Guy Fawkes Day

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(HOST) On the four-hundredth anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, commentator Peter Gilbert tells us about the origin of Guy Fawkes Day in England, and just perhaps the origin of a character’s name from Harry Potter as well.

(GILBERT) It is highly likely that the terrorist pilots of one of
the September eleventh planes were aiming for the U.S. capitol building. Similarly, four hundred years ago today, November 5, 1605, religious zealots placed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellar of the Houses of Parliament in London, planning to blow them up.

English Catholics had been severely persecuted since Henry VIII broke with Rome in the first half of the sixteenth century. Church property was confiscated and monasteries closed. People unwil-
ling to swear oaths of allegiance to the English monarch as head of the Church of England were imprisoned, or worse, like Thomas More, the “Man For All Seasons”, who kept his honor but lost his head.

The pendulum swung back briefly under the reign of Mary Tudor, who tried brutally but unsuccessfully to bring Catholicism back to England. Catholic persecution returned under Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, James I. Catholics were forced to practice their religion in secret and in peril.

In reaction, the charismatic Richard Catesby, a leading Catholic dissident, recruited twelve other men to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the day that King James I was to open Parliament. Their goal was to kill the King and destroy Parliament, which had persecuted them so relentlessly.

But word of their plan leaked out, the King got wind of it, and
early on November 5th, the authorities stormed the building and captured one conspirator – Guy Fawkes – the triggerman, as it were – who was down in the cellar under the House of Lords with the barrels of gunpowder. There’s some question about whether the plan could even have worked – or whether the gunpowder was too old to ignite. We’ll never know.

The conspirators were imprisoned, tortured and executed. The statutory punishment for treason was intentionally gruesome (even by the less squeamish standards of that era) in order to deter treason in others.

Every November 5th in the 400 years since, the English mark Guy Fawkes Day, the day that traitors failed in their attempt to kill the monarch and blow up Parliament. People celebrate the preser-
vation of the state by setting off fireworks, lighting bonfires, and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. And kids ask people on the street for contributions so they can buy fireworks – or whatever – by asking for “a penny for the guy.”

Every year people throw scarecrow-like effigies of Guy Fawkes onto bonfires, and each year new effigies reappear only to be consumed by fire as well. Could that be the reason that the witty author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling, named Professor Dumbledore’s pet phoenix Fawkes? For legend has it that each year the phoenix bird bursts into flames only to be reborn out of the ashes.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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