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A Yankee Notebook

October 28, 2013


MONTPELIER, VT – I first came across Guy Fawkes, indirectly, in eighth-grade English class. We were having a spelling bee, and Mrs. Filsinger, who knew I was a good speller and liked to show off when I could, slapped me with a beauty: antidisestablishmentarianistic. We were allowed to ask what a word meant if we didn’t know it. I didn’t, and it turned out that, even though she answered authoritatively, Mrs. Filsinger didn’t know, either.

“It’s the longest word in the English language,” she averred. “It has to do with Guy Fawkes Day and the movement in England many years ago to restore the Catholic Church.” Well, it’s not the longest word in the language – some compound drugs’ names are longer – and when I looked it up, I discovered it was a word coined during the 19th-century Parliamentary debates about divorcing the British monarchy and the “established” Church of England. Guy Fawkes lived in the time of Shakespeare and James I, over 350 years earlier. But what’s the purpose of education, after all? to disseminate information, or to get people’s minds cranking? I’ll take the cranking.

Mrs. Filsinger’s answers got me wondering who Guy Fawkes might be. So I looked him up, not as easy a task in those days when it required a bus ride to the downtown library on Columbus Circle, and convincing a librarian that a young person might be interested in British history. I found him, but he wasn’t all that interesting to me at the time.

Mother, who saves a lot of stuff, has saved Britain and the Empire (From 1603), the text used in her British History class while she lived in Canada. Obviously written by a historian with no particular brief for the British monarchy, the story begins with England’s state of affairs at the death of the “Great Queen” and the accession of James VI of Scotland, afterward James I of Great Britain, who combined the two kingdoms under the “Union Jack,” which bears the crosses of both Saint George and Saint Andrew.

Though he sponsored the creation of the great King James Bible, religious arguments were James’ bete noire. His Catholic subjects wanted the pope reinstituted as head of the church; the Anglicans wanted things to remain as they were; the Puritans demanded a church system that we’d nowadays recognize as Congregational. James was intransigent on the subject. He remained the head of the Church of England, and those who disagreed were made very uncomfortable. Many Puritans emigrated to the Netherlands and thence to the new American colonies (so we have James to thank for a good chunk of our puritanical national character. Thanks, Your Highness!). Catholics were forced to attend the Anglican Church or pay fines. James was supported strongly in all of this, not surprisingly, by the House of Lords, whose increasing wealth was a growing affront in the absence of civil rights among the underclasses, who, as Marie Antoinette observed some 180 years later, were revolting.

Some of them, it develops, were. They were Roman Catholics, very unhappy at the proscription of their choice of worship and the resulting fines for practicing it. An old boss of mine would have called them ”disgrumpled.” Really disgrumpled. Knowing that the King and the House of Lords were to convene on November 5, 1605, they hatched a plan to blow the place to smithereens with all the peers and James inside. They rented a storage room in the undercroft of the Parliament building (imagine trying that today), began amassing barrels of gunpowder, and engaged the services of a “soldier of fortune, “ one Guy Fawkes, to carry out their nefarious plot.

Unfortunately, one of the plotters apparently had a brother-in-law among the peers, and sent him a discreet note warning him to be absent on the fateful day. The brother-in-law shared it with Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, who shared it with the king. A search of the undercroft revealed poor Guy sitting beside 36 barrels of gunpowder, which, if potent, was enough to propel bits of the building into low earth orbit. Subsequent torture failed to extract from Fawkes the names of his conspirators; but they were located and killed, anyway, when they hastily left London in an attempt to rouse the natives. The Magna Carta and subsequent updates to English law apparently lacked an Eighth Amendment; Fawkes died horribly. So much for the so-called Gunpowder Plot.

It’s still commemorated today in most of Great Britain and a few spots in Canada, with fireworks, bonfires, and ceremonial torchings of Guy Fawkes effigies. Before each fall’s opening day of Parliament, the Yeoman of the Guard inspects the cellars to assure everyone that there are no explosives stored down there. And the commemoration appears to have spawned a copycat.

The computer hackers’ collective known as Anonymous has scheduled a “Million-Mask March” for November 5, Guy Fawkes Day. They urge participants to wear the iconic Guy Fawkes mask – you can look it up on-line – and peacefully protest a multitude of corporate and government sins, from repressive laws to big pharmaceutical companies to genetically modified foods. The organizer of the rally (while insisting that it’s not organized) says that it’s “not only a protest showing our strength in numbers, it is as well the issuance of a warning to the powers that be.” Kind of a liberal tea party; it’s safe to say that Eric Snowden is not a traitor, or even a felon, in this company. Apparently peaceful, if cybernetically a bit fierce, these hackers have the potential to do a great deal of damage, if they wish, to organizations or governments that have in some way earned their surveillance or interference. They’re a reminder that the expectation of privacy is pretty much a thing of the past. Not too bad a thing, in my opinion. Remember what our parents used to tell us about not writing anything you wouldn’t want to see in the newspaper?

Photo by Willem lange