November 5th is upon us, and once again we commemorate the day in 1605 (except that nobody ever remembers the year) when Guy Fawkes was caught in the very act of preparing to blow up the Houses of Parliament - assuming, of course, that it was a genuine plot, not a put-up job by the government of the day, as some historians have suggested.
Fawkes and his fellow-plotters were all Roman Catholics. Celebrating the detection of the plot with bonfires seems to have started around 1680, when England was in the grip of a new wave of anti-Catholic hysteria: the great “Popish Plot” scare. The figure ceremonially burnt on the November 5th bonfires is often called “the Guy”, but it actually represents the Pope rather than Fawkes (who was hung, drawn and quartered, the traditional penalty for High Treason, not burnt at the stake). Burning or hanging in effigy was an ancient method of demonstrating popular hatred of some prominent person, and the figure on the bonfire was actually labelled “The Pope” until very recently in some places; notably the town of Lewes in Sussex.
By a happy coincidence, November 5th was also the day when in 1688 William of Orange landed at Torbay on his way to take the crown from England’s last Catholic king, James II. William’s supporters hailed as a clear mark of divine providence the “Protestant wind” which blew from the east to carry William’s fleet down the Channel from Holland, whilst keeping James’s fleet bottled up in the Thames estuary, unable to get round the headland of Kent. James ran away, William occupied London bloodlessly and was proclaimed King. Since then it has been laid down that no King may be a Catholic, and any member of the royal family who marries a Catholic is automatically excluded from the line of succession.
I found in an old Church of England Prayer Book prescribed prayers for November 5th, bringing together this double anniversary under the heading of “Gunpowder Treason”. The first prayer begins:-
“Almighty God, who hast in all ages showed thy power and mercy in the miraculous and gracious deliverance of thy Church, and in the protection of righteous and religious Kings and states, professing thy holy and eternal truth from the wicked conspiracies and malicious practices of all the enemies thereof; We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our gracious sovereign King James the First, the Queen, the Prince and all the Royal branches, with the Nobility, Clergy and Commons of England, then assembled in Parliament, by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter, in a most barbarous and savage manner, beyond the examples of former ages. (etc etc)”
And then the second prayer:-
“Accept also, most gracious God, of our unfeigned thanks for filling our hearts again with joy and gladness, after the time thou hadst afflicted us, and putting a new song in our mouths, by bringing his majesty King William upon this day, for the deliverance of our church and Nation from Popish tyranny and arbitrary power. We adore the wisdom and justice of they providence, which so timely interposed in our extreme danger and disappointed all the designs of our enemies (etc etc)”
These prayers were abolished by Parliament in 1849. We are not likely to find such violently anti-Catholic sentiments in these ecumenical times. Indeed, we are now told that the relevant clauses of the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) will be repealed, to allow Catholics once again to succeed to the throne!