“Remember, remember the fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot.
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.”
So runs the traditional children’s rhyme. Though, as a child, I always got in a terrible muddle between the fifth of November and the ninth of November, the latter being my birthday…
[I first posted these reflections back in 2006, but] Bonfire Night is incredibly relevant to our post 9/11 world, and should indeed never be forgot.
On November 5th 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament in London. The cellar was filled with barrels of gunpowder, with which Roman Catholic conspirators intended to assassinate King James I and the members of the House of Lords and House of Commons at the formal opening of the 1605 Parliament. The plot had been formed in response to the hard line taken by James I against Roman Catholicism, most likely after it became clear that Catholic Spain was embroiled in too many concerns of its own to come to the aid of England’s Catholics. The plot came to light when a conspirator, uneasy that fellow Catholics would die in the blast, wrote to a member of the House of Lords telling him to stay away that day; but the ringleaders discovered this ‘treason,’ and some historians believe Fawkes was set up, buying time for those more culpable to escape. Traditionally the failed Gunpowder Plot is remembered each year with bonfires, on which an effigy of Fawkes – the Guy – is burnt, and with fireworks, symbolizing the explosion that never happened.
An English population among which there lived a religious minority treated with suspicion and facing discrimination; a cell of militants within that community who saw violent revolution as the only hope for change…the events of 1605 feel all too contemporary. What might we learn, standing outside in the freezing cold November darkness?
Firstly, Bonfire Night reminds us that violent revolution is not the way to go about change – not only because it is morally wrong, but also because it is in fact counter-productive. Bonfire Night deconstructs terrorism as a means to an end; highlights the dilemma of those ‘on your own side’ dying; calls into question the brotherhood of the cell…
…But Bonfire Night does not commemorate a black-and-white victory of right over wrong; a ‘reasonable,’ ‘enlightened,’ ‘fundamentally good’ way of living as society, successfully resisting its opposite. Bonfire Night deconstructs such a naïve view, too. In many ways James I needed challenging – and, ironically, was regularly challenged by the politicians who would have died with him; and the following torture, trial, and high-profile executions of men who certainly weren’t the ring-leaders, draws the justice of retaliation to terror into question. The flames of Guy’s pyre cast light and shadows on our faces that speak of the light and shadows in our hearts; and as we stare upon the effigy of a burning Catholic, we might just feel the uncomfortable heat of our own prejudices, exposed.
I don’t know how history will judge us. There are aspects of my society that I believe are wrong; and, I am sure, aspects of my society that are wrong which I am blind to. Not only because it is still so contemporary, but also because the world is so complex, the four-hundred-year-old tradition of Bonfire Night ought to be celebrated, with a bang.