A treason that fizzled out 400 years ago still fires the imagination - and puts hedgehogs in danger, says Jeremy Black
Remember, remember the Fifth of November. Did it blaze for you as a child? or was it only a damp squib? Brilliant lights or autumnal murk? Now, with fireworks deployed to light the skies on so many other occasions, with children increasingly marking Hallowe'en rather than Guy Fawkes Day and public celebrations of the latter subsiding in the face of health and safety regulations and rocketing insurance premiums, is November 5 all over? And that before a politically correct age deems the celebration inappropriate. Is Fawkes really a freedom fighter rather than a terrorist, or was he the victim of a government conspiracy? A sixthformer assured me of the latter when I visited her school recently to discuss sixth-form projects. When I queried it, I was scornfully told I was wrong.
At any rate, the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot is clearly a publishing opportunity, and these books fizz far more than the weighty tomes on the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. The multi-authored Gunpowder Plots is strongest on remembrance; James Sharpe provides the best all-round account, which includes the aftermath and remembrance; while James Travers focuses on documents.
Sharpe's book is the first in a series, "Profiles in History', edited by Mary Beard, designed to explore some of the iconic events and relationships of history. The announced subjects are eclectic - Why Alfred Burned the Cakes, The Summer of '67, Guernica , Bastille Day, Dr Livingstone, I presume?, the Death of Socrates and Et tu Brute ?. On the evidence of Sharpe's book, this promises to be an arresting series.
Sharpe argues that the reality of Catholicism in England about 1600 was very different from the image conjured up in government propaganda and contemporary Protestant myth. Most Catholics did not envisage rising against the Government, were unlikely to turn to Spanish support, rejected the papacy's claims to intervene in secular affairs and were anxious to keep priests under control. But some were willing to overthrow the Government and, had Fawkes ignited the gunpowder, it might well have destroyed all buildings within 40 yards, Sharpe suggests, with abrupt consequences for the ruling dynasty. While noting different interpretations and the problematic nature of the sources, Sharpe argues that the main lines of the plot's history are clear. He describes the conspiracy, and notes that it was scuppered by the Mounteagle letter.
Sharpe then takes the story through the 17th century. Trial and punishment are followed by remembrance and the use of the Plot for celebratory and admonitory purposes. Its potency derived from the extent to which it had a popular resonances as well as an official use. At the same time, Sharpe notes, there were important shifts in memorialisation. For example, between 1780 and 1829, a major change occurred, with the emergence of Guy Fawkes as the key figure in public perceptions of the plot. Sharpe suggests this was due to the growing acceptability of the papacy to Protestants as part of the united front against the militant anti-Christians of revolutionary France. Burning effigies of the Pope did not seem appropriate. Though Fawkes had rarely featured in 18th-century sermons on gunpowder treason or in titles of relevant books, he now came to the fore, in popular theatre and in literature.
Indeed, Fawkes emerged as a man of principle and courage in Guy Fawkes , or the Gunpowder Treason: An Historical Romance (1841), a novel by the successful, but now overlooked, William Ainsworth (one writer of the period whose works could be profitably disinterred). Sharpe argues that this novel symbolised a turning point, as the redundancy of the plot in underlining a providentialist, Protestant and anti-Catholic view of English history left room for new accounts.
Sharpe also offers an able account of celebrations and riots in the 19th century in which events were entwined with local political, religious and social issues, as well as the sometimes unsuccessful attempt to control the population. In Northamptonshire in the 1850s, November 5 became an occasion when Tories, Whigs, High Church Anglicans and Nonconformists attempted to appropriate an established date in the ritual year.
The book brings the story up to date, with much on the situation in 2003-04, although the late 20th century receives insufficient coverage. All views are covered, including advice that potentially nervous dogs be given a relaxing early evening meal of overcooked brown rice laced with Marmite.
Hedgehog safety became of concern in the early 2000s, as bonfire leaves and twigs make ideal nests. Sharpe also addresses the link between Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night and the international range of the latter. There is also a subtle consideration of the development of ritual. Sharpe's book is a good read, well paced and commendably sceptical in face of a subject that can encourage the wildest comments.
Gunpowder Plots covers the same ground without quite the same success and a more bitty feel, but is still worthy of attention. After a brief introduction by David Cannadine, Pauline Croft provides an account of the conspiracy and argues that, unlike earlier plots against Elizabeth I, its long-lasting impact must be put down, in the first place, to the grand scale of the intended atrocity. Antonia Fraser offers a less successfully realised, and somewhat unfocused, counterfactual, "The Gunpowder Plot succeeds", which could have paid more attention to the likely consequences for Scotland and what became British America; David Cressy reviews 400 years of festivities. The detail and the feel for historical context are not as vivid as Sharpe's, but there is some useful material he does not cover. Cressy emphasises the extent to which, in the late 19th century, the anarchic elements of Guy Fawkes Night gave way to organised entertainment, and bonfires and street activities became the planned projects of societies and clubs. Some had philanthropic and social associations, which, Cressy suggests, were reminiscent of medieval confraternities.
Justin Champion bitterly deplores the modern commemoration of the plot, highlighting its anti-Catholic character and offering a somewhat ahistorical critique: "At a time when liberal sensitivities are rightly outraged at the inhumane treatment meted out in the name of 'freedom' at Guantanamo Bay, it is worth recalling the routine nature of dismemberment and butchery fundamental to the display of state power in the 17th and 18th centuries", and so on.
Mike Jay's detailed account of bonfire nights at Lewes (a topic also discussed by Sharpe) is more searching. He argues that the unifying theme is a "ridicule of authority, which knows no political favourites", and that the celebrations provide a "palimpsest in which the history of Lewes is etched in ever finer detail". Brenda Buchanan brings in the celebratory role of fireworks as part of a wide-ranging account of gunpowder that stretches back to medieval China.
Travers is less secure than Sharpe in his analysis of the plot, though he offers an attractive and interesting approach in terms of a play. But unlike the dramas of the period, with their directing irony, events in the Gunpowder Plot "unfolded in a fragmentary way without modern conveniences in bureaucracy or reportage to inform or co-ordinate", he argues.
He presents his story in three acts: first, the plotters' final preparations and the discovery of Fawkes; second, the plotters'
unsuccessful attempt to foment rebellion in the Midlands; and, third, the government investigation. Travers sees parallels between the documents he deploys and the drama of the period. He argues that the dramatists vividly evoke the theatrical potential of the court's shadows and ambiguities and that in the plotters' letters and testimonies, wordplay and equivocation become strategies and ambiguities. Ambiguity is taken further because Travers finds the plotters to be an integral part of the place-hunting, materialistic court they regarded with contempt.
That the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot is receiving less attention than that of Trafalgar may be of interest to future historians.
It is certainly worthy of comment. The plot seems a less comfortable topic and a story without heroes. Yet, in terms of drama, the plot is a cliffhanger, and had it worked, the consequences might have been more abrupt and immediate than British defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.
Gunpowder Plots: A Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Night
Author - B. Buchanan, D. Cannadine, J. Champion, D. Cressy, P. Croft, A. Fraser, M. Jay
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 196
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9886 5