Despite some predictions to the contrary, there was little backlash against Catholics in England. James understood that if the rift between Catholics and Protestants was allowed to widen still further it could only lead to further treasonous actions in the future. With this in mind, he gave a speech on 9 November, just a few days after the Plot’s discovery. While acknowledging the awfulness of the conspiracy, the King, with typical circumspection, was careful not to malign all Catholics in the realm. He prudently stated that, in his kingdom, there were ‘many honest men, seduced with some errors of popery, [who] may yet remain good and faithful subjects’.
The King’s sentiments were subsequently echoed by Protestant bishops throughout the country. Thus, James’s temperate response helped to assuage any anti-Catholic sentiment inherited from the Gunpowder Treason. James, however, was also intent on exploiting the situation to remind his subjects of the Divine Right of Kings – a doctrine which states that kings have been granted the right to rule by God. He insisted that his deliverance from this evil scheme was thanks to heavenly intervention – irrefutable proof in his eyes that God was on his side. James called on his subjects to thank the Almighty for saving their King and, by extension, their nation.
To this end, an act of Parliament was introduced which declared that every year on 5 November, his people were obliged to attend a service of Thanksgiving in appreciation for their sovereign’s escape from ‘an invention so inhumane, barbarous and cruel as the like was never before heard of.’ This annual service, which continued until 1859, when it was finally removed from the Book of Common Prayer, succeeded in keeping the memory of the Gunpowder Plot alive for generations.
The King’s subjects, however, would also undertake more spontaneous acts of thanksgiving. Upon hearing of Fawkes’ arrest on the night of 4 November, the public lit bonfires in celebration. Even as he was undergoing his interrogations, the first fires were being lit in London. And as the news spread, so did the blazing pyres. It wasn’t long before half the country was lit with fiery beacons heralding the King’s miraculous escape. This became a ritual on the anniversary of the Plot’s discovery, one which has continued to the present day. Interestingly, when in 1647 Parliament passed a law abolishing all feast-days, including Christmas and Easter, the annual 5 November celebration was the only one not to be removed, its continued existence being endorsed by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell and his fellow Parliamentarians.
Over the years, the focus of the 5 November celebrations gradually shifted. In the eighteenth century, the feast-day became a flashpoint for renewed anti-Catholic feeling among the Protestant population. As the bonfires were lit every year, Protestants began to use the anniversary as an excuse to vent their deep seated anti-Papist sentiments.
It was during this time that Guy Fawkes emerged as the focal point of the 5 November festivities. The passing of years had witnessed a gradual blurring of the public’s collective memory. The contribution of Catesby and the other conspirators was slowly forgotten, while the legend of Guy Fawkes grew. Soon, his name became synonymous with the Gunpowder Treason, and his memory targeted by Protestants and anti-Papists. Instead of burning effigies of the Pope, Protestants began to burn effigies of Fawkes – another tradition which continues to the present day, although the religious connotations have since fallen away.
In England, hostilities between Catholics and Protestants have now largely dissipated. The restrictions on Catholics were lifted by the Catholic emancipation initiatives of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With Catholics now free to practise their faith freely and perform public roles, tensions eased significantly.
These days, when we venture out into the cold November night, it is simply to enjoy the spectacle of firework displays or local bonfires. But while the 5 November celebrations have lost much of their significant historical detail, the legends of the audacious Gunpowder Treason and Guy Fawkes remain present in our culture’s collective consciousness – a reminder of a time of patriotism, terrorism, extremism, and social division. An influential moment that precedes, informs and reflects so much of what we see in our world today.
Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.