Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November

gunpowder, treason and plot./ I see no reason why gunpowder, treason/ Should ever be forgot.”

Well, maybe, maybe not. I suspect a number of English Catholics, and Members of Parliament, would just as soon that Guy Fawkes Night be consigned to the refuse bin of history. And local constabularies as well, since they get to deal with bonfires and people enjoying the night a little too freely.

For Americans, I suspect any association we have with Guy Fawkes day comes from a movie (or the comic books from whence it came) and the use of Guy Fawkes masks by Anonymous, part of 4Chan, and some political groups. We don’t associate it with anti-Catholic sentiment, or English history, except as processed through the V for Vendetta comics and movie. Children don’t come around begging for “A Penny for the Guy,” although I did pester a Canadian prof with that in early November. He’d dig out a penny and advise me not to spend it all in one place.

The celebration commemorates the near-mass-murder of King James I and a lot of other people by a group of Catholic die-hards in 1605. The idea was to behead the English government by killing the king and most of Parliament, and then put a proper Catholic monarch back on the throne. Guy Fawkes was one of the plotters, and the person in charge of lighting off the explosives.

This was a time when church and state were not—and could not—be separated, at least in the minds of all proper-thinking people on all sides of theological debates. Even France, which had just settled down somewhat after the 1598 Edict of Nantes, limited people to Catholicism (the official faith of the country and monarch) and the French Calvinist Huguenot tradition. No Lutherans, and most certainly no Anabaptists, were permitted to linger in the country. Believing in the same faith as the monarch meant that you were loyal to the monarch. Straying from the faith was treason, because you deliberately broke from the government’s teachings and accepted social norms. A Protestant (outside of French Huguenots) could not be loyal to a Catholic monarch, and vice versa. At best, you could relocate, as was allowed within the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1605, the French War of Religion had simmered down, for the moment. But the Spanish and Dutch were almost 40 years into 80 years of intermittent war, known as the Dutch Revolt or the Eighty Years War. James the I, a Protestant, supported the Dutch. He also favored a very strong and centralized monarchy, and believed in the Divine Right of Kings. Queen Elizabeth I, who preceded James on the throne of England, had survived several assassination and overthrow attempts by Catholics. This led to her banning Catholicism from England, even though she inclined toward a formalized, semi-Catholic worship style.* Politics, not theology, drove her actions. Once Phillip II of Spain launched the Armada against England in 1588, most Englishmen and women saw Catholicism as the faith of the enemy, and the Pope as the handmaid of the Anti-Christ.

The events of 1605 did nothing to endear Catholicism to the average Englishman. Bonfire Night, including fireworks and burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes, became a way to remind everyone of the dangers of unchecked Catholicism (and to blow off steam and have fun).

Thirteen years later, when Bohemian Protestant nobles threw three of the Holy Roman Emperor’s staff out of a window in Prague castle, all of mainland Europe north of the Alps would be dragged into Thirty Years of misery. The Dutch probably looked east, shrugged, and said, “Welcome to the party. You’re 50 years late.”

It was a very different mental world from the United States in 2019. Or so most of us would like to hope…

*Today she would probably be considered very High Church Anglican.


14 thoughts on “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November

  1. Heh. I just invoked this place and time on Sunday.
    The context was people getting all oogedy-boogety about Freemasonry.
    It was… Absolutely fricking nuts.
    I tried to inject some sanity and perspective into the conversation about what was going on in England when and where Freemasonry became “a thing”, and why such an organization was helpful in holding communities together during the uncertainties of the time between Edward VI and the Glorious Revolution.
    (But what do I know? Evidently using construction tools as an allegory for self-improvement means I practice alchemy and summon demons. I was amused at being called a gnostic, though. Seeing as how the major point of freemasonry’s last and biggest initiation is that the answer to life, the universe’s, and everything, has long since been lost.)

    • How did Freemasonry get associated with magic, ancient secrets, and Illuminati-class conspiracies, anyway? In reality it’s simply a social club descended from one of the first trade unions.

