Friday, 5 November 2010

Terrorist or Fall-Guy?

Seize him!: King James's men arrest Guy Fawkes in the "undercroft" directly beneath the House of Lords on 5 November 1605. Hidden beneath a screen of firewood were 36 barrels of gunpowder. Should the foiling of the most audacious "terrorist" plot in British history be attributed purely to good fortune, or was the dramatic "discovery" of "gunpowder, treason and plot" engineered by the authorities to further their own political purposes? (The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. Painting by Henry Perronet Briggs, 1823.)

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

HAD IT COME OFF, the "Gunpowder Plot" of 1605 would have ranked alongside 9/11 as one of the most audacious and world-altering terrorist attacks in human history.

To mark the 400th anniversary of the Plot, a British television network constructed a replica of the 17th Century Houses of Parliament, installed the 36 barrels of gunpowder Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators are said to have hidden in the basement, and ignited them. The resulting massive explosion completely destroyed the replica structure. Explosive experts told the programme’s producers that anyone within 100 metres of the detonation point would have been killed instantly.

So, the target of the Catholic Gunpowder Plotters – the Protestant King of Scotland and England, James Stuart – would certainly have been killed if the barrels of crude explosive had been allowed to do their job. The British Isles would have been plunged into civil war, and the plotters’ ultimate aim – the restoration of Catholic ascendancy – may even have been achieved.

What fascinates me about the Gunpowder Plot, however, is that almost from the moment the plotters were apprehended, tortured, tried and executed, their contemporaries started questioning the truth of the Government’s version of events.

From the very beginning, these "5/11 Truthers" – as they’d be called today – cast doubt upon the Government’s key assertion: that it was entirely ignorant of the plot.

According to the King’s chief minister, the first Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, if one of the plotters hadn’t sent a letter to a Catholic Lord, warning him to stay away from the Houses of Parliament on 5th November, not only the King, but the whole House of Lords and the entire House of Commons would have been blown to Kingdom Come.

The 17th Century "Truthers" – like their 21st Century counterparts – weren’t buying it.

Everybody in London knew that Cecil (the son of Elizabeth I’s long-serving chief minister, Sir William Cecil) had been schooled in the arts of statecraft and intelligence-gathering not only by his father, but by Elizabeth’s spymaster, and the man regarded by many as the Father of England’s "Secret State" – Sir Francis Walsingham.

Walsingham had masterminded the operation which resulted in the execution of Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. The so-called "Babington Plot" had been run almost from beginning to end by Walsingham himself, in order to snare Mary in an act of treason. The 5/11 "Truthers" argued that the Gunpowder Plot was no different.

In a capital city swarming with Cecil’s spies, they said, it simply beggared belief that the ever-increasing number of Catholic plotters (most of whom would have been under surveillance) and the constantly postponed plot (outbreaks of disease in London had led to the date of the Royal Opening of Parliament being changed several times) went entirely undetected by James’ spymasters.

Like the 9/11 Truthers, the 5/11 doubters argued that a terrible act of terrorism (or, in the case of the Gunpowder Plot, attempted terrorism) was just what the Government of the Day "needed" to further its foreign and domestic policy goals.

The case both would make is that the destruction of the Twin Towers (or the only-just-averted elimination of England’s Protestant rulers) were deliberately engineered by the "secret statesmen" of 21st Century America (or 17th Century England) to persuade their populations that "drastic measures" were necessary to protect the State from its terrorist foes.

Misdirection’s an old and dirty game – as old as politics itself. Robert Cecil learned it from his father and Walsingham, who’d simply followed the example set by Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who had learned it in the palace corridors of Renaissance Italy, where the heirs of the Roman Empire practised the dark arts of treachery and deception with a skill only centuries of hands-on experience can impart.

And, of course, it was Walsingham’s and Cecil’s heirs who taught the Americans how to play. The Office of Strategic Services – which President Roosevelt established during the Second World War (and which later morphed into the Central Intelligence Agency) was tutored by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.

Something to think about as you set a match to the blue touch-paper this November night.

Was Guido Fawkes a terrorist – or was he simply the spymasters’ fall-guy?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 5 November 2010.


Victor said...


I'm feeling sorry for you.

This was a very enjoyable posting but, perhaps because its subject matter seems a bit remote from our immediate concerns, no-one has yet commented on it. May I be the first to break the ice.

