Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Fawkes: He's just this Guy, y'know...

Yeah, I know.  It's the day after Guy Fawkes night, but I have a good reason for posting late:  We were watching stuff explode.

When I lived in the states, I remember patiently explaining that no, we did not celebrate July 4th in England.  Why would we have a "we lost" or "good riddance" day?  But the idea of Bonfire Night, 5th November and Guy Fawkes would draw a look of confusion onto the faces of a lot of folks.  The explanation I used to give ran like this:

Back in 1605, a group of Catholic conspirators decided they wanted to put a Catholic on the throne because they'd had a lot of religious persecution over the years.  So these conspirators decided to blow up Parliament with King James I inside.  One of the conspirators decided he should probably warn his brother-in-law to avoid parliament on 5th November, which led to Guy Fawkes being caught in Parliament's basement with 36 barrels of gunpowder.  So ever since then, the British set off fireworks and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes as a celebration of a plot that failed to kill a king.  [Cue the massive look of confusion].  No, we're not really sure what we're celebrating any more, but everyone likes an excuse to set things on fire and to watch fireworks.  [Cue a sudden light of understanding].

Woodcut of the conspirators, created by Crispijn Van de Passe around 1605.  Fawkes is third from the right.  The chap named Bates on the left was a servant and therefore not important enough to have his first name featured -- everyone else was of a higher class.  Only eight of the thirteen are pictured.  From Wikimedia Commons.

That is pretty much the bare facts of the matter, stripped of history, culture, context and additional information.  Sure, these chaps had very much been subject to persecution -- under Elizabeth I.

 Elizabeth I:  Not nice to Catholics.  Rainbow portrait, ca. 1600, meant to show her agelessness.  

She had passed several laws that saw people executed for their beliefs, often through being hung, drawn and quartered.  James I was her successor and wanted to be more tolerant, stating that he would not persecute Catholics "that will be quiet and give an outward obedience to the law." 

 James I:  Wanted to be nicer to Catholics, considering his mum was one.  Sadly, they tried to blow him and his wife up.  That kind of thing makes a monarch angry.  Ca. 1603-1609.

However, James I did not openly remove any sanctions either -- after all, at the time of the gunpowder plot he was on the throne barely two years.  The plot did nothing to encourage him to be nice to Catholics either.

Guy Fawkes was captured red-handed and held as his majesty's convenience in the Tower of London.  Fawkes was held at some length in a cell called "Little Ease", which was a cell only 4ft long by 4ft high, and only as deep as the wall.  The idea was that it was too small to lie down, stand or sit comfortably.  Of course, that was the least of what happened to Guido Fawkes.  He refused to give his name (John Johnson being the worst false name ever) and his co-conspirators fled, with several dying in a last-stand siege.  After 10 weeks of torture, Guido Fawkes finally signed confessions -- one is so faint and shaky it's just grim, and the other is marginally better, signed eight days later:

 This is your signature on 17th Century Torture:  The signature on the first confession (above) lies below the word "good".  Wikimedia commons.  

This is your signature 8 days after 17th Century Torture:  Still shaky.  Still grim.  Guy Fawkes' signature on the second confession.  National Archives.

All the conspirators faced ugly ends -- those who died before being executed still had their corpses decapitated and placed on Traitor's Gate.  Those who survived the seige got the worst of it; they were hung until nearly dead and then whilst still conscious they were castrated, disemboweled and then quartered.  Ironically, Guy Fawkes had the cleanest death of the lot.  He'd decided that he'd suffered enough, thank you, and so jumped from the scaffold to hang, breaking his neck and cheating the executioner.

The British, being the cheerful people that we are, decided that we would turn all this into a celebration.  Burning effigies of Guy Fawkes became commonplace, and although it's not so common now, I remember as a child seeing other kids making Guys and asking adults for "a penny for the guy" so they could go off and buy fireworks. Thanks to these effigies, the word "guy" also came to mean an oddly dressed man, before becoming used as it is today.

It's got to be said though, as a child, I remember some fantastic Guy Fawkes Nights.  When you're six, all you remember are the fireworks and the poem...

"Remember, remember, the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot."

...with the meaning totally lost on you.  But it doesn't matter because you are six, there are fireworks and fireworks are amazing!
Follow Me on Pinterest

1 comment:

  1. Due to the fact old-fashioned style pattern remains unremitting from the manner range,round glasses could add the crowning glory with a male's attire ensemble.

    ReplyDelete