Today in the UK is Bonfire Night, an event that marks the infamous story of thirteen Roman Catholic conspirators attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder. Jim Sharpe, Professor of History at the University of York reflects on the history and relevance of the story for contemporary forms of political activism.
The Occupy Movement use stylised Guy Fawkes masks and it’s interesting that this image has replaced a more traditional portrait as the sign for the Guy Fawkes pub in York. Somebody must think the story of York’s most famous son must have current relevance. My own experiences confirm this. Author of a book on the cultural history of Bonfire Night, I am regularly contacted by the media about this time of year for my thoughts on the Gunpowder Plot. I am usually asked what resonances I think the Plot has for current political problems, frequently along the lines of whether I see the plotters as freedom fighters or terrorists. I do try to answer coherently, but I do think this a difficult question to answer.
An effigy of Guy Fawkes
The History of the Plot
Gunpowder Plot, let us remind ourselves, was an attempt by a small group (thirteen) of Roman Catholic conspirators to blow up parliament, the members of both houses, and most of the royal family, as a means of ending the oppression English Catholics suffered. Being openly Catholic in 1605 left you open to heavy fines, publishing or distributing pro – Catholic propaganda could be punished by death, while English Catholic priests caught by the authorities suffered grisly execution as traitors. About 130 priests and sixty Catholic laypeople were executed under Elizabeth I, and thousands fined. Her death in 1603, and the arrival of James I as her successor brought hopes of a better times – James had made noises about greater toleration for Catholics as he tried to make his accession acceptable to Catholic European states. But the persecution continued, and in 1604 a peace treaty with Spain deprived English Catholics of their most likely overseas support.
Gunpowder Plot developed against this background. The plotters were typified by their leader, Robert Catesby: gentlemen in their thirties, educated and mature, several of them were linked by family ties or established friendships. Guy Fawkes, who had served with the Spanish army in Flanders, was brought in as an explosives expert. Catesby was killed in a shoot – out with government forces, depriving posterity of details of why he planned such extreme retaliation against the regime and how the idea of blowing parliament up came into his head. The Plot almost succeeded. But reactions showed that the plotters were a small group very much isolated from the English Catholic mainstream, which was horrified when news of the Plot broke.
So we are left with the problem of the Plot’s implications for today. On what grounds can people who feel themselves to be oppressed take direct action against their oppressors? Can there be a sense of proportionality in such actions? What about the moderates who are willing to put up with disadvantages the militants find insupportable? I would argue that the Plot raises more questions than it gives answers. Nevertheless, although I am wary of drawing easy parallels between early modern events or ideas and current ones, it is hard not to see Gunpowder Plot as a very early example of ideologically motivated direct action. But I would also stress the surprising reaction of the English government. James, anxious to avoid an anti – Catholic pogrom and worried about relations with Catholic Spain and France kept a clear head and dealt with the incident with an exemplary clarity of vision. This, perhaps, is an object lesson to modern governments as they suffer reverses in the ‘War on Terrorism’.
Professor Jim Sharpe, History Department, University of York did his BA and DPhil at Oxford. He researches into and publishes on early modern crime, witchcraft in early modern England, and the social history of early modern England more generally. Jim has a major book on the long term history of violence in England to be published by Random House in 2015, and is author of Remember Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (Profile Books, 2005)
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.