You will presumably have checked the details with Francesca, who is, on past performance, much more knowledgeable than I on the period.

However, I was curious about the bit concerning the use of the Gunpowder Plot as possibly a way of furthering James Stuart's foreign policy goals.

I had always understood that he wanted to achieve 'detente' with Spain and the Catholic powers. How would raking up a 'Popish Plot' have facilitated that?

Could it have been the work of a hard-line Protestant faction within the Court who wanted to scare James into returning to the apparently proven policies of Elizabeth and Walsingham?

A further thought is that the effectiveness of Britain's intelligence services must have declined steeply since the days of Walsingham. Can you seriously imagine him being taken in by the likes of Blount, Philby & co? They'd have been on the wrack the moment they left Cambridge.

May I also suggest that Guy Fawke's Night is one of those British institutions that New Zealand would be better off without.

For at least two centuries after its inception, it was an excuse for violence and intimidation against Catholics and was one of the excuses for legal discrimination against them.

So, OK, most people, both here and in the UK, are either ignorant of the background or choose to ignore it. Even so, it's a strange and confusing anomaly for a secular democracy to be celebrating an occasion once associated with the crudest of bigotry.

There's also the damage done by fireworks and the sheer terror they cause to animals. At a purely utilitarian level (c.f. Bentham's Felicific Calculus) I would have thought that the pain caused to the nation's dogs and cats far exceeds any pleasures the event may give to humans.

....which brings me to a further and rather larger topic; it's always seemed to me that many New Zealanders tend to underestimate the extent to which the country's character and mores were shaped by Victorian British settlers.

Some of this British heritage is highly positive, has flowered in its new setting and certainly needs preserving, e.g. a robust sense of personal liberty, a strong sense of personal responsibility, a broad tolerance and a commitment to representative government, as well as institutions that reflect these traits.

There are other parts of this heritage that New Zealanders have done well to dilute or get rid of, viz: snobbery, racism and the whole 'East of Suez' imperial, militarist schtich (all, of course, now much reduced in the UK as well).

But there are other questionable parts of the heritage still hanging around, including totally inadequate urban planning, an excessive tendency to embarrass and a dislike of confrontation.

In the late 1940s, the Hungarian immigrant George Mikes said of the then extremely well-mannered British: "They very rarely lie but they would never dream of telling you the truth!"

I've long thought that New Zealanders have a very pronounced version of this quintessential British trait. Perhaps we should jettison it along with Guy Fawke's Night.

I could meander on but that's enough stream of consciousness palaver for a sunny Sunday afternoon.



Chris Trotter said...

Thank you, Victor, for a thoughtful and much appreciated response to my little attempt at provoking some serious reflection on Guy Fawkes Day.

As always you have obliged me with just that.

Olwyn said...

The establishment of this macabre celebration must surely have been a great PR coup at the time, since something of it is still around many so many years on. In Australia and NZ it does not seem to have ever had much grip as a political statement - more an excuse to light bonfires and let off fireworks. However, an English Catholic friend from the north of England told me that her family was still getting the letterbox blown up annually in the fifties and sixties. I am with you Victor in thinking it should be dropped. Not only does it upset cats and dogs, it is a nasty festival that has morphed into a meaningless one, and in this part of the world it is also unseasonal.

As to the "tendency to embarrass and a dislike of confrontation," David Guterson, in his novel "Snow Falling on Cedars," attributes this sort of caution to people who live on islands.

Policy Jeff said...

Responding to Victor. While it might be fine to ditch November 5, there is something to be said for a good excuse to let off crackers. It's just one of those things.

May I suggest we instigate 'Boyd Night' instead? The Boyd anchored at Whangaroa Harbour in December 1809 to load kauri spars and allow Māori to disembark. During the voyage a Māori chief, Te Ara, had been mistreated by the ship’s captain. In retaliation for this, a group of Māori boarded the ship and killed the captain, crew and passengers, and looted the ship. A barrel of gunpowder was accidentally exploded, which burnt the boat to water level. Only four of the 70 people aboard survived.

We have here:
1) an authentic NZ event
2) gunpowder was exploded (unlike Fawkes)
3) a salutary warning of consequences of not treating people with respect
4) a metaphor to warn us why we need to get race relations sorted.

