Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Bonfire # 2

There are seminal events in history: events which turn the page and starts off a new chapter. Perhaps a darker, contrasting set of happenings which presage even worse. The attempted assassination - nay, Regicide - of the King and the Aristocracy of England in 1605 - a very long time ago - by Guy Fawkes and his unlikely religious terrorist band of Gentleman Catholics was one such event. That they did not pull it off  is 'celebrated' annually on November 5th: Guy Fawkes Night. 

Well, in Britain it is. And odd other places in the world.

It is not quite the celebration that happens when modern 'religious' terrorists blow up a nightclub or a skyscraper. They succeed: they kill innocents: people of ill-will fire guns in the air in foreign lands and thank Satan in their usual way. That wasn't the reaction Guy got.

We had a couple of folk in the Tavern this evening joining the throng at the bonfire, and during the telling of tales, they had their say. One looked at the present that is the result of the failure. She had a personal tale to tell.  The other looked at the 'what-if'. What if Guy had been successful? What would our Anglophile world be like now?

Kim was the one with the personal story. History shapes us and cannot avoid being personal. We live in it.
The Enduring Persistence of Anti-Catholicism

In 2015 I had just been to England, to a country village where I had a surprising encounter. This is what happened.

My mother had rented a barn cottage on a farm for the weekend and my family gathered there for a get-together.

There was a problem with transport and I didn’t know how to get to Holy Mass on Sunday.
I therefore knocked at the door of the farm to ask if they knew of anyone driving from the village to the nearest Catholic Church, St. Peter’s, which was seven miles away.

I was met by the son, a man of about 35 years of age. I spoke of my request and was taken aback by his response to me.

“Oh no,” he said scornfully, “We’re Church of England round here. We have our own church. No-one will be going to St. Peter’s.”

He spoke these words harshly, with superiority and condescension. 
I have never been spoken to like that. It was as though I was plummeted back hundreds of years.

When I was at university, an Anglican university in Wales, a fellow student said to me, “You Catholics always have it hard.” 

Whilst I understood him historically, personally I didn’t know what he meant, for I was a recent convert then and had never met with prejudice.

This farmer in rural England was the first to speak to me directly in this way. I did not feel hurt, simply shocked and saddened.

And, of course, I know that similar prejudices have been expressed in the past when Catholics vented their dislike and anger towards Protestants, although I have never witnessed anything like this.

Funnily enough, after having been reprimanded for being Catholic, the man’s mother came out and said, “Oh yes, I know a Catholic lady, I’ll ring her for you”. The lady in question kindly came to pick me up. She drove me to Holy Mass and all was well.

But, I am haunted by the attitude of that man – an attitude that has so greatly affected England and Ireland, where the settling English believed that... 
Catholicism should simply be erased.
Green fields of England carpeted with female C of E Bishops.

The attitude of the son was exactly this. He intimated that I should be going to the Church of England too. There was no need for Catholicism. It is unnecessary, for we have the Church of England.

For me, the whole experience was highlighted by the fact that it was nearly November 5th.

For those outside Britain, the Fifth of November is Guy Fawkes day or the British fireworks night. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who tried to blow up parliament in 1605, during an era of savage Anti-Catholic repression. Still celebrated today, Guy Fawkes day commemorates continued Protestant hegemony in Britain.

All this brought to mind something I read in a wonderful book called These Three Hearts, by Margaret Yeo.
The book chronicles the French history of the lives of St. Claude La Colombiere and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. It describes their meeting and relationship at Paray-le-Monial, France, and their subsequent shared mission, to spread devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
After residing a time at Paray and being privileged to be St. Margaret Mary’s Confessor and Spiritual Director, St. Claude La Columbiere is sent to England in 1677.
He is to serve at St. James’ Palace, as preacher to her Royal Highness, Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York.
On arriving on English shores, he is presented with a very foreign people – which the author suggests he finds:
Coarse, brutal, kindhearted, sentimental, illogical, independent … difficult for a Frenchman to understand.
Having lived in France, a Catholic land, all of his life, he is shocked as he comes face to face with national Anti-Catholicism in England. For, as Margaret Yeo notes:
England, and especially London, seethed with bitter hatred against Papists and French. The unfortunate Catholics were said by Shaftesbury [and] Buckingham … to be behind every catastrophe, be it the plague in 1666 or the Great Fire in the following year.

Here were a people who had ruled that everyone in official positions must swear to the Test Act, which forced them to conform to the Church of England, taking an oath which denied transubstantiation.

Mary of Modena’s husband, the Duke of York, a Catholic convert, was one such man. He was Lord High Admiral of the British Navy and very skilled at his job, having built up a navy that equalled both the French and Dutch navies together.

Unable to swear The Test Act, denying transubstantiation, he was forced to resign his position, to the glee of the French navy officials. 
Thus Britain cut its own Navy's nose off to spite its C of E face. 
Being thus installed at St. James’ Palace, with the Duke and Duchess of York, all this was very much in St. Claude’s awareness.

He also found that on the Fifth of November, the English burnt effigies of Guy Fawkes or the Pope, filling them with live cats to make the murderous experience all the more real!

