November 5


Guy Fawkes and Fireworks night – but then, for me, if the poetry happens, every night is fireworks night.

Like Christmas, this is one of those occasions which moved in error (in deliberate error!) when the calendar moved at the time of the correction, shifting four days for the purpose of intercalation. Christmas should be December 21st, to meet the winter solstice, and this should be November 1st, part of the All Hallows festivities, because the burning of the wicker man – the original form of Guy Fawkes - was an aspect of the pagan rites that ushered out the harvest season and welcomed in the winter, much as the burning of the chamets does in the Jewish spring, by setting fire to the last of the corn, the stubble burned in the field and the residue of the harvest gathered in effigy and set to the auto-da-fé as an act of driving out the demons (or just the fleas, the corn mites, the midges). Christianity transformed it into All Hallows, but as with all Christian festivals it is the pagan which still predominates – the devil in the pumpkin, the horror movies, the trick-or-treating, all being the last mischiefs of the sprites before succumbing to the purifying flames.

Guy Fawkes himself is even more alluring. Official records state that he was born in York in 1570, of "unknown Protestant parentage", which is most convenient for a man who probably never existed, or who, at the very most, existed as someone else, but took or was given that name later for reasons of religious politics. After the mystery of his birth comes the mystery of the rest of his life, of which equally little is known. Apparently he turned Catholic at an early age, though there is no record of this, and went off to fight for many years, conveniently in the Spanish army in the Netherlands (and not implausibly either; the playwright Ben Jonson did the same). Why should a zealous Catholic seek to blow up a Catholic king and all his Catholic ministers? So, it is said, he tried to do, though King James' Catholicism was already somewhat modified by his need to accommodate his Protestant subjects after adding England to his Scottish crown. But blow him up Guy Fawkes allegedly tried to do, on November 5th 1605, or November 1st actually; foiled, he was hanged for treason on January 31st of the following year, and just ten months later, on the very next All Hallows Eve, it was him, and not any other of the conspirators, whose effigy was placed in the bonfire at the end of harvest, as it still is today; as it had been for several thousand years before.

Because Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes. The name simply spins and fizzles on the tongue, like the squib of a Catherine Wheel. The burning of a straw effigy at "All Hallows" is an ancient rite, enacted across the whole of Europe; the Wicker Man of the Celtic world. The French call their wicker man a "guy faux", an "artificial man", for want of a better translation. A "fake". Guy Faux. How would that sound, if it were given the kind of bad French pronunciation for which the English are infamous?

Nevertheless, history records that there was a Gunpowder Plot, with or without Guy Fawkes, and that its leader was Robert Catesby - the face in the illustration at the top of the page. An interesting man, Robert Catesby, six generations on from William Catesby, whom Buckingham sent, according to Shakespeare, to arrange the death of Hastings, or else his submission to the coronation (Richard III, Act 3, Scene 1). "Good Catesby, gentle Catesby", Buckingham calls him, and Hastings "my good friend Catesby", unaware of the extent of Catesby’s complicity with the Duke of Gloucester. 

Shakespeare wrote Richard III in 1592 or 1593. Sir William Catesby, Robert's father, had been in and out of prison since 1581, tried in Star Chamber with Lord Vaux and Sir Thomas Tresham, for having the gall to hide Catholic priests and lead the Jesuit cause in England; the name Catesby would therefore have been deeply resonant even to the groundlings watching Shakespeare's play, and Queen Elizabeth herself had personally approved a project for Sir William to found a Catholic colony in America (thereby, presumably, getting him and his followers out of the way). As she would have recognised her uncle Thomas Seymour in the character of the king, so she would have connected one William Catesby with the other – and a dozen other parallels which Harold Bloom sadly ignores but which Shakespeare surely meant (the character of Catesby in the play was modelled on Seymour, while the hunchback belonged, not to Richard, who did not have one, but to Sir Robert Cecil, the son of Lord Burghley and cousin of Francis Bacon, Walsingham's successor as Secretary of State and senior spymaster, who did).

As to Robert Catesby, he went into exile before finishing his degree at Oxford, because he could not have the Bachelorship conferred without taking the Oath of Supremacy. At the very moment that Shakespeare was penning Richard III, Catesby was hiding Father Henry Garnet, inter alia, at his wife's estate in Chastleton; and over the next three years significant other Catholic leaders, including Father John Gerard who had escaped the Tower. He himself was arrested for the first time in 1596, a precautionary measure at the time of the Queen's illness. Imprisoned with him was his cousin Francis Tresham, whose father had previously shared a cell with Catesby's father, and who had recently entered the household of the Earl of Essex, the royal favourite until he fell out of favour (he attempted a coup), and a man under suspicion himself, precisely by spymaster Cecil, for being a Protestant who made Catholic friends.

Whether or not Catesby and Tresham supported the Essex "rebellion" of February 1601, prior to the Gunpowder Plot, cannot be ascertained, but certainly they were present, and Catesby himself sustained an injury, and afterwards a fine of four thousand marks, still preferable to being executed as a traitor, which was Essex's fate. He sold Chastleton to pay the fine (to a lawyer named Walter Jones, who demolished it and built the house that is now in the possession of the National Trust), but remained the principal funder of the Jesuits, including most of the expenses of the Gunpowder Plot, his final act in defense of his Catholic faith. He was killed, three days after the Plot's failure, on November 8th 1605, at Holbeche House, though for some strange reason he is not remembered on Fireworks Night, and it is not his effigy which is burned, though he was the leader of the plot.

All of which prompts another question, which, as far as I am aware, no historian has ever asked. Given that his clandestine work for Queen Elizabeth was tied up with the religious question, given the Queen's tacit consent to his murder in London in 1593, what if anything was Christopher Marlowe's connection to all of this?

This page comes without illustrations of our main subject, because there are none to include. Type in "Guy Fawkes" to an Internet search engine, and you will find the "fake" a million times, but almost nothing on what existed before 1605, so complete is the transformation of invention into "authentic history". A 1973 movie, written by Anthony Shaffer, entitled "The Wicker Man", and some sites attempting to derogate the Druids by associating the Guy Faux with human sacrifices. Then try typing in "Guy Faux", which should take you to some of the pre-history, the French take on this - but no, the search engines all assume you mean "Guy Fawkes", and don't even ask "did you mean..." So the "conspiracy" of the Gunpowder Plot is complete.

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