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.
The year 1685 was critical: The restored Stuart king, Charles II, died and was abruptly succeeded by his Catholic brother, James, while the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV provoked a pogrom against the Protestants of France, known as Huguenots, many thousands of whom fled to London with their skills and their stories of mayhem and bigotry. There resulted what Sharpe accurately characterizes as a ruling-class panic in England. Casting about for a new monarch who could insure them against another civil and confessional war, the court hit upon William of Orange, a Protestant Dutchman who was married to the new King James's daughter, Mary. The deal was a simple one: The deposition of the heretic James and support for the Netherlands against France. In return, a guarantee that the Protestant religion would be enshrined in England by a legitimate--if only by marriage--and legitimizing monarch. William of Orange set sail with a supporting army and landed in Devonshire in 1688, selecting the suggestive date of November 5 to do so. Today's rather enfeebled British crown derives its sovereignty from that event.
The only serious gap in Sharpe's story is his discussion of this hinge moment, known to history as the Glorious Revolution. It was Conor Cruise O'Brien who pointed out, almost 40 years ago, that the most famous and foundational political debate of modern times--the confrontation between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine--was based not just upon conflicting interpretations of 1688, but on differing religious attitudes to it. Burke was a covert Catholic (very probably having this in common with William Shakespeare) and an Irishman, while Paine was a part-Quaker English Deist. The radical and constitutionalist groups in London that hailed the 1789 revolution in France, and had hailed the 1776 revolution in America, were largely and openly pro-1688 and against "Popery," and it was this that had excited Burke's original alarm. Paine was anticlerical rather than anti-Catholic, but he ridiculed Burke's belief that the Glorious Revolution was a one-time-only settlement that established a permanent monarchy. (Burke's position was the more vulnerable one, in that he thought even a Protestant monarchy, and Protestant established church, were better than none at all.)
Both men had good reason to remember the Gordon Riots of 1780, in which a murderous and arsonist anti-Catholic mob was mobilized by a demented reactionary aristocrat named Lord George Gordon, an ancestor of Lord Byron, who later resolved his religious troubles by converting to Judaism in Newgate prison. That horrible episode of crime in 1780 is best revisited in the pages of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge. Both Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and Paine's Rights of Man contain stern condemnations of mobocracy at that level.
But, just as Paine brought his version of secularism to America, so did other English immigrants import their folkloric customs. Indeed, the fiery celebrations of November 5 abandoned all disguise and began to call themselves "Pope Day," especially in Boston (which shows you how things have altered in that city since the revolution). Energy of this dubious kind was actually conscripted into protests against the Stamp Act, so it is nice to learn that, in 1775, George Washington prohibited all officers and soldiers under his command from taking any part in "that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the Pope."
However, I was also interested to discover that in the town of Lewes in Sussex, where, though Sharpe fails to mention it, Thomas Paine was once a radical customs officer, the November 5 parade includes a "No Popery" banner to this very day. There is a deep association between fundamentalist, millennial Protestantism and both the English and American revolutions. Yet we must still attend to the words of Ernest Renan, who observed that in order to become a nation, people must indeed collectively agree to "remember" a number of things, but also to forget a number of things.
Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair, is most recently the author of Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.