Emma Does Politics

There is such a thing as society. It's called politics.

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Guido Fawkes

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

traditional, 1870

Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido Fawkes, is a traditional hate-figure in English folklore. According to the modern lore, he was an anarchist fighting against government, and he took this seriously enough to head a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament along with all the MPs of the day.

As always, the man and the myth are seldom the same person.

He lived from 1570 to 1606. His step-father was a Catholic. Not a practising one, because Catholicism was illegal at the time. He kept his faith privately and did not attend Anglican religious services (“recusant” is the historical term for this). He had a strong influence on young Guido’s religious life, turning Guido to being a devout Catholic, albeit recusant.

Guido would later fight (1591-1598) for Catholic Spain and France against the (mostly Protestant) Dutch provinces in the Eighty Years War. For historical context, the Spanish Armada, Spain’s failed invasion of England, happened in 1588, three years before he left for Spain. The two countries were still at war, albeit with no active land wars. His religion was so important to him that he volunteered to fight on the front lines for seven years. I’m not sure that’s what Jesus would have done, but I digress.

While fighting for Spain on the continent, he met up with Thomas Wintour, a revolutionary and the actual leader of the plot. Thomas’s plan was to King James I, who was Protestant, and install a Catholic monarch on the throne.

Yep, the plot wasn’t so much anti-monarchist as anti-Protestant/pro-Catholic. This wasn’t a political act of anarchism as popularly depicted. It was simply one more battle in the religious wars that were raging across Europe at the time.

That’s the motive debunked. What about the intended target? Popular myth has it that it was the king and the MPs of the day, along with ruining Westminster Palace.

King James I of England (also known as James VI of Scotland) succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, a year before the plot was first conceived. Elizabeth was responsible for the English Religious Settlement, which worked to patch over many of the differences between Anglicans and Catholics in England. Under her, extremism (on behalf of both sects) was not tolerated. The queen herself was somewhat ambiguous as to her personal faith; while she displayed the public face of being Protestant, she maintained many symbols that at the time were associated specifically with Catholicism.

In contrast, James was strongly (perhaps brutally) Protestant, so much so that even some Puritans complained against his measures. Among other measures, he banned confirmation ceremonies, wedding rings, and the term “priest”. He also tried to enforce his brand of Anglicanism in Scotland (his only return to Scotland after taking the English throne), which instituted religious unrest for centuries to come. In other words, while Elizabeth had worked hard to heal religious strife, James worked hard to enforce orthodoxy to his religious views. He’s almost a classic James Bond villain.

Regarding Parliament itself, James dominated Parliament politically, so much so that in 1628 Parliament petitioned the king to restore their liberties. He accepted this petition, shortly before dissolving Parliament for eleven years. At the time, Parliament was chock full of rotten boroughs (e.g., Hertfordshire had 4 MPs; Cornwall had 44 MPs). A constituency would typically elect two MPs (some more, some fewer). Political parties as such did not exist (MPs in listings of the day are conventionally noted as “non-partisan”). Four of the MPs were elected not by the general public, but by graduates of specific universities (Cambridge and Oxford).

The electoral system was technically FPTP with no votes for women and a wealth-based limited franchise. In practice, because wealth limit meant that only a few families in each area were able to vote, and so “elections” would be decided at family meetings (at which the family heads would dominate), often without any formal ballot even taking place. Even if it had been some kind of advanced voting system, it was not democratic by any stretch of the imagination. The positions were unsalaried (MPs wouldn’t be salaried until 1911). However, the political influence that they could sell to their contacts was obvious, even then. As democratic institutions go, the Parliament of the day was at best about as democratic as the modern House of Lords.

All documented evidence suggests he intended to blow up Westminster Palace, with King James and Parliament inside it. This was to have been accomplished with 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden in a cellar beneath the House of Lords meeting chamber. Had it succeeded, it would have demolished the entire building and much of the surrounding borough. However, the wider revolution is unlikely to have succeeded.

This 5th November, let’s not celebrate another engagement in the religious wars of the 17th century.


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