Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November

Historic print of Guy Fawkes and his accomplices
Guy Fawkes and his accomplices
Just about the time that Americans are eating the last of the Halloween candy and throwing away the rotting jack o’lanterns, the English are gearing up for a different fall holiday, Guy Fawkes Day.  “Remember, remember, the fifth of November” goes the traditional rhyme, “the gunpowder treason and plot.”  Guy Fawkes was a Catholic conspirator who plotted to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament in 1605.  The plot was discovered; Guy Fawkes and his accomplices captured and executed.  

Every year the English celebrate by setting off fireworks, lighting bonfires,
Burning the effigy of Guy Fawkes
Burning the Guy Fawkes effigy
burning Guy Fawkes in effigy, and eating candy.  It’s like a combination of July Fourth and Halloween. Today it is a secular event, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that led to the plot long faded.  Many Americans only know about it from the movie V for Vendetta in which a freedom fighter wearing a Guy Fawkes mask battles a future fascist government.

The history of the 1605 plot takes us into a world not unlike our own, a world gripped by fear of terrorism, roiled by religious conflict, and where new ideas clashed with old superstitions.  Join me on a reading journey that will bring this distant past to life. 

Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser is the best introduction.  Known for her biographies, including a popular book about the wives of Henry VIII, Fraser tells a gripping story and makes sense of the political and religious background for the general reader.  

God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot by Alice Hogge takes us into the clandestine world of the Jesuits who entered England secretly to plot the overthrow of the Protestant Queen.  They lived harrowing lives hiding in secret chambers in Catholic homes, constantly hunted by the authorities, facing gruesome torture and death if captured.  Some like Edmund Campion are saints still venerated by the Catholic Church.  Hogge brings some of the lesser known martyrs out of the shadows.

The Daylight Gate, the new novel by Jeanette Winterson, is a vivid and disturbing account of the Pendle witch trials of 1612.  Pendle is in Lancashire, a Catholic stronghold where many of the Gunpowder plotters fled in the aftermath of November 5th.  Witchcraft and Catholicism were closely associated in the early seventeenth century in England; "witchery popery, popery witchery" was a popular saying at the time.  Where you find one evil, you'll find the other was a mindset that spawned hysteria and false accusations.  James I himself was obsessed with the dangers of witchcraft, even wrote a book about it, and ordered zealous witch hunts.  

Dr. John Dee is one of the historical characters who appear in The Daylight Gate. He also features in Prophecy, a historical thriller by S. J. Parris.  Dee sounds like a fictional character, but he really was Elizabeth I's official astrologer.  He was a necromancer who dabbled in alchemy, magic, and other dark arts, a gift to future historians and novelists.  Here he and Giordano Bruno, a notorious Elizabethan spy, investigate black magic and murder at the Queen's court. 

Shakespeare also makes an appearance in The Daylight Gate.  There is evidence that he spent time as a tutor in Lancashire and some scholars have even posited that he was a secret Catholic.  In Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth, Garry Wills argues that the play can best be understood in the context of the religious and political turmoil of Shakespeare's times.  First staged in 1606, the horror of the Gunpowder Plot would have been fresh in the minds of the audience.  Wills compares the national trauma with America's experience of Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.  Like Macbeth, James I was Scottish; the witchcraft in the play no mere entertainment but the dramatization of a perceived real threat to the nation. 

So Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day, which don't seem to have much in common at first, are actually both closely associated with witches.  Once you've read The Daylight Gate, though, you won't think of witches as those cute pointy-hatted creatures in Halloween illustrations any more. The Pendle witches are all too human and their fate pitiful and tragic.

 Rita T.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Rita, for a literary explanation of Guy Fawkes Day and its importance in British history.