SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 96 - November 2005

Remember, remember

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is perhaps the best known event in English history. But how well is its legacy understood? PAUL MOORHOUSE writes.

ON THE NIGHT of 4 November 1605 a search party led by the Earl of Suffolk surprised a Catholic former mercenary, Guy Fawkes, guarding barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords. Fawkes and his fellow plotters, mostly Midlands Catholic gentry, planned to blow up King James I, his court and MPs, during the opening of parliament the next day.

Nearly all of the plotters were captured, but their leader, Robert Catesby, was killed resisting arrest at Holbeach House in Staffordshire. Following questioning under torture by the Attorney General, Sir Edward Coke, and a show trial, Fawkes and seven other conspirators were hung, drawn and quartered in January 1606. Their severed heads and body parts were displayed on poles around London.

Right-wing political Islamic terrorism in the 21st century has only served to strengthen Western imperialism. ‘Socialist’ individual terror in the 20th century entrenched reactionary regimes from tsarist Russia to the military juntas of 1970s Latin America, setting back their defeat by mass struggles of the workers and peasants. Catesby, Fawkes and the Catholic terrorists of 1605, far from toppling James I and Protestant supremacy, increased the grip of his rule on England, and set back the prospects for Catholic emancipation for another 200 years.

Furthermore, the ‘deliverance’ of English Protestantism from this ‘papist plot’ became one of the most potent icons in English history. Ironically, the ‘gunpowder treason’ and bonfire night became rallying points for the popular uprising of the English people against James’s son, Charles I, four decades later and for popular struggles by the rural poor, urban artisans and, later, the industrial working class for three centuries to come.

Consolidating the nation state

JAMES STUART HAD been the sixth Scottish king of his name since infancy. He succeeded to the English throne on the death of his second cousin, Elizabeth Tudor (Elizabeth I), in 1603.

Religion was a central political question in 16th and 17th century Britain. Apart from the five-year rule of Elizabeth’s Catholic half-sister, ‘Bloody’ Mary, in the 1650s, England’s state religion had been Protestant since Henry VIII’s 1534 Act of Supremacy.

For a growing and socially important minority, the rising capitalist class and the urban poor, the ideas of Protestantism – especially its most radical manifestation, Puritanism – expressed their struggle against the old feudal social order, a strict political, social and religious hierarchy, based on the landed estates of the nobility and the Catholic church.

Puritanism emphasised freedom of conscience and a direct personal relationship between the worshipper or congregation and God. It was the ideological underpinning for the republican regime established by Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentary army between the defeat of Charles I in 1647 and restoration of his son, Charles II, in 1660. In its most advanced form it inspired the radical democracy of the Leveller party and the early socialism of Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers (see Socialism Today No.24, Property, equality & democracy in the English civil war).

Protestants from the lower classes, especially Puritans, greatly feared and often fanatically hated Catholicism, or ‘papism’. At first sight, it can be hard to distinguish their anti-Catholicism from the sectarianism of, for instance, Ulster ‘Loyalism’ today. Stuart kings and Cromwell used it to bolster the bloody repression of uprisings by the Catholic Irish. Many Levellers, however, opposed Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland precisely on the grounds that Irish Catholic were entitled to exactly the same political and religious liberty as English Protestant.

But 16th and 17th century anti-Catholicism amounted to more than this. It also expressed solidarity with Protestants on the European continent experiencing repression, such as the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 70,000 French Huguenots in 1572, and the Spanish ‘eighty years war’ against the Protestant Dutch republic after 1568 (where Fawkes served in the armies of the Spanish emperor).

Above all, it represented a folk memory of the oppression English Protestants had experienced at the hand of Catholic monarchs and bishops. ‘Bloody’ Mary’s inquisition burned 288 Protestants at the stake and imprisoned and tortured countless others. Before the reformation, the saintly paragon of renaissance Catholic humanism, Thomas Moore, had hounded William Tyndale across Europe for daring to translate the Bible into English. One of the most widely read books of the period, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, traced this oppression back through the 14th century Lollards to the martyrs of the early church.

For Tudor and Stuart monarchs and their advisers, however, religion was more a matter of tactics and state-craft. They were nowhere near as principled or consistent in their adherence to Protestant ideas as the ‘lower orders’.

Henry VIII had initially opposed the reformation in the interests of diplomatic links with the papacy and Catholic states. He only broke with the pope when his refusal to grant Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon threatened the succession. Henry broke up the monastic estates, not with the intention of paving the way to the enclosure of the land and the development of capitalist relations in the countryside (although this was its effect), but to replenish his state coffers and provide a handy source of patronage.

