Thursday, November 5, 2015

Guy Fawkes: Gunpowder, Treason, and Mushy Peas.

One thing I knew for certain: Guy Fawkes was a bad man. A very bad man. So bad, in fact, that every year, in the days leading up to November 5th, my brother Ian and I would round up old clothes from the rag bag, stuff them with crumpled newspaper into a reasonable facsimile of a human being, and trundle him around the streets of Clifton Village, requesting “a penny for the guy” from passers-by. The money went to buy fireworks, while Guy met his fate, sizzling on a bonfire. Gleefully, we sang,
"Please to remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot."

At first it was all good, clean fun. Even when I learned the word “effigy,” and understood that the guy we were burning represented a real person, I was unfazed. He was a traitor, pure and simple. He deserved to die.

As I grew older, the black and white certainties of childhood history became clouded with nuanced shades of gray. Was Guy Fawkes really the scheming villain of my youth, or might he have been set up?

What is known is that on 5th November, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with several dozen barrels of gunpowder, looking for all the world as if he was about to blow up the Houses of Parliament, King James I, and with him, the cream of the English aristocracy's fairest and finest (which if you ask anyone of Irish extraction, isn't saying very much.)

Nobody asked questions like: how did he manage to procure so much gunpowder when it was so scarce, and how did he get it past the guards?

Guy was found guilty, and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. I won’t spoil your breakfast by describing the technique, which ranks among the most brutal methods of execution ever devised by man (which is saying quite something): suffice it to say only that the castration which began it was the easy part, after which things rapidly got worse. So determined was our hero to avoid the torture that he jumped headlong from the scaffold and broke his neck, thus depriving the assembled onlookers of their morning’s entertainment.

While not quite in the same league as the Borgias in Italy, the court of James I was not far behind. In particular, the Lord Cecil was a ruthless schemer such as would make Richard Nixon look like the Easter Bunny. There is some considerable evidence to suggest that Cecil masterminded the whole plot, including Guy Fawkes’ arrest. And execution. His goal was to stir up vehement anti-Catholic sentiment, and in that he was more than successful.

Historical revisionism notwithstanding, November 5 was always a good excuse for a party and the best were in Yorkshire. Being in the north of England, Yorkshire is considerably colder and darker than the south; and on November 5th, the darker and colder the better. Certain traditional delicacies were prepared in advance: parkin, a dark and gloriously sticky gingerbread made with black treacle and golden syrup, and the aptly named "mushy peas"—overcooked peas mashed to a glutinous paste (a technique pioneered and perfected in the kitchens of British Rail)—and rendered strangely exotic by the addition of mint sauce (finely chopped mint leaves mixed with white sugar and vinegar.)

Most major holidays are relatively homogeneous, and involve dinners round a table using knives, forks and spoons. Not so our Yorkshire Guy Fawkes celebrations! The contrasts were thrilling: icy cold at our backs driving us ever closer to the ferocious, skin scorching, hair frizzing heat of the raging bonfire; fingers frozen numb, threatening to drop the paper cups that did little to insulate against the veritable furnace of mushy peas; the biting cold of the icy ground snapping at our feet through ridiculously thin soled shoes; the roaring whoosh of flames devouring everything we fed them— leaves, branches, broken down furniture, even on one occasion a piano deemed beyond all hope, wildly out of tune, with a cracked sounding-board….It serenaded us in its death throes, twanging a macabre melody as one by one its strings exploded, curling red-hot into the black night sky. Wild, pagan, celebrating a revolutionary who sought to overturn the status quo by unthinkably violent means: five dozen barrels of gunpowder, ready to blow the English government to kingdom come.

Or was he some poor stooge, easily manipulated by those more devious, more ambitious, more malevolent than he? Are the children’s voices, still urging their listeners five hundred years later, to “remember, remember the fifth of November” doing exactly what Cecil wanted: stirring up anti-Catholic feeling in a country where to this day “all religions are the same, except Catholics, and they’re wrong.”


  1. Oh, Alison! You are such a gifted storyteller!!! My children still remember so fondly the days when they colored and drew while listening to you talk about Beowolf and all the rest. It has helped them as they forge on into high school lit classes, which comes as no surprise. :) Hope you are well.

  2. Hello, "Unknown" . . . You don't get off that easy, I know who you are! Thank you for your encouraging words; I too remember our "History Through Literature" classes with the utmost fondness, and I'm so glad to hear that they helped even unto high school :-)