Victor said...


I thought I knew about the dark side of the land of my birth. But I had no idea that fireworks in Catholic letter-boxes were still happening in the 50s and 60s.

I've certainly come across some stultifying examples of conversational anti-Catholicism in New Zealand, much of it, of course, also anti-Irish.

As to the 'islands' theory of non-confrontational behaviour, it certainly gels with what little I know about Japan.

However, I'm also reminded of the comment of a friend of mine, a quintessentially forthright and argumentative New Yorker, who spent part of his life in Nebraska and, later on, a couple of years in New Zealand.

His view was that Kiwis were not unlike the folks out on the plains, in Omaha and Lincoln, who adhered to the rule of 'Go along to get along' and for whom 'every conversation has to end in agreement'.

This would suggest that it's more of a small community phenomenon than just restricted to islands. On the other hand, neither Japan nor the UK are 'small community' places.

In any event, the argumentative reticence of the Brits diminishes the further north you go. Tractable Yorkshiremen (God bless them)are certainly a rarity.

damp squib said...

Policy Jeff said...
Responding to Victor. While it might be fine to ditch November 5, there is something to be said for a good excuse to let off crackers. It's just one of those things.


Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), firecrackers and rockets have been banned in NZ for some years. There used to be an anarchic wild play among children around fireworks. Of course, there was also that "all fun until someone loses an eye" factor. But NZ has ended up a more boring place because of it.

These days, we mostly have public firework displays, which are pretty tedious after a while - seen one, seen 'em all. Guess they're good for making the crowds go "ooohh" and "ahhhh".

As somebody remarked to me last night, Guy Fawke's is on its last legs. Even my young daughter is losing interest. Just another case of DIY-fun regulated out of existence.

Victor said...

Policy Jeff and Damp Squib

One of the best reasons for abandoning Guy Fawkes is that it will help get rid of fireworks altogether.

Leaving aside the obvious sadism of whoever it was tied the fire crackers to the bird this time round, dogs and cats can endure hours of terror each year and not just on a single night. Many animals bolt, get lost and, in some cases, expire from shock or heart failure.

The SPCA has its work cut out dealing with these issues, whilst the Fire Service also has regular overload.

Most of us don't believe in permitting harm to other humans as a means of enjoying ourselves. Nor should we enjoy ourselves at the expense of other sentient beings.

We're not that important and we need to grow up a bit. Sorry if it takes some of the fun away. So did the abolition of bear-bating and cock fighting!

Olwyn said...

@ Victor: as to fireworks in letterboxes I have heard but one example, and do not know if there were other contingencies involved.

I do not have a problem with big celebratory public fireworks displays, as happens on the Chinese New Year and on Australia Day. But I agree with you about animals and suburban backyard fireworks. What is more, the torture and killing of a man 400 years ago in another country is no cause for celebration in NZ: to actually celebrate it is brutish, and to maintain it with no connection to any event is inane.

Victor said...

Hi Olwyn

You substantially reduce animal terror by abandoning backyard fireworks for public displays. But you don't totally rule it out.

Damp squib is right that public firework displays are pretty tedious (unless someone like Handel's available to write the accompanying music), so I'd go for a hard line and abolish fireworks entirely.

And, certainly, let's get rid of Guy Fawkes Night celebrations.

Anonymous said...

In terms of the anti-catholic sentiments behind Bonfire Night in England, the most remarkable rendering of this is found in the bizarre events held in Lewes, Sussex. Here every year, amidst great festivities, an effigy of the Pope is burned alongside Guy Fawkes. Quite mad. Burning crosses are paraded through the streets too - you don't get that in Johnsonville or Geraldine thank God (though correct me if I'm wrong ...).

As a kid in northern England in the late 60s I was once beaten up for being a Catholic - events in the north of Ireland precipitated a resurgence of anti-catholic feeling. Whitsunday and Trinity Sunday parish marches were ended out of fear of reprisals.

The anti-Catholic feeling grew, especially in Birmingham after the IRA bombings there in the early 70s. But the hatred of Irish and Catholics had always been present, embedded in the English psyche. And it still is: I may be wrong but I believe the monarch still may not be a Catholic.

And that's why I do not "celebrate" Guy Fawkes.