Olivia Garrett goes back in history to 1605 in order to analyse the events leading up to Guy Fawkes Night and goes on to discuss the relevance it has in our society today.
‘Remember remember the 5th of November’… but why? The 1605 Gunpowder Plot is essentially a tale of failure. The failure of 13 men to destroy the Houses of Parliament and install a Catholic monarch. However, this failure was not caused by some grand battle or victorious investigation, just the blunder of one man – Francis Tresham – the plotter who sent a letter to Lord Monteagle warning him against entering Parliament. His idiocy caused the violent death of him and his fellows, as well as the furthered persecution of Catholics across the country. So why do we celebrate that idiocy? Why do we commemorate the gruesome torture and death of a criminal? And why, when fireworks are generally used for the international celebrations of independence and new beginnings, do we reserve them for something so fantastically morbid? Well, the answer (morbidity aside) is that it was a new beginning, and without Tresham’s idiocy we would not have the same society today, because what happened afterwards still remains relevant even now.
Before the gunpowder plot, religious tensions had decreased due to James I’s leniency and diplomacy in ending the war with Spain. Yet predictably these tensions sky-rocketed after 1605 with Britain becoming more divided than ever before. Parliament became extremely anti-Catholic, and many of the urban elites started to move towards Puritanism – an extreme group of Protestants who sought to reform the Anglican Church and purify it of all forms of Catholicism and self-indulgence. By the time Charles I came to power, in 1625, they had such a stronghold over the government that they were able to break the royal prerogative (a law that gives immunity to monarchs) and question Charles’ financial and religious practices (which included Catholic forms of prayer and marriage to a Catholic). He was so insulted by this that in 1629 he dissolved Parliament and began 11 years of personal rule. In this time, however, the country split further – in 1637, Charles, in the name of unity, ordered the mandatory introduction of a new Episcopal prayer book in Scotland, leading to riots in Edinburgh. He then re-instated Parliament to help him financially stem these riots, only to dissolve it again after a month of Parliament’s refusal. Parliament was again reinstated in 1640 and they used this opportunity to voice their complaints about the King. As their Puritan members once again grew in power, Ireland (a Catholic nation) became concerned over what a Puritan England might do, and so rebelled themselves in 1641. In 1642, Charles became fearful of his government and tried to arrest 5 leading members, but had to leave empty-handed as they had escaped after being forewarned. This opposition came to a head in August 1642, when Charles effectively signalled the start of a civil war by summoning his subjects to his royal standard in Nottingham. This civil war between the Royalists and Parliamentarians (or Cavaliers and Roundheads) lasted 9 years, ending in 1651 and famously culminating in the beheading of Charles I in 1649 and the enforcement of Puritanism under Oliver Cromwell.
Today’s political climate is centred around that 3-year-old question – remain or leave? This increasingly stale question can be boiled down to something even simpler – old or new.
The tensions and reasons for this turbulent period can be easily summarised by the key splits that divided the nation – the split of location (England, Ireland, Scotland) and the split of leadership (Royalist vs Parliamentarian). However, both of these splits come down to the core aspect of religion – Catholic vs Protestant. That clear divide, which undeniably worsened after the gunpowder plot, was the essential point of difference and source of disagreement at this time.
Now, clearly this is not the same today, for one Catholics aren’t burnt at the stake or hanged, for another, the Queen still has her head. Yet there is no point in denying that the country is as split down the middle as it was back then – perhaps not on the verge of civil war, but near enough. Today’s political climate is centred around that 3-year-old question – remain or leave? This increasingly stale question can be boiled down to something even simpler – old or new. The fundamental concept of change is something that has plagued society since it began as it always provokes the basic fear of future discomfort or hardship. It’s what fuelled the religious divide in the 1600s and it’s what fuels the divide today. Take a look at those who voted Leave – those who want change and reformation and yet, quite paradoxically, imagine leaving the EU will return Britain to a simpler state of self-sufficiency. That to me just screams Roundhead – advocating for change and a back-to-basics mindset is exactly what the Puritans wanted in the stripping down of the church and its extravagances. Similarly, you have the Remainers, who are content with the way Britain has evolved and are willing to fight for it to stay the same, just as the Royalists were when they flocked to Charles’ side. Of course, it doesn’t come down to Parliament or the Queen anymore, but that quintessential issue of stay or change still lies at the heart of today’s problems and still has Parliament as its focal point. If that doesn’t convince you, take a look again at the process and steps it took to get to the civil war: dissolution, reinstatement, then dissolution again, riots, protests and a circle of problems not getting resolved due to all of the sides being nothing but obtuse. Now look at the last year alone: three failed general election proposals followed by a successful one, two Brexit extensions, an illegal suspension of Parliament and tensions continually running high. The same cyclical bickering that keeps the country suspended in this state of anger and division, all because of this single question. I hope you can see that there’s very little difference except women are now politically involved.
So, why is guy Fawkes still relevant today, you ask? Maybe because it’s nice to see that stupidity isn’t a recent invention. Or, more likely, because it reminds us to acknowledge our past and gives us hope that, one day, we might learn from it.