Monday, November 05, 2007

Today is the traditional Guy Fawkes Day in England. In times past children used to go from door to door with a effigy of Fawkes and ask for "pennies for the Guy". These would be spent for the purchase of fireworks. In our present day where having unorganized fun is considered a sign of mental derangement and all possibly and even fantastically conceivably "dangerous" pasttimes are to be erased from childhood, this practice of unsupervised "begging" is condemned by the politically correct of both right and left. As to fireworks, not only can you no longer set them off without permission, but simple possession by anyone under 18 years in a public place is illegal.

Guy Fawkes was born on April 13th 1570 in Stonegate, York. He was baptised on April 16 1570. His father later died, and his mother remarried in 1582 to a firmly convinced Catholic. Despite being raised as an Anglican it is likely that his stepfather's influence led to his later adherence to Catholicism. Fawkes converted to the Church of Rome at age 16. He left England in 1593 to serve in various catholic armies on the continent, gaining considerable experience with explosives in the course of this service.

Fawkes was not actually the originator of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, even though he was the only one of the conspirators to enter popular legend. The mastermind was Robert Catesby. Other conspirators included Hugh Owen, Sir William Stanley and Thomas Winter amongst others. At the beginning of the 1600s imperial Spain was in the same situation as the USA is today. It was fighting too many wars and was too seriously in debt for anyone to expect that it could mount any real efforts to help English Roman Catholics. They were on their own, and persecution of both Catholics and extreme Puritans at the other extreme was heightened by James Ist's 1604 Hampton Court Conference.

The conspirators decided to attempt to blow up the House of Lords on the occasion of the opening of Parliament by the King on November 5th 1605. This would have disposed of both the Royal Family and the mostly Protestant aristocracy. They succeeded in renting a cellar beneath the House of Lords and had accumulated 1800 pounds of gunpowder in the room. Whether this would have been sufficient for the job we will never know. One of the conspirators, concerned that Catholic nobles might be amongst the victims turned informer and sent a letter to Lord Monteagle who received it on October 26th. Amazingly enough the plotters learned of this letter on the 27th but decided to go ahead with their plans on finding that nothing had been disturbed in the cellar. The result was something of a comedy or errors as bureaucratic sloth and stupidity raced against terrorist bravado and equal stupidity. The Secretary of State initiated a search of the premises only in the early morning of the 5th itself. Legend has it that a torch was snatched from Fawkes' hand just as he was about to light the fuse, but this detail is likely apocryphal.

Fawkes was submitted to torture, and for three to four days he held out. He only gave out the names of fellow conspirators when he learned that they had made a comic opera attempt to save the fiasco by a hopeless armed assault. Most were either dead or captured, and Fawkes revealed no names that weren't already known by the authorities. On January 31 1606 Fawkes and several other survivors were tried in Westminster Hall. They were taken to two places of execution where they were to be hanged, drawn and quartered amongst other mutilations. Fawkes escaped most of this protracted death by jumping from the scaffold, succeeding in breaking his neck.

The story continued to fascinate the population, both official and commoners. The slang term of "guy" to refer to a male person began from this fascination (see ). References to Fawkes perculated through literature, from Milton to Dickens and on to Ray Bradbury (his rebel fireman Guy Montag is modelled after Fawkes). In 1982 Alan Moore published his anti-utopian novel 'V for Vendetta' where the rebel V wears a Guy Fawkes mask. This was made into the movie of a rebel against a fascistic state in 2006 under the eponymous title of 'V for Vendetta'.

The saying that "Guy Fawkes was the only man to ever enter Parliament with honest intentions" probably originated in the 19th century popular theatre. The phrase began to be used in anarchist posters from the early part of the 20th century, and it was later revived by same in the latter decades of same.
The Gunpowder Plot Society ( )
Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night ( )
Center for Fawkesian Pursuits ( )

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