court and town
Which wretched Romans strove to trample down.

To their old plotting trade they straight did go,
To prove this Kingdom’s final overthrow
A plot contriv’d by Catholics alone
The like before or since was never known.

Rome’s Council did together often meet
For to contrive which way they might complete
This bloody treason which they took in hand
Against the King, and Heads of all the land.

At length these wretched Romans all agreed
Which way to make the King and Nation bleed
By powder, all agreed with joint consent.
To blow up both the King and Parliament.

For to keep secret this, their villany
By solemn oaths they one another tie
Nay farther, being void of grace and shame,
Each took the Sacrament upon the same.

Their Treason wrapp’d in this black mantle, then,
Secure and safe from all the eyes of men,
They did not fear/ but by one fatal blow,
To prove the Church and Kingdom’s overthrow.

Catesby with all the other Roman crew,
This powder plot did eagerly pursue
Yet after all their mighty cost and care
Their own seat soon was taken in the snare.

Under the House of the great Parliament,
This Romish Den, and Devils by consent,
The Hellish powder plot they formed there,
In hopes to send all flying in the air.

barrels of powder privately convey’d,
billets and bars of iron too, were laid.
to tear up all before them as they flew,
a black invention by this dismal crew.

and with the fatal blow all must have flown,
the gracious king upon his royal throne,
His Gracious Queen likewise their Princely heir
All must have died and perish’d that was there.

The House of Noble Lords of high degree,
By this unheard of bloody tragedy,
Their limbs in sunder, straight would have been tore
And fill’d the air with noble bloody gore.

The worthy learned Judges grave and sagey
The Commons too, all must have felt Rome’s rage,
Had not the Lord of Love crept in between
Oh! what a dismal slaughter there had been.

The King, the Queen and Barons of the land.
The Judges, Gentry did together stand,
On ruin’s brink, while Rome the blow would give,
They’d but the burning of a match to live.

But that great God that sits in Heaven high.
He did behold their bloody treachery,
He made their own handwriting soon betray
The work which they had plotted many a day.

The Lord in Mercy did his Wisdom send,
Unto the King, his people to defend,
Which did reveal the hidden powder plot,
A gracious mercy, ne’er to be forgot

And brought Rome’s faction unto punishment,
Which did the powder treason first invent,
And all that ever plots, I hope God will,
That the true Christian church may flourish still.