Lessons from Guy Fawkes

Many years ago I rode through the English country-side with an Archaeologist (her house was filled with bones from the Mary Rose excavation) who pointed out the economic reasons for the hedge-rows, the meaning of every stained-glass window…and, as we passed the Holbeche House in Staffordshire, she told me the end of the Gunpowder Plot.

Even though I had spent some time in rural Devonshire (with people who said getting “pissed” on home-made hard cider and dancing half-naked with a burning barrel of hot tar on their back is one of the highlights of the year) I was not prepared for the reality of the Guy Fawkes story.

It was one thing to think about the Gunpowder Plot as just another excuse for lighting bonfires and having a party, but bearing witness to the house where the men who gave themselves up were shot, well, that was a different story entirely. The fact was a handful of men who wanted to end the opressive treatment of non-Protestants very nearly killed the King and all his successors. Not long after I couldn’t help but think it odd that the English celebrate a failed coup attempt essentially the same way that the US celebrates independence. Actually, maybe it would be more fitting to compare the Fawkes ritual to Burning Man, since Bonfire Night (supoosedly to celebrate a King’s survival) usually involves burning an effigy along with the fireworks.

Guy Fawkes

Anyway, the BBC has posted some interesting reports this year that make the obvious comparison to today’s fear of terrorism:

    “A plot to blow up the houses of parliament, with the monarch and politicians inside, has just failed. What can the government do to restore calm? Four hundred years ago the authorities in England faced exactly this question when they foiled a plot by disillusioned Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament.”

Many have suggested that Fawkes was tortured extensively and some say his shaky signature (Guido Fawkes) is sufficient proof. But the BBC quotes a historian from Cambridge who says “Victims often tell you what you want to hear, whereas the torturer – especially in this particular case – wants the facts. Torture isn’t the only or indeed the best way of getting at those facts. The authorities in 1605 knew that, and used other techniques to win secrets.”

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