Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Remember, remember, the fifth of November

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and plot."

In 1908, Edith Carey writing a letter to Folklore magazine, described the late arrival of Guy Fawkes celebrations in Guernsey. She wrote:

"To the best of my belief there were neither November bonfires nor Guy Fawkes celebrations in Guernsey until the beginning of the nineteenth century. What customs may have prevailed over here in the days before the introduction of the Reformation and the Puritanical spirit, I do not know. But after that date, in 1565, 1567, 1581, 1582, and 1611, "Ordonnance" after "Ordonnance" was passed by the Royal Court forbidding songs, dances, and all "jeux inlicyte," under penalty of the culprits having to do penance in church on the following Sunday, with bare heads, legs, and feet, wrapped in a winding sheet and holding a lighted torch. These restrictions, which were framed to put an end to aught that savoured of "la superstition" as well as of "le viel levain de la Papaulte," effectually put a stop to all our primitive festival customs." (1)

In fact, the only remaining custom was one which had its celebration on New Year's Eve, where  in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, "boys still dressed up a grotesque figure, which they called the "vieux bout de l'an," and buried or burnt with mock ceremonies in some retired spot. But that practice also fell into abeyance "

It was apparently not until the second quarter of the 19th century that an English family of small farmers introduced Guy Fawkes celebrations to the Island.

 "To the country people the name "Guy Fawkes" meant nothing, while they had a confused recollection of the earlier "bout de l'an" celebrations; so to them the "Guy" was invariably known as "bout de l'an" or "budloe" (as they spelt it), though without any real idea of what the name conveyed. Therefore, I think that it was the veritable "bout de l'an" of New Year's Eve which is referred to in the term "bout de l'an," and that any November fires-if any there were-had been abolished far too long to be remembered." (1)

But Guy Fawkes even in English history remains the most obscure of villains. He is more of a symbolic figure to be burnt, a part of a fire ritual, than a real person. As Dewey D. Wallace notes:

During the twentieth century, the anti-Catholicism of the event receded, and the "guy" was simply a means for the extortion of candy and coins by children unaware of Guy's original significance." (2)

The conspiracy is well known, and is succinctly stated in Nigel Balchin's essay on the subject:

"The King and Parliament were to be blown up. The Princess Elizabeth and the little Prince Charles were to be seized. Various Catholic gentry were to be rallied. Princess Elizabeth was to be proclaimed Queen. So much was reasonably clear. But just what was ever intended to happen after that was far less so. Indeed, amongst all the conspirators there does not appear to have been a man whose brains rose much above the level of undergraduate rugby toughs organising a November 5th rag" (3)

It was presented by the Attorney General Coke as a fiendish plan of devilish cunning, thwarted only by one letter sent to Lord Monteagle, warning him against attending Parliament, and the perspicacity of James I in divining that this was a plot to assassinate him. But it was instead, probably well known to Sir Robert Cecil, James I's chief "spymaster", who simply gave the conspirators enough rope to hang themselves, and played a waiting game to see who exactly was involved before they were ready to be caught in his net.

As Balchin notes:

"There are a number of other aspects of  the whole matter which certainly are very odd indeed, and which seem to suggest not only naiveté but positive co-cooperativeness on the part of the authorities. The conspirators are able to rent a house belonging to the Crown next door to the House of Lords. When their plan for a mine fails, they are able to rent the cellars of the House itself. Percy, who arranged these things, was well known to be an ardent Catholic; and in each instance another tenant had to be ejected to make room for the conspirators. The authorities could hardly have been more helpful!"

"Again, when Monteagle receives the mysterious letter, he has it read aloud, and one Ward, who was present, at once warns Thomas Winter of the letter's existence and of the fact that it is in the hands of Cecil. If Ward, who was not a conspirator, knew that Winter would be interested, how many other people knew ? Indeed, it appears that via Ward, via Monteagle, the conspirators were, throughout, kept in touch with what the authorities were thinking-or appeared to be thinking-about the whole business."