      • It’s my understanding that there are/were rituals involved in Mansonic meetings.

        Some people took those rituals to be part of a “hidden religion” and/or occult practices.

        • The allegory at the heart of Freemasonry is the construction of Solomon’s Temple.
          Which gives a direct tie to fanciful tales about King Solomon, and another to the Knights Templar through their occupation of the Temple Mount.
          Add in melodramatic oaths of secrecy…
          And people will make the perfectly reasonable assumption that there’s a lot more going on than “improve yourself to improve your community”.
          Of course, people have been known to tell stories to make themselves seem important.
          Pretty reliably, in fact.

      • (Waggles hand) It’s hard to say, but appearances are that it was inspired by medieval guilds, rather than descended from them.
        My reasoning is that organizations don’t change easily, and nearly everything about masonry screams Anglican. (There are significant Scottish Enlightenment aspects, too, but they’re more grafted on than foundational.)
        But social club is underselling it.
        If you had Protestant sympathies when one of Mary’s Inquisitors came through, you had a big problem. Likewise, if you had Catholic sympathies when one of Cromwell’s Major-Generals came by, soiling your breeches would be a perfectly valid response.
        It sure would be nice to have members of “the other side” sworn to protect you from the zealot of the day. Even if it was virtually certain that your side would be ascendant before long. But of course, such a mutual defense compact would be dangerous to everyone involved if whichever fanatic was able to know who the members were…

  2. A bit of trivia is that “guy” (from Fawkes’ first name) became a term for a nasty sort of person in England but later in America became just a neutral term for people.

    As in “Take Care You Guys”! 😉

  3. “It was a very different mental world from the United States in 2019. Or so most of us would like to hope…”

    I don’t know, I think I good defenestration could do wonders for the political scene right now.

  4. Ah yes… Church vs. state… Wolf, I’m a mason so I can answer some of your question- Freemasonry evolved from the guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders of the Middle Ages, since there was a VERY strict apprenticeship (and knowledge of geometry required). With the decline of cathedral building, some lodges of operative (working) masons began to accept honorary members to bolster their declining membership. Since Masons ONLY have a requirement to believe in a supreme being, this put them in conflict with the Church(s), and they accused the Masons/Knights Templar of everything under the sun. Even today, if a Mason is Catholic, he can be excommunicated!!!

    • Even today, if a Mason is Catholic, he can be excommunicated!!!

      Not exactly; it’s a matter of if he swears that he agrees with Freemasondry he’s denied binding teachings and removed himself from the faith. (Kind of like if a math teacher was insisting that 2+2=5.) Technical term is indifferentism.

      There’s also the way that, historically, various lodges were actively hostile to the Catholic faith.

      My favorite great-uncle was fairly high up in the local Mason’s; spent a lot of time rolling his eyes, as best I can tell, if their lodge had been serious trouble he would’ve taken it to bits instead. (RIP, uncle Don!)

      • Except that there’s not really much there to conflict.
        A guideline about how to order your day, an obligation to show charity towards widows and orphans, a vow to not defraud others?
        These are not things RC theology disapproves of.
        Seriously, there isn’t much theology in Freemasonry.
        God is invoked, certainly.
        God is revered, always.
        But religious instruction and religious faith are requirements to become a Mason, not something imparted by Freemasonry.

        • Except that a requirement to agree that they are the same is exactly the sticking point.

          It’s like the gender neutral marriage argument– either you believe women and men are different, or you believe they are functionally interchangeable.

          If group A requires that you believe they are interchangeable, and group B requires you believe they are not, you have to pick one.

          • Category error.
            Freemasonry does not claim to be catholic (or protestant, for that matter).
            It does not claim to be interchangeable with your faith tradition. (Rather, you must already be an active member of your faith tradition to become a Mason. It is literally a prerequisite.)
            Acknowledging that God exists and is important, would not make the Brotherhood of Beekeepers into a religion. It would still be about keeping bees.
            Likewise, masonry is about improving yourself and your community.

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