Friday, November 05, 2010

The Guy Fawkes Tradition


GUY FAWKES DAY is a curious and fascinating custom that dates back to the early seventeenth century of England. Fawkes, a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Anglican faith of his infancy, had been born (1570) in the reign of Elizabeth I. This means that he grew up in a milieu that still remembered the ghastly pendulum-swings in England from Catholic to Protestant and back, with each side brutally burning their opponents at the stake, hanging them, beheading them, drawing and quartering them, and so on, as they revolved in and out of power.

By 1605 the sitting monarch was James VI and I, son of Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) and immediate successor to Elizabeth I. Mary had herself been particularly brutalized by the revolutions of power mentioned above, though Elizabeth seems to have regretted her own direct part in Mary's beheading, and was overall rather less brutal to her religious adversaries than her sister Mary Tudor ('Bloody Mary') or their father Henry VIII had been to theirs. Mary Stuart, interestingly, had been implicated in a gunpowder plot of her own: in 1567 a lodge at Kirk o' Field was blown up, allegedly to kill her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who slept within. But whereas Mary lived and died devoted to the church of Rome, her son by Darnley -- James -- was raised by devout Protestants. It was only as a Protestant that he could inherit Elizabeth's throne, which he did. As King of England, he authorized the famous King James Bible, first published in 1611 -- arguably the single achievement of his life that has had the most far-reaching impact on the world. But it should also be remembered that he published two other works -- The True Law of Free Monarchies (1597) and Basilikon Doron (1598) -- in which he promulgated the Divine Right of Kings, an absolutist approach to monarchy quite distinct from the constitutional theory of monarchy under which England had operated at least since Magna Carta. Indeed these works promote the return of the monarchy to a system of pure feudal overlordship, making the King literal owner (and virtually complete master) of his domain.
Such a politics might seem quite problematic for Catholic and Protestant alike; but coming from a Protestant king, it was likely interpreted in this case as disallowing any Catholic pretenders to the throne.

That there was a Protestant king on the throne of England did not mean that no more Catholics remained in the realm. These, known as 'Recusants' for their 'refusal' of the Anglican rite, continued to be punished in various ways, up to and occasionally including execution.

So we should not be entirely surprised that in 1605 a plot was formed to replace James with a Catholic monarch. A group of thirteen Recusant conspirators resolved to blow up the House of Lords, even as the King sat enthroned in state for the ceremonial opening of Parliament.

To this dramatic end, they stockpiled thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a storage room beneath the House of Lords in Westminster; they left Guy Fawkes, a seasoned military veteran, guarding the stash.

Unbeknownst to these conspirators, the plot had already been revealed almost two weeks earlier to Baron Monteagle and the Earl of Suffolk, who caught Fawkes red-handed and foiled the plot.

Many of the conspirators fled, but Fawkes and seven others were tried and sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering -- ever since 1351 the traditional punishment in England for high treason. This is an especially brutal form of execution in which the convicted is hanged, but not unto death; disembowelled and shown his own entrails; castrated, if a man; and then cut into pieces and beheaded. The head goes on a spike, to warn other locals of the dangers of treason; the chunks of body are sent to the four corners of the kingdom with a proclamation along the lines of: 'So perish all the King's enemies.'

For some inexplicable reason, Fawkes was reluctant to undergo such torture, so as he mounted the scaffold for hanging, he jumped off and broke his own neck. The complete execution was nevertheless performed on his dead body. It is said, perhaps accurately, that on the night the plot was defused, the King's loyal subjects lit bonfires in celebration of his rescue from the Gunpowder Plot.

