[Milton-L] In Quintam Novembris

Carol Barton cbartonphd at earthlink.net
Sat Nov 5 18:00:26 EST 2005


May we never have to "celebrate" another terrorist act--successful or not.

I earlier posted the DNB write-up on Fawkes, but see that the message is being held for moderator approval, due to length. Meanwhile, here is a small but pertinent excerpt, for those who don't subscribe:

"On 5 November 1605 the inhabitants of London were encouraged to light bonfires in celebration of the king's apparently providential deliverance, always provided that 'this testemonye of joy be carefull done without any danger or disorder'. The citizens were happy to oblige, John Chamberlain marvelling at the 'great ringing and as great store of bonfires as ever I thincke was seene' (CLRO, journal of common council, 27, fol. 4; The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. F. McClure, 2 vols., 1939, 1.213). Bonfires and the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot have gone hand in hand ever since, a curious circumstance given that by any objective assessment the plot was just another in a line of failed conspiracies against the state. Right at the start it was the lingering uncertainties, the unresolved loose ends, and the king's own perception of God's divine hand which nourished collective memory. James saw great significance in the fact that he had been delivered from both Gowrie conspiracy and Gunpowder Plot on a Tuesday the 5th. Parliament passed an act for an annual public thanksgiving, gunpowder sermons were preached at court throughout his reign, and although the wording changed over time, prayers of thanksgiving for deliverance from the plot remained in the calendar of the established church until 1859.

Over a much longer timescale, numerous circumstances have conspired to preserve commemoration in some form or other of events on 5 November 1605. Among these the most important have been repeated attempts either by the state or by some particular group within the country to focus the minds of Englishmen on a particularly horrific manifestation of Catholic perfidy. Gunpowder Plot commemoration was appropriated by the puritans in the 1630s and 1640s as they countered the creeping popery perceived in Charles I's court. Fireworks are observed from at least the 1650s, and the burning of effigies became fairly common after the much publicized torching of the 'whore of Babylon'-adorned with symbols of papal office-by London apprentices in 1673, following the conversion to Catholicism of the heir presumptive, James, duke of York. The Popish Plot frenzy and the exclusion struggles generated a fresh intensity in 5 November celebrations. James II's government failed in its attempt to ban fires and fireworks, and the fact that William of Orange landed at Torbay on 5 November 1688 once again magnified the date in the minds of many protestant Englishmen. From that day to this, as the old rhyme observes, gunpowder treason has 'never been forgot'. The fifth of November persisted as a day on which rowdy youths took the opportunity for challenging local authorities up and down the land: at that level there was little perception of the original conspiracy, just as today the historical facts are, for many, submerged beneath spectacle and consumerism. Commemoration was given yet another lease of life in the 1850s by the antagonisms generated by Catholic emancipation, and the re-establishment of a Catholic religious hierarchy in England.

In 1790 The Times recorded boys begging in the street 'to burn Guy Faux'. By Victoria's reign, Fawkes-the cloaked figure in the cellar-was burnt in effigy almost everywhere, rather than the pope or the devil, and he has, in an increasingly secular and religiously tolerant age, held his place of dishonour atop the bonfires ever since, joined occasionally by the transient demon-figures of state politics or the popular press: suffragettes, the Kaiser, and Margaret Thatcher among them. Through the twentieth century celebrations have become more orderly, more tame. Even back-garden firework displays, widespread as late as the 1970s, have been frustrated by safety considerations, and the pull of large, organized shows. Those few surviving examples of vehement anti-Catholic ritual on bonfire night-at Lewes in Sussex, for example-are noteworthy in their rarity. Gunpowder Plot day has become Guy Fawkes' night, bonfire night, or firework night, but the durability of this particular manifestation of Englishness-its ability to reinvent a reason for continuing-remains remarkable.

Perhaps this is only right. Though a failure, the plot came very close to success. Theories, as old as the treason itself, that the government either knew of the conspiracy from an early stage, or that it actually manipulated the conspirators through one or more agents provocateurs, draw unwarranted conclusions from the surviving evidence, fail to advance any credible motive for such chicanery, and were, indeed, effectively demolished long ago by S. R. Gardiner (in What Gunpowder Plot Was, 1897; see Nicholls, 213-20). The magnitude of Fawkes's intended treason should never be underestimated. Ordnance records state that the 18 hundredweight of powder transferred from the cellar to the Tower of London was 'decaied', but modern calculations suggest that, decayed or not, few if any in the Lords that afternoon would have survived a combination of devastating explosion and the noxious fumes thrown out by the combustion of seventeenth-century gunpowder. Guy Fawkes, the experienced soldier, knew this only too well."

May we never have another terrorist act to "celebrate"--failed, or otherwise.

Carol Barton


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