He would have heard folk speak of ‘Popish plots’, mutter about ‘Popish superstition’ and cry out refrains such as, “To hell with the Pope”.
Hmmmm. Things have not changed a lot since 1677.  Cats get it better though. 

I still hear virulent, hateful and often hilarious lies about Catholics, the Pope, the Vatican being the Harlot of Babylon etc. Henry the Eighth's very effective spin doctors do not compare to todays pissant advertising gurus.
The life of this French Jesuit Priest in Anti-Catholic London was foreign indeed.

No longer did he experience a culture where Holy Mass was celebrated daily, in churches and chapels all over the country.

No longer was the Angelus sounded three times a day, calling people to prayer, at six in the morning, noon and six in the evening.

No longer was the Rosary publicly recited, nor were there Processions in honour of Our Lady or the Saints.

Here in England the Catholic faith was suppressed and heavy penalties enforced for those who publicly proclaimed it – as St. Claude would himself discover, when later he would be arrested and flung into jail for attempts to spread the Faith.
This was not only the environment that St. Claude La Colombiere himself endured. It was the way in which culture developed for centuries in Britain. And these attitudes, which built and developed this British culture have prevailed.
My late father-in-law, educated in a Church of England public school, was very Anti-Catholic, even though he was not a practising Anglican. 
He had simply absorbed the prejudice of centuries.

Culture develops according to the religious persuasions of a country. Just as in France, Spain and Ireland, the Sacramental life is that which has built culture, in Britain, culture has grown out of that which has protested it.

Sadly today, Anglicanism is so in decline that culture is veering strongly away from Christianity towards a secular creed.

When Roger and I returned to Britain in 2010, having lived for six years in the Catholic countries of Ireland, Spain and France, we were struck by the cultural contrast.

What we had experienced over six years, in those Catholic countries, was so very different to that which we had known in Great Britain. 
And on returning, we clearly noticed the discrepancy. 
Great Britain appeared far more materialistic and secular than when we had left it. Everywhere people and things were going at a faster pace than before and buildings and cars and fashions seemed far bigger and much more slick.

And now we live in Ireland, which has been battered for centuries by religious and political differences. Yet whilst admittedly in the North,  there even now continues to be sporadic violence, peace is generally the order of the day.

So as I write these words, around the Fifth of November, I am haunted by my experience with that English man.

I am reminded of the history, recalled above, with the life of St. Claude La Colombiere in London – all that Anti-Catholic talk of ‘Popish plots’, superstition and nonsense.
These sentiments have sounded out throughout the British Isles for centuries, even before Guy Fawkes was discovered on the Fifth of November, in 1605, guarding the explosives beneath the Houses of Parliament.
Sadly, it appears that within certain circles, 
Anti-Catholicism has an enduring persistence.
A few eyes were downcast, sympathetic perhaps and thoughtful, so I brought fresh pots of ale and a hot poker to thrust into mead.  Then it was Max' turn. He had a very different mind. You might like to think on it, deeply.
What if Guy Fawkes's Gunpowder Plot had succeeded in 1605?
World history would have been very different – with a guillotine in Trafalgar Square, no Big Macs and Tony Blair as president of Britain.

What if Guy Fawkes had pulled it off? Even four centuries after the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, the hypothesis grabs the imagination.
James I blown to smithereens at the opening of Parliament. Hundreds of MPs and peers murdered. The ruling class of England wiped out at a stroke. Pandemonium on the streets. A crater hundreds of yards wide in what is now Parliament Square.
Sounds oddly appealing. 
As a terrorist atrocity, striking at the heart of a nation, it would have dwarfed 9/11. Guy Fawkes would not have been a harmless bumbler, recreated in pillowcases stuffed with leaves and chucked on bonfires, but a hate figure to rival Osama bin Laden.
Or a Hero. 
Lovers of counter-factual history – the things that would have happened if events had taken a slightly different turn – have had a field day with the plot that was so dramatically thwarted in November 1605.
It was a Catholic plot aimed at engineering a transition to a Catholic monarchy; but Catholics constituted such a tiny proportion of the population that it had little realistic chance of success.
Indeed. What had been a fully Catholic nation, with the Faith on display in every town, village and home, had been almost entirely wiped out in what was just a few generations.
Even if the Houses of Parliament had been blown sky-high, the scale of the carnage would surely have provoked a backlash against Catholics by the Protestant majority, similar to the backlash against Muslims after 9/11.
Hmmmmm. And what backlash in America was that? 

I do not seem to recall any backlash on American soil.  

And since then whenever there has been an atrocity by muslims the authorities and media are fast off the blocks to cast the slur of 'Islamohophobia' on anyone who raises a voice. Backlash? 
The England that emerged might have been a nastier, less tolerant society, which might in turn have made the development of a liberal constitutional monarchy less likely.
Nastier? Less tolerant? They burned Catholics at the stake. Hanged them, Chopped heads off. Dispossessed them.  It would take some effort to be less tolerant than the State Church for which Guy tried to be the cure.
Depending how things had panned out after that – and during the Civil War, if there had been a Civil War – we might have had our own version of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, with a guillotine in Trafalgar Square and tricoteuses from Kent and Sussex doing cross-stitch in Whitehall. Instead of our dear Queen, we might be lumbered with Tony Blair as president. Chills the blood, doesn’t it?