"Further, when, after several weeks' absence Fawkes returned to his post in the cellar on November 3rd, his return corresponded almost exactly with the time fixed by Cecil for an examination of the cellar. Yet no step was taken to apprehend him or even to question him very closely. The Lord Chamberlain took surprisingly little interest in him and his heap of fuel, and he was able to warn the other conspirators that everything' was getting uncomfortably hot."

"Finally, though Fawkes was a desperate man who would not have hesitated, on his own statement, to blow up the place and himself with it to avoid arrest, he was in fact surprised and taken by the party which, ostensibly, only came to make a rather more thorough search of the cellar than the Lord Chamberlain." (3)

And a fortnight before the arrest, Cecil penned this cryptic note:

"I spend my time in sowing so much seed as my poor wretched fingers can scatter, in such a season as may bring forth a plentiful harvest. I dare boldly say no shower or storm shall mar our harvest except it should come from beyond the middle region."

What can one conclude? I concur with Balchin's thesis, that the conspirators were outfoxed, outmanoeuvred, and finally entrapped by Cecil. Their half-baked schemed was doomed from the start, and they were pawns on the chessboard, or amateurs taking an expert on at poker:

"It seems to me fairly obvious that from some indefinable but quite early stage in the whole drama, Cecil knew that a plot was going forward, and was playing his characteristic waiting game with the conspirators, giving them enough rope to hang themselves. Whether the Monteagle letter was genuine, or a part of the whole process, we shall never know. But throughout one gets the impression that the conspirators were being almost ostentatiously warned of their danger, in order to make them reveal themselves by flight or precipitate action. The most likely explanation appears to be that while Cecil knew of the plot, he needed time to learn the details and the identity of all those concerned. The irresistible impression is of a game of poker between a silent expert and a set of reckless novices. " (3)

The event was enshrined in memory, and as Dewey D. Wallace notes, the Church of England played its part in keeping that memory alive:

"Following the plot's discovery and the seizure of the conspirators, Fawkes and others were brutally executed and the penal laws against Catholics harshly enforced, in spite of the moderation of King James I. But in the aftermath of the plot the focus was on keeping it alive in memory, and the next three chapters describe that remembering: on the anniversary of the plot's discovery, parishes of the Church of England were to have annual services of thanksgiving for England's deliverance, the service for the occasion not being removed from the Book of Common Prayer until 1859. "(2)

But by 1901, the anti-Catholic propaganda element was fading, and the figure of the "old guy" was taking on a more symbolic aspect, more detached from history, more a feature of a fire festival. The rhymes themselves while remaining, were also becoming corrupted. A writer to Folklore noted that the formula shouted by parties of boys carrying "Guys" down the street in Kensington was becoming debased:

"Please to remember
The fifth of November
Should never be forgot.
Guy, Guy, Guy!
Hit 'im in the eye !
Stick 'im up the chimney-pots, and there let 'im lie !"

And as Balchin sums up Guy Fawkes:

"It is as a symbol only that he really exists. As a man, we have no individual picture of him. He might, on the facts we know, have been any one of thousands of brave, simple, ardently religious men who have very pardonably found the larger moral issues beyond their grasp, and have expressed the hot confusion within them by desperate action. The cloaked figure lurking in the shadows of the cellar with its gunpowder and its slow match is at once menacing, farcical and pathetic. But it is not the man Guy Fawkes. It is the Old Guy - and the Old Guy is not a person but an idea, which the writer of Morality Plays would perhaps have recognised and understood more clearly than we do. When the Devil is unsuccessful (as always in fiction, but not always in life), he becomes not only laughable but mildly pitiable. The cards were so clearly stacked against him. It is only when he succeeds that he need be taken seriously. Evil, to most of us, is still partly an event, and not merely an intention." (3)

(1)   Folklore, Vol. 19, No. 1, 1908, pp. 104-105
(2)   Church History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Dec., 2007), pp. 854-855
(3)   The Anatomy of Villainy, Nigel Balchin, 1950

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