The Magazine

No Popery There

How patriotism and Protestantism became inseparable in England.

Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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Remember, Remember

A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day

by James Sharpe

Harvard, 240 pp., $19.96

SPEAK, MEMORY . . . yes, of course, I remember those foggy and often rainy evenings in England, when small boys would parade a stuffed figure in a wheelbarrow, and demand "a penny for the Guy, sir."

This was the early warning of an unofficial national holiday, sometimes called "Guy Fawkes night" and sometimes "Bonfire night," where pyres would be erected on public grounds and in private gardens, with an effigy atop the faggots, and fireworks would burst in the air to celebrate the fact that there would always be an England and that it would always be Protestant, and that torture and human sacrifice were a small price to pay . . . Hold it right there. We mostly did not know that this was the origin of the holiday. It was vaguely understood that a man named Guy Fawkes had been discovered in the cellars below Parliament on November 5, 1605, with explosives at the ready, and one heard the ancient rhyme:

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November

Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

Yet the actual roots of the story had long been quite forgotten, and there was a 1960s anarchist T-shirt of Guy Fawkes, in his stylized hat and cloak and beard, with the superscription: "The only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions." The most evident traces of the original were actually understood only as far back as the stuffed effigy: This was the birth of the noun "guy" to describe an average man and, more obscurely, of the verb "to guy" as in to mock, or to caricature. It wasn't until I was in my early teens that a knowledgeable history teacher showed me the warrant issued by James I for the racking and torture of Fawkes, and the signature that Fawkes used before his interrogation (legible) succeeded by the signature on his "confession" (that of a literally broken man).

And it is in that seminal period, when the King James Bible was being written by committee, and the plays of Shakespeare performed, that James Sharpe locates his excellent chapter of history. The Cromwellian revolution was still a half-century in the future, the defeat of the Spanish Armada (also hailed by bonfires and braziers) two decades in the past, and relations between Catholics and Protestants in England and Scotland were extremely tense. Queens Mary and Elizabeth had both sent, respectively, Protestants and Catholics to the stake and the chopping block. And the new king--a Scottish import with a taste for witch trials and a verbatim knowledge of the two testaments--wanted a church and a Bible in his own Protestant image. A minority of Rome's loyalists, led by a man named Robert Catesby, met in the Duck and Drake Inn on the Strand (could anything be more English?) and decided to send king and parliament to perdition by means of a huge explosion.

Unmasked by treachery, tortured and executed, they put their coreligionists into the horrible position of seeming like a fifth column with a dual loyalty. And the Protestant hardliners, determined to rub in this very point, established the grisly commemoration, by order of Parliament and consecrated in the authorized prayer book, as a means of associating their own cause with patriotism. Some echoes of this persist to the present day, especially in stubbornly Presbyterian Northern Ireland, but also in novels like Brideshead Revisited, where Waugh's devout Lady Marchmain sighs that one can't seem to stop people thinking of Catholics as spies. Another indirect legacy can be guessed at: The English Protestants were delighted to have an alternative celebration to the Catholic feasts of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (sometimes known in the calendar as All Hallows), which take place on November 1 and 2. From this late-medieval fiesta of sectarianism, then, we can partly derive the tedium and foolishness of Halloween.

In a subterranean way, a popular suspicion of Catholics continued throughout the 17th century, monitored by diarists like Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, who invariably noted the incendiary November 5 celebrations, where for good measure the pope himself was by now often torched in effigy. This suspicion occasionally manifested itself in paranoia (as with Titus Oates and his lurid allegation of a "Popish Plot") and equally often in serious concern about the ambitions of Catholic monarchs on the European mainland.