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Thursday, 5 November 2015

Guy Fawkes: Freedom Fighter or Terrorist

Remember, remember the Fifth of November.
Gunfire, treason and plot.

That was the rhyme we used to sing as we watched our annual bonfire consume Guy Fawkes in effigy - actually a pair of old jeans, a pullover stuffed with newspapers and a balloon for a head with eyes and mouth drawn on.

Guy Fawkes Night, the fifth of November was something we looked forward to as  kids. Weeks before we'd make an effigy,known as a Guy, by tying old clothes together, adding a head usually made from an old bag or a balloon. And then we'd push this made up man around on a cart and say, 'Penny for the guy' to people who went
past. The tradition was that people would then give you a penny or two and you'd save all this money, using it to get fireworks or sweets. And then on the fifth of November the guy would be thrown on a bonfire that we'd spent weeks building. Into the fire we'd also throw potatoes, wrapped in tin foil, and then we'd scoop these from the embers and chow down. Those potatoes from those far off day tasted better than any potatoes since.

Ahh good days....the tradition continues to the present day, though in these overly safety conscious times it's not as much fun.

Who though was the real Guy Fawkes?

Protestant England in the early 17th century was not a good place to be if your were a Catholic. Priests had to perform mass in secret, and there were draconian laws that forced Catholics to publicly worship in Protestant services and swear loyalty to the monarch and the Church.

In 1605 Catholic dissent was at an all time high and groups around the country started plotting to overthrow James VI and restore their religion. The situation was a powder keg and Guy Fawkes was just one of the men ready to light the fuse. Interestingly  although Fawkes was a zealous Catholic, he  had been born  in York in 1570, into a respectable Protestant family. As a young boy he attended Church of England services but when his father died, his mother remarried a Catholic man. It was then that Guy Fawkes converted to Catholicism. The conversion created a zealous young man who in his early 20's travelled to Spain and joined the Catholic army to fight against the Protestant Dutch. Fawkes was a successful soldier and by 1856 he was an officer in the Spanish Forces that captured Calais. It was at this time that he changed his name to Guido to have a more Catholic sounding name and he petitioned the Spanish King to support a rebellion against heretic King James of England. The request was refused.-

It is odd that Guy Fawkes in the man we remember from the gunpowder plot since he was not the leader - that role was taken over by Robert Catesby,a gentleman from Warwickshire who had come up with a scheme to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of Parliament. If all went to plan it would be an audacious blow by Catholics against the Church of England - not only would many members of Parliament be in the building but King James, his wife and son, and all his ministers would also be present. The ensuing chaos would, Catesby hoped, allow James's Catholic daughter, Elizabeth to take the throne.

For the plot to work Catesby and his supporters needed an explosives expert who was not known to the ruling elite. That was where Fawkes, now based in the Netherlands came into the picture. A man, Thomas Winter, was sent across the sea to locate Fawkes and soon as he was told of the plot, Fawkes, still reeling from the Spanish King's refusal to launch an attack against England, agreed to be a part of this attempt to bring down the English monarchy.

In May of 1604, Fawkes was back in England where he met with Catesby and the other conspirators at the Duke and Drake Inn near the Strand in London. All of the men were sworn to secrecy as the details of their plot were hammered out.

Fawkes had by far the riskiest part to play - It was his job to secure enough gunpowder and smuggle it into Parliament. It may seem crazy today but during the period anyone could rent a space in the basement of Parliament and by 5th November Fawkes had managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar. Though by now a mistake had been made when, just days before the 5th, fellow plotter, Francis Tresham wrote to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, a Catholic due to attend the state opening, warning him to stay away. Monteagle handed the letter over to the King's spymaster, Robert Cecil.

The cellars were searched, the gunpowder found, and Guy Fawkes was captured and questioned by the King himself, and when asked why so much gunpowder was to be used, Fawkes replied, 'To blow you Scotch buggers back to your own native mountains.'

As soon as the people of England heard a plot against the King had been foiled, they celebrated by lighting bonfires across the country and the modern day bonfire night comes from this. There is one place in the country that refuses to celebrate bonfire night though -  St Peter's School in York refuses to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes as a sign of respect for its former pupil.

With Fawkes captured he was tortured into revealing the names of his co-conspirators. All of the conspirators were soon captured and killed, their heads placed on spikes outside the House of Lords. Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered but on the 27 January 1606 he escaped the intense pain of his execution by leaping from the gallows and breaking his neck. His corpse though was hacked into pieces.

Only days before Fawkes died, a bill was introduced into Parliament calling for the 5th November to be a thanksgiving day for the failure of the gunpowder plot. Because Guy Fawkes had been the one caught in the Houses of Parliament, this became known as Guy Fawkes Day. Was he a freedom fighter or terrorist? That is a matter of opinion but today his face, used as a mask in the movie V For Vendetta, is the face of worldwide protest. 

And today when I look at the smug faces of David Cameron, George Osbourne and their vile ilk, I think maybe Guy Fawkes had the right idea.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot
For I see no reason why,
Gunpowder, treason and plot should ever be forgot.

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