Anyone taking their cue from the mainstream British media would imagine that Guy Fawkes Night is merely an archaic piece of religious bigotry. The papers and airwaves are alive with mediafolk and politicos tut-tutting over the “anti-Catholic festival”, with the more advanced liberal bigots amongst them musing whether it should be banned as it “incites hate”, while the less straightforward propagandise for its abolition under the shelter of “health and safety” with a recitation of the tremendous risks involved with bonfires and fireworks.
The truth, as ever with liberal bigots, is the exact opposite of what they claim. To equate anti-Catholic feeling in 1605 (and for many years afterwards) with simple, wilful hatred is to display a howling ignorance of both history and of societies which are dominated by religious belief. By 1605 England had endured 70 years of incessant Catholic threat since the breach with Rome.* Under Mary Tudor she had had a very dirty taste of what a Catholic Restoration would mean, with burnings and general persecution. Before English eyes were the constant sufferings of Protestants on the Continent. The re-conversion of England to Catholicism would mean at best the intolerance of the Inquisition and at worst a Catholic foreigner such as Mary’s husband Philip II of Spain sitting on the English throne. The great massacre of French Protestants on St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 was dreadful warning of what fate might await Protestants under a Catholic monarch.
Throughout the reign of Elizabeth the fate of Protestantism hung by precious few threads, the sturdiest of which was England. On the continent only Sweden and the nascent power of the Dutch Republic stood between the power of Spain, the great agent of the counter-Reformation. Most of Europe remained Catholic. The two greatest continental kingdoms, Spain and France, were Catholic and the (Catholic) Holy Roman Empire under the Hapsburgs was still a considerable force. Had England fallen to Rome the Counter-Reformation would in all probability have triumphed. Had the Dutch Republic failed England would have been utterly isolated as a Protestant kingdom.
An analogy with the position that England found itself under between the 1530s and 1605 would be that of Britain in WW2 before America joined the war. Yet the Elizabethan situation was more perilous by far. The WW2 situation lasted for less than 30 months; that of England in 1605 had lasted 70 years and would last the Lord knew how much longer. Worse, there was no great overseas help to be had because there was no Elizabethan equivalent of the USA or the Empire and the population of England was tiny (3-4 million at best) compared to the powers which opposed her.
During the 45 years following Elizabeth’s accession (1558) Spain had three times tried and failed to invade England (1588, 1596, 1597). As recently as 1601 Spain had invaded Ireland and joined with Irish forces, but was defeated at the battle of Kinsale in Co. Cork.
To these external threats may be added the incessant Catholic plots against Elizabeth’s life throughout her reign, with the shadow of Mary Queen of Scots covering most of them until her long overdue execution in 1586.
The mentality of those English Catholics who were prepared to act against the Crown was treasonable in the extreme. Their cast of mind is exemplified by Reginald Pole, whom Mary Tudor rewarded with the Archbishopric of Canterbury and the Pope rewarded with a cardinal’s red hat. Pole fled England after falling out with Henry VIII. He then wrote a pamphlet imploring all Catholic powers of the day from the emperor Charles V to Frances I of France to invade England and for all Englishmen to support the invaders.
For men such as Pole religion was all. To make England Catholic was their only end. There was no arguing with them. Like the fanatic Muslim today everything else subordinate to their religion. As Catholics, their loyalty was to the Pope not to their king or country. The Catholic traitors of Elizabeth’s reign would have willingly allowed a creature such as the Duke of Alva to land and devastate England as he had devastated the Low Countries. Nothing was too terrible if it meant England was to became Catholic once more. Truly, England in 1605 had no reason to doubt that she was under threat from within and without her shores.
The modern British mind has difficulty with understanding that religion was a very different beast to what it is today. It does not understand that religion was not a quiet, private activity then but rather something which coloured the whole of life. Unbelief if it existed kept its head well buried. Intelligent, educated men were often ecstatic in their devotion and the poor if deficient in theology mixed their Christianity with a healthy dose of pagan superstition, vide the witch mania of the time.
Because religion was taken seriously, not only the fate of the individual soul but the fortunes of a country seemed to rest on the performance and nature of the religion of the country. Hence, to a Protestant the maintenance of England as a Protestant nation was as vital as its re-conversion to Catholicism was to a Catholic. This belief, coupled with the behaviour of Counter-Reformation Catholic countries towards Protestants , was enough to persuade any English Protestant that nothing worse than a Catholic England could be envisioned.
Religion was then a political question, the most important political question of the day, and Catholics of necessity were traitors because they had to give their loyalty to the Pope. That was the long and short of it for Protestant England.
The response to the gunpowder plot was, in the context of the day, extraordinarily mild. The plotters had encompassed a plan the like of which had never been attempted before and which arguably has never been made reality anywhere ever. They designed to kill the entire English ruling elite, including the King, in one fell swoop. A more clinical and diabolically simple means of revolution cannot be imagined. No wonder the English elite were terrified and the English as a people easily roused to rage. There was some tightening of the laws and their enforcement against Catholics, but there was no English St Bartholomew’s Day against them.
The creation of a day of commemoration by Parliament on the 5th of November was a brilliant political act which kept the danger of further Catholic plots and invasions before the people. Its popularity and longevity as a truly anti-Catholic festival shows that Parliament was utterly in tune with the people.
The festival has renewed relevance today with the re-importation of fanatic religion in the form of Islam whose adherents acknowledge no country and who, like the Catholic church of old, seek nothing less than the encompassing of the world within their faith. Plus ca change…
Today Britain is subject to a foreign power (the EU) to whom she pays an annual tribute (the difference between what is paid to Brussels and what we get back) and from whom she suffers constant interference with her internal affairs (virtually everything). In addition, Britain has to bear institutions on her territory which are controlled by the foreign power (foreign inspectors of various sorts) and the foreign power is attempting to make allegiance to the foreign power superior to Britons allegiance to Britain. (EU citizenship, the EU Constitution).
*England’s position before Henry VIII’s breach with Rome has startling similarities with Britain’s position today. Catholic England was a country subject to a foreign power (the Papacy) to whom she paid an annual tribute (Peter’s Pence) and from whom she suffered constant interference with her internal affairs (clerical appointments). In addition, Catholic England had to bear institutions on her soil which were directly controlled by the foreign power (religious houses founded under the direct authority of the Papacy) and every English man and woman owed their first allegiance to the Pope as Christ’s vicar on Earth.