Martin Price, MYPLACE Project Manager, on the formation and transformation of the legacy of a historical political activist.
For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE
November 5th is commonly known in the UK as ‘Bonfire Night’ – a festival synonymous with one man, for his role in events which took place a little over 400 years ago.
It is important for the MYPLACE blog not to seek to pre-empt the project’s findings, so we must be careful with topics such as the transmission of historical memory and the legacy of political actions past. However, since MYPLACE will look principally at events in the second half of the twentieth century, the events of November 1605 seem like safe enough territory.
The alternative name for Bonfire Night is, as any school child in the UK could no doubt tell you, ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ and it was the Gunpowder Plot (or the Powder Treason, as it came to be known by near-contemporaries) which brought Guy Fawkes his infamy.
As we move beyond the high-level view of the history behind a celebration that now lights our night skies with fireworks for several days either side of the 5th November itself, so we probably move into territory less familiar to many people attending bonfire parties, let alone those observing the phenomenon from outside the UK.
It is fairly widely known that the Gunpowder Plot involved a conspiracy to use large quantities of gunpowder to destroy the Houses of Parliament, and that Guy Fawkes was a central figure in that plot. In fact, it is widely (but not correctly) assumed that Fawkes was the central figure and instigator of the plot (if the existence of any co-conspirators is even acknowledged). Let us briefly explore some of the details of the plot, before we consider some less obvious aspects of its relevance today. Who was Guy Fawkes, and what was the Gunpowder Plot all about? We will also see why it is more closely linked to MYPLACE fieldwork sites than you may realise.
Guy Fawkes (known also as Guido Fawkes when he fought for Catholic Spain against the Protestant ‘Orange’ forces of the Netherlands) was a Catholic soldier and mercenary, born in the English city of York. The Gunpowder Plot was a Catholic plot, and Fawkes was but one of a larger group of conspirators. His fellow plotters were John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Sir Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham, and the leader and instigator of the plot Robert Catesby.
That it is Guy Fawkes’ name that has become most closely linked to the plot in the public imagination is due to the circumstances of the plot’s discovery: it was Fawkes who was in the undercroft below parliament guarding the gunpowder (and presumably the man whose job it would be to light the fuse).
The plot was, however, designed to be no random act of destruction. It was conceived with no less grand aim than to overthrow the government, and indeed the governance, of England. The reason for this? The conspirators were Catholic. At that time to be Catholic in protestant England was illegal, and the rites of Catholicism were practiced in secret, and punished as heresy if discovered. Catholic (or Jesuit) priests lived in hiding, frequently evading capture in specially designed hide-aways known as “Priest holes” in the houses of sympathetic Catholic families. Before the Plot’s conspirators resorted to the desperate measures of deploying 36 barrels of explosive below Parliament, several hopes for Catholic emancipation in England had been pursued (including negotiations with the new King, James I and attempts to support and invite invasion by Catholic Spain) and come to nothing.
The choice of target and date was not random. On 5th November, King James was due to formally open Parliament. The attack would therefore be intended to kill the monarch, who would be accompanied by his eldest son and heir, together with much of the ruling class in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the senior clergy of the protestant church. It was to be succeeded by a popular revolt, and coincide with the kidnap of the King’s 9 year old daughter, Elizabeth, to be installed as a puppet queen.
It is perhaps of some passing interest to a project coordinated by the University of Warwick and conducting fieldwork in Coventry and Warwickshire, to note that the Gunpowder Plot was a very local affair. When the medieval history of Warwickshire is mentioned, it is William Shakespeare who will come to mind first. But it is less well known that many of the Gunpowder Plot’s conspirators were based in Warwickshire, Catesby himself being born and raised in the County. Much of the plotting would have taken place in Warwickshire homes of recusant Catholics, in places such as Coughton Court, Snitterfield and Baddesley Clinton (a few miles from Warwick University, where a priest hole is preserved and can still be seen).
Coventry (at that time one of the most important cities in medieval England) was entwined in the plot too: the Princess Elizabeth was to be kidnapped from Coombe Abbey, where she was resident for her education. Today you can visit the site of the Abbey, which today is the site of a luxury hotel (with parts of the old walls still visible) and a local council-owned country park.
After the discovery of the plot, the conspirators almost inevitably fled through familiar territory in Warwickshire, stopping to raid the armouries at Warwick Castle for supplies and stopping briefly in nearby Dunchurch.
Following the discovery and thwarting of the Plot, the day came to be commemorated as part of the Protestant calendar, with special sermons and ringing of church bells. The “observance of 5th November” act of parliament – passed in the next session of parliament in 1606 made it an official part of public life until 1859. At some stage the tradition of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes (often used as a form of begging by children; “penny for the Guy”) emerged.
With the plot failed, Fawkes and most of his co-conspirators were captured, tortured and ultimately executed. Repression of Catholics in England continued, and in fact increased in response to the plot. It would be 200 years before Catholic Emancipation ended restrictions on the practices of Catholicism. This despite prominent Jesuit priests renouncing the conspirators and their plans.
So, the failure of the plot can be seen as total. For centuries then, Guy Fawkes’ only legacy was as a pariah, whose effigy was burned at an annual celebration of his failure. But in more recent years, an unlikely new legacy has emerged for Guy Fawkes, as the emblem of 21st century political protest.
This revival began in the comic book series “V for Vendetta”
by anarchist author Alan Moore. The main character in these books, ‘V’ is an anarchist revolutionary, who wears a stylised Guy Fawkes mask. Following a 2006 film adaptation of the comic book series, these masks began to appear in various protest movements, a fashion which quickly spread across the world, having been seen at protests in Europe, North America and India. Among the movements to adopt the mask were the “Occupy” movements, some of which will be studied in ethnographic work for MYPLACE.
The journey of Guy Fawkes’ legacy from traitor and burned effigy to symbol of popular protest is only tangentially linked to our project, but perhaps illustrates how things such as history and legacy shift as both time and point of view pass.