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Monday, 5 November 2012

An English Radical

Today an event is marked in England that is perhaps shrouded, for most, in the razzmatazz of fireworks and bonfires, beverages of various sorts and treats. Children will, in some parts, go from door to door asking a "Penny fo the Guy" (these days more like a £1 is required!) but few, I suspect, have much idea of who the "Guy" is or what is actually commemorated.

Guido Fawkes, a Roman Catholic in Protestant Stuart England, planned to blow up King James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland) when he visited the Palace of Westminster and his Parliament. The Roman Catholic plotters wished to remove the leading Protestant members of the House and the King, and replace both with a Roman Catholic sovereign and Peerage. Precisely who betrayed who and when remains a question of debate. Guido Fawkes took the fall for it, being discovered among the barrels of gunpowder he and his co-conspirators had managed to pack into the cellar of the Palace, attempting (it was said) to fire the fuse.

The plot failed, Guido (or Guy) was condemned to death and burned at the stake. Some accounts suggest he was blown to bits, others that he was hung, drawn and quartered. The only place in Britain that doesn't celebrate "Bonfire Night" with fire and fireworks is his old school, still located in Yorkshire. The statue to Guido Fawkes is, I'm told, decorated with a wreath on this date instead.

The plot triggered a major purge and an anti-Catholic frenzy. Ironically, the reaction probably led, indirectly to the English Civil War and the excesses of Cromwell and his supporters in dealing with the Roman Catholic Irish and the Roman Catholics in Scotland. It almost certainly led to the replacement of James II by William III and Mary II (As 1066 and all that called them - that well known 'double act' from Holland). Several other plotters went to the block, but the most terrible and obviously memorable death was reserved for Guido Fawkes. Quite possibly England's first real terrorist, but probably not its last.

There is probably some irony in the fact that we 'celebrate' Guido Fawkes execution with fire and fireworks, then, six days later, 'mark' the deaths of millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen sacrificed in wars on Remembrance Day. One cannot help wondering what the world would be like today had Guido Fawkes and his co-conspirators succeeded ...

Would England have suffered the Civil War? Would the monarchy still survive? Would the Act of Union have been made and would the United Kingdom have created the great Empire it did? Or would it have eventually succumbed to a French style revolution? We can never really know.

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