- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005


By James Sharpe

Harvard, $19.95, 240 pages


What will Americans many generations from now think about the September 11 terrorist attacks? The answer depends partly on whether those attacks turn out to be the worst the terrorists are capable of inflicting upon on us. If they are, then perhaps some day Americans will celebrate our own equivalent of Great Britain’s Guy Fawkes Day.

Yesterday, the British celebrated the 400th anniversary of the 1605 “Gunpowder Plot” with their 399th Guy Fawkes Day. Guy Fawkes — who gets burned in effigy year after year — was a key plotter of the English-speaking world’s first foiled attempt at religious-inspired mass-casualty terrorism.

To commemorate his capture and the foiling of the plot, the British light firecrackers, bonfires and hold parades. Perhaps if we catch an Al Qaeda operative with a suitcase nuke in New York — and then proceed to stamp out Islamic extremism worldwide — then we’ll have occasion for some American equivalent of the holiday. This is a tall order, much more than a Richard Reid shoe-bomber here and a Sheikh Omar Abdel Raman there.

The Gunpowder Plot, increasingly obscure even to the British, is significant for what it wasn’t. Arranged by a cabal of 13 extremists, all Catholics, the idea was to blow up Parliament, Westminster Palace and the surrounding areas with a massive, clandestine store of explosives secreted beneath parliamentary chambers. A colossal statement of anti-Protestant extremism, it would have murdered King James I, everyone in Parliament, members of the royal family and assorted dignitaries — in short, the whole establishment. But it was uncovered a few hours before Fawkes could detonate the load. A few alert guards, as well as some crucial leaks by plotters with troubled consciences, were the dramatic threads that unraveled the plot.

Had it succeeded, the plot would have altered the British political landscape and, by consequence, those of Europe and America. Whatever government to emerge from such chaos would undoubtedly have prosecuted the era’s religious warfare with even more ferocity. Germany’s 30 Years’ War — which caused the deaths of one of every five people — could have seen a rival in devastation on the British Isles, which suffered plenty without. This might well have rerouted the chain of events leading to the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution, perhaps even derailed them.

The story of how it all failed, what it meant at the time and how the British have since remembered and altered its legacy are the subjects of historian James Sharpe’s “Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day.” As Mr. Sharpe shows, the immediate consequence of the Gunpowder Plot was a tightening of controls on Catholics. There was no harsh crackdown on Catholics, however — at least nothing significantly harsher than was typical prior to the plot. But the government acted swiftly and terribly against the plotters, literally dismembering them, rooting out their networks of support and severely punishing anyone remotely associated with them.

Guy Fawkes was “strangled, being hanged up by the neck between heaven and earth,” according to one contemporary writer quoted by Mr. Sharpe. “Then he is to be cut down alive, and to have his privy parts cut off and burnt before his face as being unworthily begotten, and unfit to leave any generation after him. His bowels and inlaid parts taken out and burnt … his head cut off … last his body to be quartered, and the quarters set up in some high and eminent place … to become a prey for the fowls of the air.” That was after he was tortured with manacles and the rack to confess his co-conspirators’ identities.

In the coming centuries, as Mr. Sharpe shows, Guy Fawkes Day became a popular festival that changed according to the national mood. For the rest of the 17th century, it was a day of fear and hatred of Catholics, but it was also a day of thanksgiving — officially so, in fact, until 1859. In the early years, Guy Fawkes wasn’t the focus; the pope was. Later, when the religious wars subsided, Guy Fawkes Day became an occasion for hooliganism, revelry and simmering anti-Catholicism. These days it has devolved into a proto-Halloween that bears progressively little resemblance to the old Guy Fawkes Day.

Mr. Sharpe draws a few parallels between the Gunpowder Plot and today’s religious terrorism, but it is disappointingly leftish tripe. In both cases, he writes, “the forces supposedly threatening us frequently dissolve under deeper analysis.” He then gives away his hand: “As always, one man’s terrorist can be another man’s freedom fighter.” He scoffs at the Cold War, too, after which “the more thoughtful inhabitants of the West, and one hopes all historians worth their salt, wondered whom we were going to find ourselves being encouraged to hate and fear next.”

In reality there are more differences than parallels. The old Britain disenfranchised and persecuted Catholics; the contemporary United States does no such thing to Muslims. The plotters 400 years ago were tortured and quartered in public; today’s plotters are imprisoned, with isolated instances of abuse. Most important of all, the old British monarchy and Parliament were in fact waging religious war against Catholics, whereas the United States is at war with Islamist extremism, not Islam. Whatever the differences, we can only hope to one day be capable of celebrating a Guy Fawkes Day after some Suitcase Nuke Plot is foiled on a Manhattan subway.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.



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