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Brexiteers are wrong – Guy Fawkes would not have been a Leaver

Guy Fawkes is Westminter's ultimate nemesis according to Nick Holland. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

With politics and attitudes to parliament more combustible than they have been for generations, NICK HOLLAND revisits the legacy of a man who truly tried to shake up the government.

The oldest joke in politics, if you discount the current shenanigans, is that Guy Fawkes was ‘the last man to enter parliament with honest intentions’. Guy seems to be talked about more today than at any time since he met his rather grisly end in January 1606, and his story and that of his fellow gunpowder conspirators has never been more relevant – but perhaps not in the way that many seem to believe.

Whilst researching Fawkes for my 2017 book The Real Guy Fawkes I was struck by how complex a character he was, and how that allows disparate groups of people to claim him for their own cause. In recent weeks, particularly in those moments where Brexiteers have been focusing their frustrations on MPs they accuse of thwarting their project, I’ve also noticed Fawkes’ name appearing on social media with increasing frequency and ferocity. Tweets along the lines of this one abound: “The PM is the only one who is for the people. Your [sic] just a bunch of traitors. Bring back Guy Fawkes.”

It seems that the vociferous breed of Brextremists have taken Fawkes to their heart, but if there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s that he would have been no Leaver; in fact, by his words and deeds, we can adjudge him to be a proud European, and his story has much to say about the parlous state of the country in his day and ours.

Fawkes wasn’t part of the London metropolitan elite as he was born in 1570 in York, the son of a Church of England ecclesiastical lawyer. Yes, a man who has become notorious as a would-be Catholic terrorist was in fact born into the Protestant faith, and this background was shared by many of the 13 gunpowder plotters. They turned their backs completely on their fathers’ beliefs, like Tudor era Toby Youngs, but without the right-wing self-pity.

It truly is a curse to live in exciting times, but while many Remainers are often subjected to ridicule by the ridiculous, or receive threats both veiled and brazen, we don’t yet have the threats that English Catholics had to face at the turn of the 17th century. England was a deeply divided country at the time that Guy Fawkes lived, but it was a religious rather than political dogma that drove it.

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517 he could never have guessed the repercussions, nor how quickly his actions would change the world. It sparked a series of events that led to what is now known as the Reformation, and the formation of the Protestant faith. This was embraced by King Henry VIII of England, even though he considered himself a Catholic to his dying day, but was then taken to terrifying new heights by his children Edward VI and Elizabeth I.

Catholics were forced to convert to Protestantism, or at least pretend to in public by attending Anglican services, and those who didn’t, known as recusants, risked fines, confiscation of lands, and worse. Leading Catholic gentry like William Catesby, whose son Robert became the Gunpowder Plot mastermind, lost nearly all they had, while Catholic priests and those found harbouring them were labelled traitors and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.

One victim of this purge on Catholicism was Margaret Clitherow, a butcher’s wife from York. After being caught hiding a priest she refused to plead when brought to court, for fear of implicating others, and for this she was sentenced to be stripped naked and crushed to death beneath heavy stones. It’s believed that this execution, which caused uproar in York, and the increasing persecution of Catholics in the city is one factor in Fawkes’ conversion to Catholicism.

Simply to follow the old faith which had been prevalent across Europe for so long was now a crime that could cost your life, thanks to a new breed of fanaticism governing the land. At the heart of it were the Cecils, father and son William and Robert, chief advisors to Queen Elizabeth and determined to ensure that their hard-line brand of Protestantism was adhered to – there could be no softening of their doctrine, no deal with Catholics.

Faced with the prospect of publicly abandoning his faith or facing increasingly onerous punishments, Fawkes did what many young men with the means to do so did, he left England for the continent and joined the Spanish army, in which he served from 1591 to 1605.

This not only spared him the persecutions of England it also allowed him to fight directly for the Catholic cause in the Eighty Years’ War; he served with distinction and by the time he returned to England he’d been recommended for promotion to the rank of captain. It was during these years that he mastered the art of siege warfare, including the use of gunpowder.

Fawkes’ high standing within the army, and especially within the exiled English Catholic community in Europe, was shown by his diplomatic mission of 1603. He left the battlefields of Flanders and travelled to Spain’s then capital city Valladolid to meet the King of Spain himself, Philip III.

Fawkes had been sent to convince the king to launch a new invasion of England and rescue its Catholics from the Protestant fanatics. Perhaps mindful of the failure of his father’s Armada 15 years earlier Philip refused to help and Fawkes returned to his army post. This event became known as ‘The Spanish Treason’, but in fact Fawkes was showing his allegiance to the cause that he truly believed in: For him Europe, in the guise of the Spanish-run Holy Roman Empire, was home rather than the insular, angry little England he’d left behind.

James I (already James VI of Scotland) ascended the English throne in 1603 after Elizabeth’s death, and for a time the Catholics of England were optimistic. Thomas Percy, an emissary of the Duke of Northumberland, England’s most powerful Catholic, had spoken to James and been promised freedom of religion for recusants and an end to fines and punishments. Unfortunately, they soon found that James could not be trusted. Far from uniting the country, he was determined to divide it still further and after a short amnesty the fines resumed at a higher rate than ever before.

There seemed little hope now for Catholics, and Robert Catesby, a notorious man of action who had already been imprisoned after the Essex Rebellion of 1601, gathered a group of like-minded individuals around him, including Thomas Percy who had been misled by the king. Fawkes was recruited to the plot and brought back from the continent; his task would be to light the fuse, destroy parliament and then escape back to Europe to recruit more men to their cause.

The plotters had assembled enough gunpowder in a cellar beneath the House of Lords to destroy much of the Westminster area, including the Abbey, and the loss of life would have been huge. It’s estimated they had 25 times the amount of gunpowder needed to blow up parliament; they weren’t taking chances, their task was simply to kill the king, his heir and all his fanatical courtiers. James’ young daughter Elizabeth would then be placed on the throne, and England would be returned to the Catholic and European status quo it had known for centuries beforehand.

Of course, Fawkes was caught alongside his gunpowder just hours before he lit the long fuse that would have changed history forever. His fellow conspirators were rounded up, killed or executed; the tyranny of the divide and conquer government continued unchecked.

In the days before November 5, the plotters had been calm and resolute. We know that on October 9, 1605, for example, Catesby had lunch on the Strand with the great playwright Ben Jonson. Jonson had just published his play Sejanus, His Fall, in which the vainglorious Emperor Tiberius falls under the malign influence of his chief adviser Sejanus. Sejanus is power-crazed, and through the manipulation of the public, and the destruction of all who stand in his way, he gains control over the emperor and Rome itself. Eventually his limitless ambition and cruelty is his downfall, and he himself is arrested, as Jonson showed:

Now, great Sejanus, you that awed the state,

And sought to bring the nobles to your whip;

That would be Caesar’s tutor, and dispose

Of dignities and offices! That had

The public head still bare to your designs,

And made the general voice to echo yours!

That look’d for salutations twelve score off,

And would have pyramids, yea temples, rear’d

To your huge greatness; now you lie as flat,

As was your pride advanced!

European-loving Guy Fawkes is not the man for today that Leave voters think he is, but perhaps Sejanus, His Fall is the play for today? Even so, I don’t think it’s one that Dominic Cummings would enjoy seeing.

– Nick Holland is the author of The Real Guy Fawkes (Pen & Sword).

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