Nov. 5 Historic Footnote on Guy Fawkes

“Catholicism would never be a threat to England again!!” Most people don’t realize that Guy Fawkes was a minor player, or what centuries-long repercussions a successful Gunpowder Plot would have meant.–Anne Nicol Gaylor

This historic footnote is taken from Bill Bryons’s Shakespeare, the World as Stage (Harper 2007):

“By the reign of James, comparatively few Britons were any longer truly Catholic. Whereas Shakespeare had been born into a country that was probably (albeit discreetly) two-thirds Roman Catholic, by 1604 few people alive had ever heard a Mass or taken part in any Catholic rite. Perhaps as little as two percent of the populace (though a higher proportion of aristocrats) were actively Catholic. Thinking it was safe to do so, in 1604 James suspended the recusancy laws and even allowed Mass to be said in private homes.

“In fact the severest Catholic challenge to Protestant rule was just about to be mounted, when a group of conspirators placed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder–ten thousand pounds or so by weight–in a cellar beneath the Palace of Westminster in advance of the state opening of Parliament. Such a volume of explosives would have been sufficient to blow the palace, Westminster Abby, Westminster Hall, and much of the surrounding neighborhood sky-high, taking with it the king, the queen, their two sons, and most of the nation’s leading clerics, aristocrats, and distinguished commoners. The reverberations from such an event are essentially unimaginable.

“The one drawback of the scheme was that it would inevitably kill innocent Catholic parliamentarians. In the hope of sparing them, an anonymous tip-off was sent to a leading Catholic, Lord Monteagle. Hopelessly compromised and fearing an excruciating reprisal, Monteagle handed the letter straight to the authorities, who entered the palace’s cellar and found one Guy Fawkes sitting on the barrels, waiting for the signal to strike a light. November 5 has been celebrated ever since with the burning of Fawkes effigies, though the hapless Fawkes was in fact a comparatively minor figure in the Powder Treason, as it became known at the time. The mastermind was Robert Catesby, whose family owned an estate just twelve miles from Stratford and who was distantly related to William Shakespeare by marriage, though there is no suggestion that their lives ever meaningfully intersected. In any case Catesby had spent most of his adult life as a faithful Protestant and had reverted to Catholicism only with the death of his wife five years earlier.

“The reaction against Catholics was swift and decisive. They were barred from key professions and, for a time, not permitted to travel more than five miles from home. A law was even proposed to make them wear striking and preposterous hats, for ease of identification, but it was never enacted. Recusancy fines, however, were reinstated and fiercely enforced. Catholicism would never be a threat in England again. The challenge to orthodoxy now would come from the other end of the religious spectrum–from the Puritans.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation