Thursday, November 05, 2015

Remember Remember ...

When I was a boy everyone still knew the old poem

"Remember, Remember
The fifth of November
Gunpower, Treason and Plot
I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot."

Of course, as I am now married to a catholic I am a little careful about rubbing this one in, and the old British custom of "Penny for a Guy" appears to have been eclipsed by a crude version of the American Halloween "Trick or Treat" ritual - which itself now appears to be dying.

The Gunpowder plot was, of course, an attempt to blow James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England, and most of his nobles and MPs to smithereens.

James was known as the "wisest fool in Christendom for his erratic mix of sensible and idiotic policies. It says something horrendous about just how ill-starred the Stuart dynasty was that during some 232 years of ruling Scotland and for most of the following 111 years ruling over nearly all of the British Isles, they only produced two half-way decent Kings, James and his grandson Charles II, and two half-way decent Queens.

James the Sixth and First and Charles II were the only Stuart Kings in all that time who died of unequivocally natural causes while still in power. *

Wise fool as James the Sixth and First may have been, he was infinitely preferable to the lunatic fools led by Robert Catesby who attempted in the gunpowder plot to forcibly return Britain to the Church of Rome through mass murder. Effectively they were the 17th century equivalent of Al Qaeda, attempting to force their religious views on nations who did not want them.

In the early 1600s there were protestant majorities in both England and Scotland. There had been recent episodes of savage religious persecution in Britain and on the continent and people of both old and new faiths had a well-founded fear that any radical change might lead to more such episodes.

Had Robert Catesby and Guido Fawkes succeeded in blasting the Houses of Parliament to its' component atoms, they might have temporarily created a power vacuum, but they would never have managed to kill every protestant noble with a claim to the throne, taken a single English warship out of service, thus allowing a French or Spanish invasion or altered the fact that England and Scotland had protestant majorities. In such circumstances, very angry and very scared protestant majorities.

The most likely consequence would have been something between a short and very savage civil war during which communities turned on one another, and a massive pogrom against known catholics. By the time a new government, almost certainly still a protestant one, had re-established itself there would have been dead catholics hanging from the trees of every town and village in England.

So the catholic community probably have more reason than anyone else to be grateful the plot failed - though it probably did not seem that way at the time.

There have been many jokes about Guido Fawkes being "the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions" but actually we still have reason to celebrate the fact that he was caught. It is most unlikely that whoever replaced James VI & I would have been more democratic or less tyrannical - and the bomb would not just have killed the government of the day but the leaders of parliament.

The battle between Kings and Parliament over the following century would effectively invent modern parliamentary democracy and if it had killed most of the MPs of the time, it is far more likely that the explosion Guido Fawkes was plotting to set off would have hindered than helped that process.

Guido Fawkes was not just a rebel against the Crown, not just against one particular block of politicians, but against a settlement that most people supported, and hence he was a rebel against the people, not a freedom fighter.

We should still remember the Gunpowder plot - and be thankful that it failed.

* The first two Stuart Kings, Robert II and Robert III, while nominally still on the throne, were not running Scotland at the time of their deaths as there had been a series of power struggles within the House of Stuart and each king in turn had lost or surrendered power to his son or brother. Robert Stewart, Earl of Fife and later Duke of Albany, was in power both at the time his father Robert II died and again when his brother Robert III did so. James V fell ill and died shortly after the disastrous Scottish defeat at Solway Moss and by many contemporary accounts this was a nervous collapse caused by the defeat. Every one of the other Stuart kings, and Mary Queen of Scots, was assassinated, killed in battle, beheaded, or overthrown with the exception of James VI & I and Charles II.

1 comment:

Jim said...

I think there are a lot of people who know the poem these days. We have the film "V for Vendetta" which helped with that. Although it did also introduce those daft Guy Fawkes masks that "anonymous protesters" like to wear as well, which is its down fall.