Saturday, November 5, 2011

Do You Know What Today Is? {History Lesson!}

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot...

~Nursery Rhyme

I was raised to be proud of my Irish heritage. We had our family cress hung on the front of the house, St. Patrick's Day was a HUGE deal, I took Irish Step Dancing lessons, and my dad regularly played tin whistle for us to dance to. We learned early where our family originated in Ireland. We also learned of the atrocities that the Protestant English wreaked on the Catholic peasants throughout history. One of my very favorite books since I was 14 has been Trinity by Leon Uris. I even have a first edition signed copy of it that I read once a year, or so, right around St. Patrick's Day or whenever I hear news of the latest NRA uprising.

Now for a history lesson: In 1603, James VI, King of Scots, succeeded Elizabeth I, Queen of England, to the throne of England. This basically created the United Kingdom, since England already had hold of Ireland and Wales. James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Make sense so far? Now, James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. The one who was killed for refusing to switch from Catholicism to become Protestant (Now, that last statement totally over-simplifies the whole thing, but I'm not writing about Mary. If you want to know more about this, head to Google! LOL) The thought was that James might decide to switch the national religion back over to Catholic, which didn't happen.

Instead, he went very light on the Catholics. You see, before he came into power, being Catholic amounted to treason and was punishable with death. He changed things around and made it "safe" to be Catholic again. It was basically a "don't ask - don't tell" situation, but much better than being killed for your beliefs, right? Well, it all changed soon enough. James found out that his wife had been given a Rosary (got this from Wikipedia) and it really got him angry! Suddenly, it became a problem to be Catholic again. James exiled the Catholic priests. Then, he began collecting fees/taxes from all Catholics. I don't mean something like 3% - no, he was taking up to 2/3 of these people's incomes! Now, if you've ever watched a movie or read a book about the Potato Famine in Ireland, you've no doubt learned about the collectors burning homes of peasants and beating the crap out of (sometimes killing) those who lived inside when they couldn't pay their rent. The same kind of thing happened across England and Scotland, as well, when Catholics couldn't pay their fees for being Catholic. 

Naturally, this brought out the Plotters. There were tons of groups that schemed to get rid of James by killing him and, hopefully, replacing him with someone who was Catholic-friendly (or maybe even "pro-Catholic".) All kinds of plans were hatched, especially ones that involved kidnapping James or one of his family members and keeping them in hiding until it was agreed that the king would chill out on the Catholics. None of these really worked and the conspirators usually ended up getting caught.

Now, this is where the plot of fictional Trinity crosses with the non-fiction story of the Gunpowder Plot. Thirteen guy got together and hatched a plan. It seems that one of the group's members lived across the Thames from the House of Lords, where Parliament met. The plan was to tunnel under the House and stash a whole lot of barrels of gun powder underneath. They did this ever so slowly in the night. The plan was to blow the House of Lords sky-high while it was in session, killing a ton of officials, including James I. 

Unfortunately, there was this pesky disease called the Plague going around and the session of parliament kept getting moved back, months at a time. Finally, the opening session date was set: November 5, 1605.Now, it was Guy Fawkes' job to light those barrels and cause the explosion. What he didn't know was that the King had been alerted to the plot a few days earlier via an anonymous letter. The House was searched and they found Fawkes standing guard of the gun powder, which was hidden beneath a big pile of firewood. The searchers left! Well, they came back some time later, found the gun powder, and arrested Fawkes. 

The heroic part of all of this was that, when Fawkes was arrested, he refused to give his name (he gave an alias) and any  information about the plan other than saying that HE had planned to blow up the House of Lords on his own. He was tortured and questioned repeatedly, but he did not give up the names of his co-conspirators. Eventually, through other avenues of information, the King found out many of the others' names and locations. Some of them were killed in their attempt to escape when they were found. Others were injured and arrested. 

These guys were all put in the Tower of London. The persecution of Catholics escalated due to the whole thing. Over the next couple of months, all of those arrested and some who were only thought to have knowledge of the plot, were questioned. In that time, only one person gave up the story and wrote a confession. All of the members of the arrested group were put on trial and sentenced to be hung, then drawn and quartered. 

Now, why am I writing about this? Apparently there is a holiday of sorts on November 5, in England, called "Guy Fawkes Day" or "Bonfire Night" in which people have big bonfires and shoot off fireworks. In a few places (this tradition has apparently waned), children create effigies of Guy Fawkes from old clothes and newspaper to urn. The idea behind this night is to give thanks that the Gunpowder Plot failed. 

So, while many people don't really get the real reason behind Bonfire Night yet still celebrate it, I think it's important to know just what is being celebrated. I, personally, do not have a religion. I have certain beliefs that are my own personal business. One thing that I believe is that everyone has a right to believe whatever they want. There is no reason that anyone should be able to tell anyone else what should be in his or her own thoughts. Of all of the reasons behind wars, religion is the most ridiculous!

And that's why you'll never hear me say, 
"Happy Guy Fawkes Day!"

*** It's the morning after I posted this and there are two things I want to add to this:
  1. If you celebrate Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night, I'm not judging you. I doubt you're marching around and yelling, "Down with Catholics!" or "Guy Fawkes sucked!" I get that it's a chance to head to a big bonfire and have a nice time, maybe even a great opportunity to roast some marshmallows (yum!)
  2. This is the story as I know it. If I have any inaccuracies or missed something, please feel free to let me know in the comments. I'm always willing to learn!