Tuesday, November 5, 2013


"The fifth of November,
As you well remember,
Was gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Here is the pope that we have got,
The whole promoter of the plot.
We’ll stick a pitchfork in his back,
And throw him in the fire."

The poem quoted above is part of the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day (aka Pope Day/Night), one of the most popular holidays of Reformation England and Colonial New England. On November 5, 1605, a supposed attempt was made on the life of King James I of England as he was preparing to open Parliament. James’ chief minister, Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, accused a group of Catholics - Guy Fawkes, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Bates, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen, John Grant, and Robert Catesby - of organizing a plot that would detonate 36 barrels of gunpowder underneath Parliament. These men, especially Guy Fawkes, were tortured most brutally into confessing and were sentenced to death by being drawn and quartered. King James encouraged his subjects to celebrate the disruption of the act of terrorism by making huge bonfires every 5th of November, where an effigy of the Pope would be tossed on top. Eventually, effigies of Guy Fawkes would also make it onto the bonfires. If you think this is ancient history, last year I overheard my British friend teaching her American son the stanzas, "Remember, remember, the 5th of November..."

But was the Gunpowder Plot true? England was a horrible place for Catholics during and after the Reformation and it is believable that people could be moved to such extremes after being faced with such intense torture, bigotry, and discrimination. However, recent scholarly work has started to question the official story of the Plot. The UK's History Learning Site asks some fairly obvious questions regarding that fateful day:

Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, hated Catholics and saw them as a constant source of trouble. Cecil also feared that there was a chance that James would be lenient with them during his reign and this he could not tolerate. That James only expelled priests was not good enough for Cecil. He wanted to remove Catholicism from England as he saw it as a threat. We know that James was terrified of a violent death; his childhood in Scotland had been fraught with danger including being kidnapped as a boy. What better way to get James to severely persecute the Catholics in England than to get him to believe that they had tried to kill him in this very violent manner? The government had a monopoly on gunpowder in this country and it was stored in places like the Tower of London. How did the conspirators get hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder without drawing attention to themselves? Did they get help from the government? How was the gunpowder moved across London from the Tower of London to Westminster (at least two miles distant) without anyone seeing it? The River Thames would not have been used as it could have lead to the gunpowder becoming damp and useless. Thirty six barrels would have been a sizable quantity to move without causing suspicion. Why were men who were known to be Catholics allowed to rent out a house so near to the Houses of Parliament? How did they move 36 barrels from that house to the cellar of the Houses of Parliament without anyone noticing along with hay, straw etc? Why, for the first time in history, was there a search of Parliament's cellars that conveniently found "John Johnson" (as Guy Fawkes called himself) before he lit the fuse? Why was the soldier who killed Catesby and Percy at Holbeech House in the Midlands, given such a large pension for life (10p a day for life) when their arrest and torture was more desirable so that the names of any other conspirators might be found out?

Some historians have pointed out these issues and claimed that the plotters were pawns in the hands of Robert Cecil and that he orchestrated the whole affair in his bid to get James to ban Catholics altogether.

It is a true blessing that we do not live in the same world today that existed during the Reformation. Catholics and Protestants, although still not seeing eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, have learned to live in peace with one another, which is a blessing to behold. Still, many people don't realize how these events of so long ago have contributed to the history of the world. After all, if Henry VIII hadn't wanted to divorce and remarry, the US would have been a Catholic country!The Catholic faith reached England's shores roughly around the year 597. It's hard to believe, but at one time in history England was so devoutly Catholic that she was known as "the dowry of Mary." During the early days of the Protestant Reformation, a defense of the seven Sacraments of the Catholic faith was penned by none other than King Henry VIII and dedicated to Pope Leo X! In return, the pope granted Henry VIII the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith (which the monarch of England still holds to this day). Once Henry wanted to divorce and remarry, things started to change as he imprisoned people who disagreed with him and placed his allies into the hierarchy of the Church in England. Sadly, the rest is history - King Henry VIII went on a bloody and ruthless crusade to stamp out Catholicism in the British Kingdom. Many martyrs died either defending the faith or simply because they refused to take an oath against the Pope. The English liturgical calendar explains, "the number of those who died on the scaffold, perished in prison, or suffered harsh persecution for their faith in the course of a century and a half cannot now be reckoned." However, what we do know is that Henry and his Anglican children saw Catholics as traitors to the Crown, and many suffered for choosing to stay with England's ancient faith. Churches were robbed and destroyed, statues were burned in heaping bonfires, and priests, nuns, and monks were arrested, tortured, murdered, or forced to leave the country (some estimate at least 72,000 Catholics were killed during this persecution).