James I, his son and his grandson, all had Catholic queens and allowed them to observe Roman rites at court whilst outlawing their practice by Catholic commoners. It has even been argued, not entirely unconvincingly, that Elizabeth was a closet Catholic.

Whatever her private beliefs, however, Elizabeth saw Protestantism as central to the building of a unified modern state. Her reign was marked by a transformation of England from a religiously divided nation, with the urban areas and the South East being largely Protestant, whilst the countryside, especially in the North and West, remained largely Catholic, to one where the majority of the population accepted Protestantism.

On the international stage, Protestantism helped to defend English independence from the competing Catholic French and Spanish monarchies. The defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588 had the same significance for Elizabeth’s England as the gunpowder plot had for James’. It was also a driving force behind the development of English naval and mercantile power, personified in the Protestant courtier, scientist and navigator, Walter Raleigh. At home it provided Elizabeth with an increasingly effective tool for balancing between the classes and uniting the nation.

Origins of an iconography

TO PRESERVE THIS Protestant state, Edward Coke’s patron, Robert Cecil (later the Earl of Salisbury), promoted the succession of James VI of Scotland in the last days of Elizabeth’s reign.

James had a history of conflict with the Calvinist Scottish Presbyterian church, and was noted for his personal tolerance of Catholics. English Catholics had hopes for emancipation under his rule. But James, guided both by Cecil and his circle, and by his own remarkable intellect, stuck to Elizabeth’s religious policies.

In 1604 he commissioned an ‘authorised’ version of the bible, edited by a conference of bishops. Largely using the language of Tyndale’s translation of 80 years earlier – while purging key Puritan and egalitarian ideas from the original – Tyndale’s prose, spread by the King James Bible, had a considerable influence on the development of modern written English, another important contribution of Protestantism to the building of a capitalist nation state in England over the coming centuries.

It has been suggested, especially by an ‘anti-plot’ school of 19th century historians, that the gunpowder conspiracy was either invented, or incited by Cecil and his agents. There was probably a real plot, but there is little doubt that its significance was exaggerated by Cecil and Coke, and if it had not existed they would have been well advised to invent it, so great was its effect on strengthening the early Stuart state.

The foiling of the plot was first celebrated by lighting bonfires on 5 November 1605. By the following year the date was firmly established as a national celebration. Bonfires (literally ‘bone fires’) commemorated the Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake.

Protestant England seemed united in celebrating 5 November. But the manner in which you marked it varied with your social position. The state, church elite and employers favoured official events: the ringing of bells, church services, the preaching of ‘gunpowder sermons’, and public collections. They often resisted the interruption of trade by holding a holiday, and preferred not to give the lower orders license to build bonfires and hold processions in the streets. The establishment of 5 November as an official festival was promoted in parliament by Sir Edward Montagu, a leading opponent of parish festivities (who James thought ‘smelt a little of Puritanism’). Montagu prescribed a strictly regimented and hierarchical celebration, with set prayers and public readings of his Act of Parliament.

Amongst artisans, servants and rural labourers, however, bonfires, the rolling of lighted tar barrels in the streets, and holidays, were more popular. In many areas they became the preferred method of celebrating 5 November.

By the mid-1620s, most areas of England celebrated gunpowder treason, especially market towns in counties such as Devon, Somerset, Staffordshire and Shropshire. These celebrations became the occasion for the masses to step into the political and social arena, voicing many different concerns, demands and aspirations. November 5 was to continue to be a vehicle for the social protest of the oppressed well into the 19th century.

With the accession of James’s son, Charles, to the throne in 1625, growing divisions appeared between the parliamentary representatives of the growing ‘middle sort’ who lived by manufacture and trade, and the court and church elite, over religious as well as economic and constitutional questions. Charles I’s marriage to a French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, and a secret treaty concluded with France promising more rights for Catholics, angered MPs. Charles had to rule without parliament’s support or the ability to levy taxes most of the time until the outbreak of civil war in August 1642.

The growing observance of bonfire night under Charles’s rule was a manifestation not so much of gratitude for the deliverance of his father from the plotters as of the increasing popular belief that defence of Protestant beliefs and ‘English liberties’ was not safe in his hands, and of the burgeoning resentment at the economic and social privileges of his court.

In 1647 the victorious parliamentary forces abolished existing national festivals, the sole exception being 5 November, which continued to be celebrated in most communities throughout the ‘interregnum’, the republican interval between Charles I and Charles II. Following the restoration in 1660, Charles II was also forced to accept the continuation of bonfires and other celebrations.

