Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
November 5th is Guy Fawkes Night, the now 401 year old celebration of Guy Fawkes failure to destroy the British Parliament, King, and Aristocracy in a maelstrom of fire and stone. Immortalized in rhyme, idealized in film, and set down for the ages in countless works on the British regency, Fawkes and his Gunpowder Plot occupy a curious place in literature, politics, and history. In remembrance of what almost happened in November 5, 1605, thousands of Englishmen, New Zealanders , Canadians, and other former colonials around the world will celebrate the Gunpowder plot's failure amid bonfires and fireworks this evening - and while the political spark has gone out of the Plot Night celebrations, Guy Fawkes and his stash of powder in the cellar of Parliament still resonate throughout the scattered remnants of the British Empire.
Fawkes was a Catholic sympathizer in England at a time in British history when such allegiances could prove dangerous. James the First sat on the throne, and while some had hoped that his rule would see more tolerance towards Catholics, such was not to be the case. The 1605 plot sought to change this and place a Catholic - the nine year old Princess Elizabeth - on the throne. Though historical records are unclear, the Gunpowder plot's genesis likely lay with Robert Catesby and other Catholic dissenters. The now famous Guy Fawkes brought his knowledge of explosives and gunpowder to the plot and as it was he who was apprehended "burning match" in hand, the lore and literature surrounding the event centers upon the estranged bomb-maker.
Four hundred years changes a great deal and Fawkes has taken on a sort of folk-hero status in recent times. Even aside comic-books-turned-films like V For Vendetta, many see Fawkes as a sympathetic figure who lashed out at a government and monarch that lacked both credibility and legitimacy. James, after all, succeeded Elizabeth the First and brought an end to the Tudor dynasty. By comparison the Scottish upstart - famously termed "the wisest fool in Christendom" - did not fair well and his anti-Catholic policies, taste for political absolutism, financial largess, and other faults are widely regarded as the foundation for the English Civil War. In the intervening four centuries since the failure of the Gunpowder Plot the vilification of James has become the elevation of Fawkes; in and of itself this might be of interest only to historians, but in the wider context of the War on Terror, the long-view of the Gunpowder Plot reveals the impermanence of public opinion.
When Guy Fawkes died on January 31 of 1606 he was a British Bin Laden - reviled, hated, and condemned enthusiastically throughout the British Empire by those loyal to the crown, and justly so. Fawkes had struck at London, Parliament , the Monarchy, James the First, and everything that it was to be English. His attack came within a generation of the sailing of the Spanish Armada, on the heels of unthinkable brutality and horror wielded by the Church itself against Protestants on the continent . Fawkes's foiled plot showed that the British Channel could no longer insulate England from the troubles of mainland Europe and that the religious turmoil that engulfed the Continent could ignite in Britain as well.
Almost 400 years later, Osama Bin Laden would do the same to another global power, though his attack met with considerably more success. Nonetheless, the parallels are striking indeed and to a historian they raise an introspective question: what will our ancestors, 400 years hence, think of the events of 9-11, the "War on Terror," and the broader religious conflict in which the world is now embroiled?
It is in the immediacy of our grief and outrage that we have demonized Bin Laden; quite logically and rightfully so: the threat he and his ilk pose to American power, American wealth, and American lives can not be ignored. But with time the enormous value that we, as contemporaries, place upon those things will fade as will the importance of the self-proclaimed ideals for which the United States and Al Queda fight. It is difficult to imagine viewing the events of September 11 and the US reaction to it with such historical distance and absent the contemporary context: the personal immediacy, the rhetoric, and the politics that have consumed these past six years. Yet future historians, writers, and generations will do exactly that, and we should concern ourselves with the conclusions they will draw.
Fawkes was a traitor to his country, a terrorist (by any sensible definition), and a man who was willing to kill for political and religious ends. Yet the fog of four hundred years obscures much of that, and through that fog it is the images of Fawkes' torture, his botched execution, and the religious repression he suffered that endure. Another four hundred years will change the story of Guy Fawkes and it will change the story of Osama Bin Laden as well. While some might contest our means, we fight a war against terrorism for all of the right reasons. Yet it is our means and not our motives which will most reliably survive the test of time and it is those means by which future generations will judge our decisions and write our history. We must therefore ask: what sort of world are we building in which our actions cast America as "villain" and Bin Laden, Al Queda, and all that we fight against as a modern-day Guy Fawkes? What will it be to live in that world, four hundred years hence, on the Eleventh of September?