The blood chills at other hypothetical thoughts too. What if Islam in the next few decades wipes out the protestantisms and the secularisms of Britain?  Would the remnants - the tiny proportion of the population - that had not renounced Christianity but lived under the Muslim yoke, attempt to blow up the Immam's Palace of the British Caliphate in Londonistan? 

Would we now cheer? The 'winners' decide.
One piquant aspect of this historical parlour game is that, if James I had been assassinated by Guy Fawkes, along with his eldest son Henry, the next in line would have been Charles I, who was only four and would have needed supervising 24/7 by a no-nonsense nanny with a good grasp of the English constitution.
Another likely consequence of James being assassinated is that Shakespeare would never have produced Macbeth, which was written to curry favour with James and probably first performed in 1606, in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot. The King James Bible, work on which started in 1604, would probably have survived a successful Gunpowder Plot, although it would be called the King Charles Bible, which doesn’t have the same ring. But can we be so sure about other achievements of James’s reign?
If there had been constitutional upheaval in the years following 1605, it is hard to believe that the colonisation of the New World – Jamestown, Virginia, the first major English settlement in America, was established in 1607 – would have proceeded at the same rate. The French might have stolen a march on us, the United States might have become Les √Čtats Unis and Americans might now eat croissants rather than Big Macs.
On the other hand  The British Catholic Lord Baltimore might have Governed a growing and later very successful Catholic State of Maryland - with less tolerance for the protestants which in the real history overthrew him - and be on the way to a Catholic Anglophile America.
There would be no baseball World Series, just boules in the town square.....
Just why Max thinks Britain would have Frenchified after so many centuries of opposing the French, eludes me.  Still, perhaps it is the mead talking. The observable fact is that Catholics have 'national' ways of expressing their Faith. The Italian, French, Irish and English Catholics are United in Faith but very diverse in their national expression of Faith. The English Catholics are most unlikely to have become Frenchified, just as the Irish have never become Anglicised.
......and given the French love of wine, there would certainly have been no Prohibition, which would have put the kibosh on that Prohibition-era film classic Some Like It Hot – which would have robbed Marilyn Monroe of her most famous role, which might have meant Jack Kennedy having an affair with someone else, which could have impacted on the Cuban missile crisis...
So many what-ifs. So many might-have-beens. Would MPs have fiddled their expenses if, somewhere in their collective consciousness, there lingered a folk memory of Parliament being razed to the ground in a bonfire of the vanities? Would we take Parliament more – or less – seriously?
Perhaps the one stone-cold certainty is that, if the plot had succeeded, Bonfire Night would never have evolved in its present form. 
Or it could have continued as a celebration of putting things right in the only way left to the brave and the good of the day. 
Generations of children would have been spared the indignity of sitting on street corners, in front of a padded sack with a pumpkin on top, squeaking ''Penny for the Guy’’.
Indignity? Most fun is undignified. It would not be much fun if dignity was the main aim. 
We would have had fewer over-the-top firework displays that cost millions and are over in minutes. And the Health and Safety Executive would have had to find something else to fuss about – which is perhaps scariest of all.
Nah. Some hypotheticals get taken too far.  

History is. Was. It cannot be changed. It shaped our Present. We shape our future.

As the embers die down, let us raise a glass, a tankard, a pot, to the brave and the fools who were our ancestors. Look into the flames.

Drink up.



  1. I've often wondered whether the Bonfire was a Proddy night or a Catholic night ...Im still not sure.

    Remember remember St.Bartholomew's Day as well I suppose

    1. Yes, it is easy to be confused. It is every Englishman's history. St Bart sorts it out.

  2. In my younger days I was taught that the Gunpowder Plot was a political plot there were no mentions of religion. It was only later in life that I came to understand what the plot was really about.

    So for me the burning of the guy was about a political hot head trying to blow up parliament. That is what I had been taught and how it was celebrated. It has become an English tradition and people do not think to research why it came about.

    As to the story about the difficult Welshman. The Welsh from that area have a particular personality trait (or is it cultural?) I will recount a tale from walking in the Welsh hills where a Lady farmer had deliberately obscured a marker on a public pathway luring innocent walkers to tread on 'her land'. She was waiting there to scold them that they were trespassing, but not willing to provide the information so that they could find the correct public right of way through her field. We got there in the end!

    I also have a couple of friends that have had the misfortune to be married to this type of Welsh person. It goes without saying that I won't share their stories.

    In view of these experiences I suspect the man mentioned was being difficult, just because he could, rather than being Anti-Catholic.

    1. There are those who revel in being difficult. But here you point to the Welsh when the famer chap was English (I presume). Obstreperousness knows no borders. :)


Ne meias in stragulo aut pueros circummittam.

Our Bouncer is a gentleman of muscle and guile. His patience has limits. He will check you at the door.

The Tavern gets rowdy visitors from time to time. Some are brain dead and some soul dead. They attack customers and the bar staff and piss on the carpets. Those people will not be allowed in anymore. So... Be Nice..