In 1678, fanned by the fictional claim of Titus Oates to have uncovered a ‘popish plot’, a movement grew against the succession of Charles’s Catholic brother, James, Duke of York, in favour of his illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. The following year, at the height of a parliamentary campaign for an ‘Exclusion Bill’ to bar James’s succession, troops were brought onto the streets of London on November 5 and bonfire celebrations became mass processions in many towns across southern England, notably Lewes in Sussex, and Bridgewater and Taunton in Somerset.

All these towns hold bonfire carnivals to this day and the latter two were central to Monmouth’s unsuccessful rebellion against James II following Charles’s death in 1685. The banner of Monmouth and the Exclusionist movement may have been anti-Catholic, and supported the claims of one royal prince against those of another, but the masses that rallied to it soon raised the democratic demands of the parliamentary ‘Good Old Cause’. The Monmouth rebellion, especially, was in many respects a revolt of the lower orders which echoed the Leveller rebellions of the late 1640s.

Fearing a return to the revolutionary struggles of that era, the ruling class abandoned James II for his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. It was no accident that William, having landed at Torbay, commenced his ‘Glorious Revolution’ against James by marching on London through the very Devon and Somerset towns which had supported Monmouth’s rebellion, on 5 November 1688.

New traditions

THE DEMOCRATIC AND Protestant ideas of the English revolution of the 1640s were carried across the Atlantic to North America, where many non-conformists and parliamentarians fled after the Restoration, and were an important inspiration to the American revolution.

November 5 was celebrated in 17th and 18th century America with bonfires and the burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes and the pope. Increasingly, as the movement for independence developed, the effigies of British prime ministers and colonial administrators joined them. George Washington, who rivalled Oliver Cromwell in his fear and contempt for the democratic aspirations of the rank and file of his revolutionary army, condemned this as ‘childish and ridiculous’.

In the 19th century, 5 November again became a focus for widespread mass political action in Britain. In part this was a manifestation of anti-Catholicism, which had grown in response to the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England by Pope Pius IX in 1850 and the defection of John Henry Newman and other, mostly Tory, ‘High Church’ Anglicans, to Rome. But 1850s anti-Catholicism was no longer the relatively progressive, if confused, manifestation of the democratic and egalitarian aspirations of the ordinary people of 200 years before.

Nineteenth century England was no longer a country on the cusp between feudalism and capitalism, where Puritanism expressed the struggle of manufacturers and traders to shake off the shackles of medievalism. The revolutionary ‘middle sort’ of the 17th century had now divided into two contending social classes: the British capitalist class, controlling the mightiest industrial economy on earth, and the powerful, but super-exploited, working class. If it was to be victorious in industrial and political struggle against the employers the working class had to be united.

Anti-Catholicism was a threat to this unity. Not only was there still a significant minority of English Catholics, but the emigration from Ireland in the wake of the great famine of the 1840s had brought almost a million Irish Catholic workers to Britain.

Moreover, the struggle to change society now required a conscious political programme. The rising capitalist class in the English revolution had been able to wrest power from the enfeebled feudal rulers peering, as it were, through gaps in the blindfolds of the contemporary religious world view.

But the rulers of 1850s England, embarking on building the mightiest and most repressive empire history had known, had no intention of conceding power so easily. To end the vicious exploitation they faced, modern British workers needed to build their own party armed with a clear understanding of the world: the analysis and programme of scientific socialism.

The greatest socialist thinkers of the time, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, explained that, in the modern world, religious ideas, Catholic and Protestant alike, often sprang from and expressed the desire for a better world. But in the last analysis religion held the struggle of working people back rather than advanced it. The hierarchies of all the churches, Catholic and Protestant, now stood shoulder to shoulder with the ruling class. The often bitter struggle between them was really a dispute over the best way to enslave the minds of workers. Marx and Engels stood for the freedom of everyone, including Catholics, to observe their religions, but in Marx’s famous phrase, insisted that, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’. The anti-Catholic mob was one of the clearest expressions of this.

Anti-Catholic agitation in the 1850s took the form of bonfire celebrations in many towns, accompanied by the burning of effigies, not only of Fawkes, but also of Pius IX and the newly created English cardinal, Nicholas Wiseman. Amongst these towns was Lewes, where the existence of a number of ‘bonfire clubs’ dates back to the 1850s. (Initially these were strongly anti-Catholic, harking back to the fact that Lewes had been the execution place of 17 martyrs under Mary Tudor 300 years before. By November 1994, the main effigies burnt in Lewes were not of the Catholic hierarchy but of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Michael Howard, then home secretary who had published the Criminal Justice Bill the week before.)

