Every year on November 5, towns and villages throughout England erupt into flame and flash, to the noise of exploding gunpowder. Though losing ground in some places to the American import of Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, or “Bonfire Night,” is still very widely observed, a noisy national festival of light, fire, and explosions in the face of deepening winter.
This cheerfully inclusive neighborhood event was, in origin, an aggressively Protestant celebration, commemorating the foiling of a Catholic plot to murder the King and ruling classes. For centuries the Church of England gave thanks annually for the delivery of King and Parliament “by popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter,” and year by year on every village green and marketplace, effigies of the Pope were burned in boisterously Protestant bonfires. In modern secular Britain these sectarian origins have mostly been forgotten. But they can still resurface. A colleague of mine, giving what she hoped was an impeccably balanced public lecture for last year’s fourth centenary of the Gunpowder Plot, was disconcerted by a whispered question from a member of the audience—“I know you’re an academic, but whose side are you on?”
The fireworks commemorate attempted political terrorism on a colossal scale. Around midnight on Monday, November 4, 1605, a government search party entered the undercroft below the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster, where the state opening of Parliament was to be held the following morning. There, under an immense and suspicious-looking mound of firewood, were stacked thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. Lurking in the cellar was a man, Guy Fawkes, cloaked, booted, and spurred as if for flight, and also discovered were slow fuses and tubes to carry them through the piles of wood.
So began the unraveling of a plot whose audacity of conception was matched only by its incompetence in performance. The thirty-six barrels held almost a ton of gunpowder, enough to demolish not only the Palace of Westminster but also Westminster Abbey, the neighboring church of St. Margaret, which the Commons used as their chapel, and most of the streets for fifty yards around. Had it gone off as intended, it would have vaporized King James I and VI, Anne of Denmark, his queen, and their sons, Henry and Charles, along with most of the English nobility, the entire Protestant episcopate, the leading judges, and every member of the House of Commons. In comprehensiveness of intent, at any rate, the plot thus dwarfed every modern act of terrorism, September 11 included. At one blow the political elite of an entire nation would have disappeared, leaving a power vacuum which the plotters planned to fill by a Catholic coup. They would seize James’s daughter, the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth, crown her Queen, and appoint a Protector from among the surviving Catholic noblemen: they believed, on not much evidence, that the Catholic gentry of the shires would spontaneously rise to support them. With the fig leaf of legitimacy provided by the infant princess, they …