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.