United struggle

ELSEWHERE IN THE 19th century, however, anti-Catholicism, whilst not always entirely absent, took second place to the united struggle of the working class on 5 November. Bonfire societies were established across much of Sussex in the 1850s, as were bonfire carnival societies in Bridgewater, Taunton and other Somerset towns. It seems likely that in all these towns this continued a less organised tradition which had been unbroken since at least the 1620s. In Oxford, ‘town and gown riots’ – when the workers of the city protested against the wealth and legal privileges of the university – often broke out on this date.

In Exeter, there had been a tradition since the 17th century of the city being handed over to the youth of the town: ‘Young Exeter’. Young Exeter organised gunpowder celebrations, including ringing bells in the morning, building bonfires on the Cathedral Close, and kicking burning tar barrels through the streets, as well as fireworks. As the 19th century progressed, Young Exeter became increasingly politicised (and more enterprising in the extent of the celebrations they organised), making it the centre of a struggle by the church elite and civil authorities to control the youth and the working class of the city.

In 1831, for example, Young Exeter burned an effigy of the Tory bishop, Dr Phillpotts, recently appointed in the dying days of the unpopular administration of the Duke of Wellington, to protest at his opposition to the Reform Act. Throughout the 1840s, the local authorities tried to use the police force, established under laws introduced by the Tories in 1835, to ban the Young Exeter celebrations from the Cathedral Close. 1867, a year of growing workers’ struggles when the government of Benjamin Disraeli was forced to legalise trade unions, was also the year of the most serious town and gown riots in Oxford and the Exeter bonfire night celebrations coincided with a food riot. In pitched battles with the crowd, 800 special constables and 250 soldiers with bayonets drawn were driven from Cathedral Close under a hail of stones.

Four hundred years on we can see how the gunpowder plot illustrates the important and changing role that religious ideas have played in the struggle to change society. In 2005, this is still true. Islam is seen by many of the most oppressed as the road to liberation from imperialist oppression and exploitation – while the US president believes his foreign policy is dictated by God.

Socialists need to analyse carefully both the origin of religious movements and ideas and the aspirations that they often express. But 5 November also teaches us many lessons about the capacity of religious ideas to confuse and derail the struggle to change society and the need to build a clear and consistent socialist alternative to them.


1517: Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, the start of the reformation.

1525: William Tyndale publishes an English translation of Bible in Germany after being driven into exile by the Catholic church.

1534: Act of Supremacy establishes the independence of the English church from Rome.

1536: Tyndale burnt at the stake in Brussels.

1547: Henry VIII dies, succeeded by his son Edward VI.

1553: Mary I, ‘Bloody Mary’, succeeds to the throne, reinstating Catholicism as England’s religion.

1558: Mary’s Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, comes to the throne on her death.

1563: John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs published.

1567: Elizabeth executes her Catholic rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Mary’s infant son succeeds her as James VI and is raised as a Protestant.

1569: Elizabeth defeats the Northern rebellion, a Catholic uprising.

1572: St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 70,000 French Huguenots.

1588: Defeat of the Spanish armada.

1603: James VI succeeds to the English crown on the death of Elizabeth.

1604: Conference of bishops begins writing the authorised, or ‘King James Bible’.

1605: Guy Fawkes captured in cellars of the House of Lords, 5 November.

1606: Fawkes and other conspirators executed.

1625: Charles I succeeds to the throne.

1642: Start of the civil war between Charles and parliament.

1645: Defeat of the royalist army at the Battle of Naseby.

1647: Charles arrested, Leveller uprising in the parliamentary army.

1649: Execution of Charles I on 30 January. Levellers defeated by Cromwell at Burford, Oxfordshire, 17 May.

1660: Restoration of Charles II to the throne.

1678-81: Allegations of a ‘popish plot’ encourage a movement for an ‘Exclusion Bill’ to prevent Catholic James, Duke of York, acceding to the crown.

1685: On 6 February, Charles dies and James succeeds as James II of England and VII of Scotland. Duke of Monmouth lands at Lyme Regis to lead a rebellion against James on 11 June, but is executed on Tower Hill after defeat at Battle of Sedgemoor (6 July).

1688: William Duke of Orange begins his march on London after landing at Torbay to begin ‘Glorious Revolution’ which puts him and his wife on the throne as William III and Mary II.

1829: Catholic Relief Act grants most civil rights and freedom of worship to Catholics.

1845: Leading Anglican, John Henry Newman converts to Catholicism.

1850: Pope Pius IX re-establishes the Catholic hierarchy in England.


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