Fawkes's name, 'Guy' (or 'Guido' as he was known in Spain), came to mean someone in outlandish dress (as in the phrase 'guyed up'), though this usage is now itself antique. Today the word 'guy' is roughly synonymous with 'chap' or 'bloke' and has become current even in the UK to refer to a (usually adult male) person, without further specification.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

This, then, is the historical underpinning to today's Guy Fawkes Day celebrations. Lewes, in East Sussex, is surely the town best-known in England for its 'Bonfire Night,' which includes not only bonfires but also fireworks, processions with burning crosses, costumes, music, and so on. The principal reason for most people to engage in such celebrations is doubtless that of most such events: to have a good time with one's friends, build a bonfire (an elemental, even primordial urge, creating intense light in the darkness), set off fireworks, and carouse in whatever other ways the moment inspires.
(As such, Bonfire Night resembles other ostensibly different ceremonies, such as the parades for the Chinese New Year, the Palio of Siena, and the Mardi Gras festivities of New Orleans.)

But a longstanding part of the English tradition is to use the bonfire to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. Along the way, since 1605, other effigies have also been tossed into this fire, from Pope Paul V to Margaret Thatcher to Osama Bin Laden.

Now I like a festival as much as the next guy, and I am particularly fond of fireworks, which (born and raised a US citizen) I associate first and foremost with the Fourth of July, next with New Year's Eve, and thirdly with Disneyland. But -- at the risk of being proclaimed a party-pooper -- I think it's also worth taking the Fifth of November as a moment each year to ponder the perversity of killing (murdering, assassinating, executing -- choose your specific verb) another human being because their religious beliefs do not exactly match one's own. If as a species we could unite in our opposition to such an enormity, I would count that as unequivocal progress.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

As a bonus I here append a variorum text of the traditional children's rhyme about Guy Fawkes. Like any folk tradition, this has numerous variants, and it may be utter folly even to try and divine an 'original' version. The poem is sometimes ascribed to W. H. Ainsworth, whose novel Guy Fawkes appeared in the mid-1800s. but in fact versions of the chant appear as early as the 1650s. The poem was parodied in 1888 by J. E. Clarke in a political lampoon of Gladstone; and others have used it similarly parodically.

If there is an 'earliest' stratum to be discerned, it probably involves only the first four lines (and these are all that we find in a version of 1651). It may be that lines 5ff. originated as a completely different chant, and that the two were spliced together at some point; the meter is certainly different than that of the first four lines. Line 13, being of a different meter yet again, probably originated as a ritual cry at some bonfire night. But all these are mere speculations, in the absence of a really secure textual tradition.

The Guy Fawkes Chant

Please to remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and his Parliament.
Threescore barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;

By God's mercy he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and lighted match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

And what should we do with him? Burn him!

1. Please to remember: Remember, remember
5. 'twas his intent: was all intent
6. the King and his Parliament: King and Parliament
7. of powder below: were laid below
9. mercy: providence
10. lighted: burning
11-12. Holloa: holla, holler [or other spellings]
13. [possibly a later addition to the earlier 12-line chant]


pkjones said...

OK, I feel EDUCATED!!! This is wonderful!

Ian said...

What do you think the effect would have been on the founding of America if the plan had gone through successfully?

corax said...

great question. hard to say, but i think the answer hangs partly on [a] who gained/retained power after the upset -- catholics or protestants?, and [b] how 'non-conformists' were treated after the succession was settled.

as for [a] -- there had been quite a see-saw going on for quite a long time now. henry dissolved the monasteries and formed the church of england; his son edward vi was a staunch protestant; mary tudor, who was next, earned her moniker 'bloody mary' because of the vehemence with which her regime re-instated catholicism; and though elizabeth, who succeeded mary, was more tolerant than many in this era, she still oversaw her share of executions -- including that of mary queen of scots herself, the mother of james VI and I.

james's protestant upbringing was itself a source of great bitterness to british catholics. it seemed not only heresy but a sort of theft or kidnapping from his catholic mother.

what we do see, of course, is that even before 1620, non-conformists were quite dissatisfied with the status quo in britain [or at least in england]. they tried the netherlands before sailing to the new world. so maybe they would have left england in any case.

corax said...

NOTE: an updated version of this essay is now available for download from see at