"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot,
Was Guy Fawkes a devil?
The Stuarts all saints?
Are we glad that they caught him or not?
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
’twas his intent
to blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow:
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!"
When I was a boy, there were two “cracker nights”, nights for bonfires and fireworks. One was on the 24th of May, “Our Loyal Empire Day” and the other on 5 November, Guy Fawkes Night.
This is still celebrated in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland, Canada, and I read, even in some parts of the USA.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed attempt by some English Catholic extremists to kill King James I of England and VI of Scotland, and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening.
Even in an age when fundamentalist extremists resort to assassination by exposives, the plot to kill in one attack the King of England and Scotland, several members of the Royal Family, the aristocracy, the prelates of the church, the King’s Ministers, the judiciary and the Commons was extraordinary in its daring and audacity.
The conspirators had then planned to abduct the royal children, and incite a revolt in the Midlands.
When I once visited the Tower of London, I was shown the room in which the trial of Guy Fawkes was held in the presence of the King.
It was moving to be reminded of what had been forestalled by the foiling of the plot.
There is an interesting essay by Professor Ronald Hutton on the BBC website, “What If the Gunpowder Plot Had Succeeded?” It can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/monarchs_leaders/gunpowder_hutton_05.shtml
Had Guy Fawkes succeeded, the whole of the British establishment would have been murdered or gravely injured.
One possibility he suggests is that the British state would have turned into a Protestant absolute monarchy as Sweden, Denmark, Saxony and Prussia all did in the course of the 17th century; but much stronger than any of those.
He believes that as such, it would in turn have paid the price of this achievement, as its powerful monarchy may well have collapsed in revolution in modern times.
Alternatively, Professor Hutton suggests the English Protestant majority might have been sufficiently shocked and demoralized by the destruction of their ruling élite, and sufficiently reassured by promises of religious toleration offered by the new Catholic-controlled government, to give in to the conspirators.
He says protestantism in England would then have become a minority from whom toleration could be withdrawn in future generations as it was in France.
Ireland would enthusiastically have supported the new regime, making Anglo-Irish relations a model of co-operation, while Scotland would have declared independence under cousins of the Stuarts and become a refuge for English Protestants; ultimately it would probably have been conquered.
Parliament would have been compromised enough by the Catholic need to control a Protestant majority to disappear or be rendered innocuous.
The road to absolute monarchy would have been taken; but this time on the model of France, Spain or Austria.
Instead, he says, we got the Anglo-Catholic Charles I, a rebellious Scotland, civil wars, revolutions, constitutional monarchy; and a peaceful, and stable modern Britain.
And , one might add, the acquisition of a vast empire, and its devolution into a Commonwealth of free nations.
Until next time,