So, yesterday was Guy Fawkes day, when English people celebrate a proud tradition of toffee apples and sausage the foiling of a 1605 plot to blow up the House of Lords with the King in it. Since the advent of Alan Moore’s comic V for Vendetta and the Wachowski Siblings film it inspired, Guy Fawkes masks have come to be associated with a variety of radical causes, including Anonymous and the various Occupy movements. Indeed last night, as I was leaving the library, I passed a really vocal band of protesters in Guy Fawkes masks, participating in the Dublin bit of the Million Mask March. Our version was less cataclysmic than the London event, with Protesters being followed by Gardaí on bicycles rather than meeting with police in riot gear.
It was too dark to read the masked marchers signs, but that was rather in keeping with the original Gunpowder Plot, unquestionably one of my favoriteof the gazillion Tudor-Stuart plots because a) my main man Edward Coke gets a starring role and b) fireworks and sausages. For my non-Guy Fawkes night observant audience, who may be unfamiliar with the details of the plot here’s the barebones outline: a group of English Catholics led by one Robert Catesby and dismayed by James VI and I’s Protestant rule decided to blow up the house of Lords with the king and his heir apparent inside. Accordingly, Catesby had his servant, Guy Fawkes, lease a cellar adjoining Westminster and stored 36 barrels of gunpowder there. Unfortunately for the plotters, they sent a note to the Catholic Lord Monteagle warning him to avoid parliament. Monteagle passed the note onto Cecil who sent it on to James, who promptly “decoded” the threat and foiled the plot. The Privy Council leapt into action and began arresting, interrogating and torturing suspected plotters. (NB: As usual, when I talk about torture, I refer exclusively to torture for the purpose of extracting information, not the more unusual forms of public execution and punishment.) And this is where the plot gets really interesting: despite the best efforts of Edward Coke and his fellow inquisitors, Guy Fawkes, who initially gave his name as John Johnson (flimsiest pseudonym ever, huh?) remained remarkably cagey about the plotters’ plans for after killing off the monarch and most of the aristocrats. For the interrogators, desperate to implicate Henry Percy, the Catholic Earl of Northumberland in anything at all, this was a disappointment. For modern scholars, it provides a tantalizing mystery and a parallel to last night’s demonstrations. Until you start setting concrete post-explosion agendas, anything seems possible. And that’s a fascinating, and frightening enough idea for any early-November night. Plus, there’s the sausages.
For those interested in further reading on Guy Fawkes and the original Gunpowder Plot, there’s Mark Nicholls’s excellent book, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1991), which does what it says on the tin and provides a concise account of the plot itself and James’s government’s reaction. There’s also, James Sharpe’s Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005), which examines plot itself and the subsequent tradition of observing Guy Fawkes night in England and beyond. Alternatively, if you want to test your knowledge of the Powder Plot, the BBC offers this charming web-quiz game.