Tuesday 3 November 2009

Remember, Remember The Fifth Of November

Robert Catesby is a lucky man; not too many people in Great Britain have heard of him.

So who is he? Or should I say: who was he?

If I mention his more infamous side-kick, you may hazard a guess. I am talking about, none other than Guy Fawkes.

The mists of wonder become clear and now just about every British person knows what I am talking about.

For those of you outside Britain, let me explain.

In 1605, Robert Catesby masterminded a fiendish plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, killing King James I and a huge number of Protestant dignitaries into the bargain.

Why? Because he was a staunch Roman Catholic at a time when Catholics saw themselves as targets for discrimination; by wiping out the King and his Protestant followers, Catesby and his men could strike a major blow and change the course of history.

Catesby handed over the responsibility of performing the deed to Guy Fawkes, who promptly managed to get caught on November 5th, 1605 before he managed to execute this monstrous act of treason. I’ll bet Catesby was a little irritated by this.

Poor Guy Fawkes was probably more than a little irritated. The Gunpowder Plot was an act of treason. Had he been alive today, Fawkes would have been imprisoned for life. However, bear in mind that this was medieval times and I can barely begin to imagine what the poor man had to go through.

First of all he was tortured. I’ve seen some of the methods for extracting information in those times and it makes me pleased that I’m alive today and not having to survive in those barbaric times. Of course, poor Guy Fawkes succumbed to the torture and blabbed the names of all his allies without a second thought. I think I would have done too if I had seen the first spike.

As a result, all were sentenced to be executed in another very nasty way; to be hanged, drawn and quartered, the punishment for treason at the time.

What does that mean?

The victim was dragged on a wooden contraption to the location of his execution, which in itself is pretty unpleasant. Upon arrival, he was led to the gallows and hanged. But it didn’t end there. While still barely alive, the condemned soul was cut down and disembowelled and castrated before watching his own body parts burned in front of him. Finally, if he was still alive at this point, his body was hacked into four quarters before finally having his head cut off and displayed on a pike.

Guy Fawkes managed to leap from the gallows before he was hanged, breaking his neck in the fall. I must admit I might have done the same had I been in his shoes.

As for Robert Catesby, he managed to evade this horrific death; he died three days after the plot was discovered, shot by soldiers in a siege – a relatively painless way to go.

Guy Fawkes is the unlucky focus for the Gunpowder Plot, and is remembered to this day. It is a tradition to commemorate the event by burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a huge bonfire every November 5th. Huge bonfires and firework displays occur the length and breadth of the country.

I remember as a child, creating an effigy of Guy Fawkes with friends, using old clothes, lots of newspaper and a very scary mask. We used to walk around with our ugly creation asking people to spare a “penny for the guy” so that we could buy fireworks or at least contribute to the firework fund. Kids today don’t tend to do this, I guess, because it makes them look as if they are begging for cash.

On 5th November, cities, towns and villages across the UK will organise bonfires and fireworks; many will take place in back gardens. Most places will stink of smoke and fireworks will explode into the night.

Unfortunately, kids these days tend to get hold of fireworks and start setting them off before the big night. There is an age limit on fireworks but it doesn’t stop kids somehow managing to acquire them. Organised events do help but I’m sure there will be a few accidents on and around the big night.

Anyway, back to the plot. Why do I consider Robert Catesby to be lucky? I guess it’s because although he was a treacherous traitor, he isn’t widely remembered whereas poor Guy Fawkes is mocked, ridiculed and burned annually because of his part in a Gunpowder plot that took place 404 years ago. I’m sure if he had succeeded, he would have been revered as a hero. Who knows?

In fact, Guy Fawkes also donated his name to the English language – the word “guy” is derived from his name. After all, if Robert Catesby had been the main figurehead, we would have been referring to you average bloke as a bob” or a “robert”.

I’ll leave you with a traditional English nursery rhyme about the Gunpowder Plot, something you may have heard in the film “V For Vendetta”, a modern take on the story, featuring a vigilante, who wears a Guy Fawkes mask, wreaking havoc in a future Britain ruled by a fascistic government.

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

Guy Fawkes, guy, t'was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England's overthrow.

By god's mercy he was catch'd
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?
Burn him!

I wonder what Guy Fawkes would think if had known how famous he would become.


Kath Lockett said...

We used to celebrate Guy Fawkes night on the 5th of November in Australia too, until it was made illegal to have firecracker in the late 1970s.

Yep, too many drunken bozos and bad accidents.... Perhaps not unlike Guy's own planning?

Plastic Mancunian said...

G'Day Kath,

I didn't know it was celebrated down under.

As I said, most bonfires and fireworks displays are organised so the number of accidents is fairly low these days.



River said...

I remember being terribly disappointed when Guy Fawkes night was made illegal. I used to love setting up my roman candles and trying to light them so they'd go off one after another without any gaps. Never did get that worked out. There was always at least one that didn't go off or fell over.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

It's a shame that. I remeber as a kid my dad used to buy a firework called a "Jumping Jack" that actually hopped and moved on the ground.

With all that helth and safety madness around you wouldn't see that nowadays.




River said...

I remember jumping jacks, my brother used to buy lots of them and string them all together then set them off to "jump" down the driveway. We used to like to set our catherine wheels loosely on the fence so that when they were spinning they'd come off and roll across the ground. Rockets were always our favourites. And penny bangers.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

I'd keep that quiet - you'll have the Health and Safety officers after you.