(Picture is from the Marsden Fire Festival, Yorkshire UK- which commemorates Imbolc, or St. Brigid`s Day-an ancient Celtic ritual to mark the end of winter).
Guy Fawkes Night is a perennial fixture of British culture. However much that has been written and spoken about it is surrounded by falsehood. Firstly the people of Jacobean England were entirely different to the urbane sophisticates who live amongst us today. It is therefore completely inappropriate to judge them and their actions by our modern standards. Secondly Guy Fawkes` Gunpowder Plot was so much more than a religious conflict, and it is time to challenge the conventional belief and the lazy arguments proffered from certain political commentators. Often it is presented as a simplistic battle for Catholic emancipation under a tyrannical Protestant King, but history as we know is much more complicated.
When Queen Mary 1 ascended the throne in 1553 she re-established Roman Catholicism as the official religion of England. Consequently, her hard line policy of religious fundamentalism lead to widespread Protestant persecution. Some managed to escape the country but for those who remained and refused to denounce their faith the ultimate punishment awaited them. Nearly 300 Protestants were burnt at the stake under her reign, which was nicknamed the age of “Bloody Mary”. Even after Mary Tudor`s death many communities of Protestants could never forgive or forget the level of murderous bigotry propagated in the name of the Catholic religion.
Her successor, her half-sister Elizabeth 1 reconstituted Protestantism as the official religion and surrounded herself with renowned counsels, including the mystic Dr. John Dee.
Dee was responsible for choosing the date of her coronation. However many Catholics opposed her reign and attempted to depose her in favour of her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots. However these rebellions were swiftly ended. Elizabeth`s successor King James faced similar rebellions including the infamous Gunpowder Plot.
In William Harrison Ainsworth`s 1840 novel “Guy Fawkes” this controversial figure is depicted as a pious, superstitious person convinced that he is on a divine mission to restore the true religion. In one especially baroque interlude Fawkes appears to witness John Dee exhuming the body of a Catholic martyr and proclaiming that Fawkes is practicing “devilish rites”.
Ainsworth is excellent at portraying a feverish populace consumed with self-righteousness. It is this kind of self-righteousness that lead to the inhuman plot to murder for a cause. We must always remember that this kind of blind piety should never foil our way of life.