History, Quote of the Day

A Guy Fawkes Thought Experiment

This weekend brings on that most British of holidays–Bonfire Night–Guy Fawkes Night–the Fifth of November. The holiday that, when I was a kid, was exponentially bigger than Halloween, as for a few days before, children would push around a wheelbarrow laden with a straw-stuffed effigy of Guido Fawkes, usually dressed in their father’s cast-offs or scrapings from the bottom of the charity clothes-barrel, shouting “penny for the guy!” collecting their small change, buying a few fireworks with it, and then, dizzy with excitement, setting a bonfire ablaze, throwing the “traitor” onto it and watching him crackle and dance, before setting off their Roman candles, Catherine wheels, and sparklers in a gluttony and excess of high spirits.

Why do I call it the most British of holidays? Because, in the best tradition of my countrymen and our spirit of inestimably fair play, it celebrates the underdog. The failure. The one who couldn’t. The one who didn’t. The one who wasn’t even really the leader of the plot, just an also-ran who got caught in the crossfire. We’re really serious about that sort of thing. As with so many failures, human and otherwise, we embrace Guy Fawkes and clutch him to our bosoms, refusing to let go. We write books about him. We make television programs about him. We love him.

Stay tuned. Wouldn’t surprise me if, in another 417 years, the UK will be celebrating “Brexit Night” every June 23, carting around dummies dressed like Theresa May (kitten heels and all), and setting fire to them with the most ecologically-sound fossil-fuel alternatives they can find, to celebrate the day that Britain voted to leave the EU, and then for over two years, until the advent of BoJo and his “Get Brexit Done” campaign, you know, didn’t.  (It’s still not done by the way.  Although Boris seems to be.  At least for now.)

The “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the House of Lords on the opening day of Parliament, to assassinate the newly-crowned Protestant King James I (the first Stuart king, and the uniter of the monarchies of England and Scotland), and to replace him with the Catholic Philip III of Spain, was conceived by Robert Catesby, a British noble who’d already tried to overthrow the government once, a few years before, and had–foolishly as it turned out–been pardoned for his efforts. Frustrated by several low-level and unsuccessful attempts to bring about change, Catesby recruited a dozen or so similarly-minded rebels to his cause. One of them was Guido Fawkes, a tall, handsome Yorkshireman with a thick mane of red hair and a red beard, a zealous Catholic faith, and an extensive knowledge of explosives.

From the start, though, things did not go the plotters’ way. Attempts to tunnel their way under Parliament proved too much for them, and they had to fall back on a plan to rent several cellars under the House of Lords in which they could place their explosives. Leaks abounded (of the political sort, not the watery sort, despite the nearby presence of the Thames), and anonymous letters were passed into the hands of suspicious House members, warning of a “terrible blow” about to come and of treason afoot. Finally, the drumbeat of suspicion found its way to the King’s inner circle, and 417 years ago today, on November 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes himself was arrested in the cellars under the House of Lords, as he stood guard over 36 barrels of explosives, and the fuses and matches needed to set them off.

His brave swaggering before the King, during which he promised to “blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains,” notwithstanding, Guy Fawkes crumbled under torture (in those days when government-sponsored torture usually meant torture to the death), and signed a full confession naming and shaming his fellow conspirators, who had fled London, but were tracked down and arrested. Those who survived the encounters (not many) were brought back to London and hanged, drawn, and quartered in Westminster’s Old Palace Yard along with Guy Fawkes himself.

Unsurprisingly, anti-Catholic sentiment in England increased after the Plot. Parliament ordered an annual observance of the Fifth of November, complete with the ringing of church bells to commemorate the treasonous affair. The “Popish Recusants Act” was made even harsher, and additional fines were imposed on Catholics who refused to attend Church of England services at least annually, or those who acknowledged the authority of the Pope in any sphere at all. Catholics were also barred from the legal and military professions and were disallowed from voting.

My own memories of Guy Fawkes night are few as most of my childhood wasn’t spend in England. But, as with special childhood memories, those few are indelibly inked on my brain: My dad’s childlike joy at organizing a fireworks extravaganza, and in setting off things that go “BANG!” Massive, and beautiful explosive displays, the likes of which I’ve never seen since (suspect there might be a bit of affection, and a bit of false memory at play there). Sparklers. The warmth of the bonfire on the chilly November night. Potatoes baking. Hot chocolate.

And, always, the memory of the poor little crow, minding her own business under the porch roof, and so terrified by a particularly loud rocket that she vacated her nest with a screech, flew straight through the open door into the house, parting my mother’s hair with her beak as she went, and causing hours of frustration and mirth as we sought to remove her. Eventually, my mother rounded her up in the bread bin, clapped the lid on, and took her back outside. But the magic of that particular night was gone, and it was just dark and cold by then.

I know you’re thinking, Good Lord, this time Mrs. Right has really lost the plot. Even she can never bring this home. And, you’re about to ask me, before you lose your mind with frustration, what this little post could possibly have to do with the “thought experiment” mentioned in its title.


What if the Plot had succeeded in its plan to eliminate most of Parliament, and assassinate the King? (Studies of the explosives discovered, their amount, and their strength, indicate that had they gone off, they’d have completely destroyed everything within a 500-foot radius of the epicenter. Parliament would have been gone. Hundreds would have been dead. The country would have been plunged into chaos.) Perhaps even (shock, horror!) England would have become a remote territory of Spain (had that happened, the food would probably have been better by now, I’ll give you that).

But, suppose it had worked? Britain, and the fledgling United Kingdom, essentially, gone, eliminated in one inglorious revolution, and with a loud bang? How would world history have been changed? What would the United States, as we know it today, be instead? The British Empire? The language, even? Where would we be? Where would the world be, and more importantly, where would I be?

As one might expect, alternative history discussions abound on the web. Wikis, conspiracy nuts (not to put too fine a point on it; yes, there are 511 truthers out there), folks who haven’t got their facts quite straight, or who are peddling their own brand of nonsense. I haven’t really found a convincing counterfactual history explanation anywhere yet that satisfies me.

So, I’m asking you to come up with one. England, to all intents and purposes, is eliminated as a significant force in the world on 5 November, 1605. What happens next?

**Original posted on Ricochet, November 5, 2018

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