Henry's children sought to remove England's memory of ever having learned the Catholic faith, passing laws that robbed Catholics of all their civil rights, including banning the celebration of the Mass. It wasn't until the year 1778 when Catholics were finally allowed to own property, inherit land, and join the army. The most significant progress made in regards to Catholic Emancipation in the UK was the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, where Catholics could finally be representatives in Parliament again (and openly practice their faith). You could literally spend hours just reading the summaries of the Catholic plight in England. This was the world in which Guy Fawkes and other British Catholics where forced to live.

"A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him."

Prior to the Reformation in England, a popular activity of the people during the Novena of All Souls (Nov 1 through 8) would be to go door-to-door selling 'soul cakes' and then take that money to the church for Masses to be said for the souls in Purgatory. Or they would ask for treats in exchange for singing some hymns or prayers. Oftentimes, people would dress up as their favorite saint or their patron saint. Eventually, these practices of devotion would be mocked by English Protestants who would dress as ghosts or devils to make fun of Catholic "superstition." They would in turn visit Catholic homes to ask for trick-or-treats. This anti-Catholic bigotry was passed onto the New World in our Halloween practices and the celebration of Pope Day on November 5:

"Young men, as well as boys,...constructed a huge vehicle, varying, at times, from twenty to forty feet long, eight or ten wide, and five or six high, from the lower to the upper platform, on the front of which, they erected a paper lantern, capacious enough to hold, in addition to the light, five or six persons. Behind that, as large as life, sat the mimic pope and several other personages, monks, friars, and so forth. Last, but not least, stood an image of what was designed to be a representation of old Nick [the Devil] himself, furnished with a pair of huge horns, holding in his hand a pitchfork, and otherwise accoutred, with all the frightful ugliness that their ingenuity could devise."

These effigies of the Pope, the devil, and other Catholic and/or political figures would eventually be burned in a massive bonfire set in the center of town. There are many really interesting (and sad) stories about Pope's Day on the November 5 blog and they are worth the time to read.

Thankfully, although there is plenty of anti-Catholic bigotry left in this world, at least in the West it is not violent like in the old days. People still mark the 5th of November as a day of Catholic treason and it will be hard to dispel the "official" story regardless of how many facts start to come out to the contrary. I do not want this day to go to waste, however, and will always do my best to have Mass said every November 5 for the members of the Gunpowder Plot. If true, God only knows if these people were honestly motivated by self-defense and a need to defend the Church or if they were just violent zealots out for blood; since we cannot pretend to know if they are in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, it is only right and just to ask God for mercy on their souls. In the West we cannot pretend to know the world in which they lived (although Christians in the East and Africa know exactly what it is like). I'm not making excuses for their attempt to violently overthrow their government and any such tactics should be condemned. However, they lived in a world where to celebrate Mass was a crime punishable by the death penalty and/or torture. You lost your profession, your property, your family, your rights under the law, and sometimes even your country. Let us pray that those days will never return in the West and that Christians around the world may be freed from the violence currently being perpetrated against their freedom of religion. Let us no longer see Guy Fawkes, the other "conspirators", and the government officials as the boogeymen they been portrayed as for the past 400+ years - let us instead sympathetically remember them all as the result of what happens when sinful mankind betrays the love of Christ that we've all been asked to share with one another. And let us beg God for the graces we need in order to prevent that reality from returning to our lives.