Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

"Betraye Your Country"


On 5 November, we British like nothing more than to gather round a roaring bonfire and watch in delight as an effigy, embodying the seditious, malignant Catholics, is consumed by the righteous flames of protestant justice. Well protestant justice and a combination of broken pallets and petrol. Then we set off fireworks and eat toffee apples.

Of course Bonfire Night isn’t about displaying our national distaste for Catholics anymore, we save that for Papal visits. Aside from certain specific issues, condemnation of child abuse scandals and the churches attitude toward condoms, I would suggest that the Catholic church barely registers in most people’s minds, certainly not as an object of distrust or open hostility. If you’ll excuse the turn of phrase, Catholicism is a broad church, and I’m not sure that I could pin down a stereotypical modern Catholic. I’ve met lots of Catholics and most of them aren’t particularly defined by their faith, certainly no more than any Anglican, Jew, Muslim, druid or atheist*.

In recent weeks Catholicism has achieved a new level of ‘state’ acceptance as the centuries old prohibition on the monarch marrying a Catholic has been lifted by the leaders of  the Commonwealth countries. This finally ends the last bit of state sponsored persecution of the Catholic church, James II would be delighted. Given the conservative nature of the British monarchy, it’s not really surprising that it’s taken them 180 years since Catholic emancipation to get round to it.

That said, it’s easy for me to say that Catholicism doesn’t really register as a focus of mistrust anymore,  I live in a part of England that does not have a particularly strong recent history of sectarian problems, in other parts of England, and the wider United Kingdom, the hostility between protestants and Catholics has not entirely gone away. Sadly, in some areas it remains a defining characteristic of communities. Aside from the obvious example of Northern Ireland, the issue of sectarian violence has recently been exposed in Glasgow through the violence between the fans of the Celtic and Rangers football clubs, and particularly the attacks on the Celtic manager, Neil Lennon. I wonder if Bonfire Night has any added tension in these neighbourhoods?

My impression is that the education system, and popular culture, still does a particularly good job in reminding children of the historical background to 5 November. Most kids can repeat the ditty:

“Remember, remember the 5th November, gunpowder, treason and plot”

But, when the bonfires are lit, and the ‘Guy’ starts to burn, I doubt that onlookers are following the lead of their ancestors and inwardly cursing Catholicism. Nor do I expect that they really understand the impact that anti-Catholic sentiment had on the lives of those Catholics that  lived in England during the Seventeenth Century, when the national commemoration of 5 November had real, raw significance to those who marked it. To be a Catholic at this time was to tread a dangerous, and necessarily, secretive path.

Queen Elizabeth brought in Penal laws against Catholics in the 1570s and 80s, which were continued and strengthened, with only occasional respite, under the Stuart Kings in the 1600s. The monarch was not yet banned from marrying a catholic, this would come later with the Bill of Rights in 1689. Yet, Catholics, or specifically those that refused to attend the Church of England services, known as Recusants, were subject to harsh punishments. The anti-Catholic penal laws restricted movement, placed fines and could lead to the up to 2/3 of a person’s property being taken from them by the state. Catholics were forced to pay rent on their own lands and if they could not then they would lose it, and if they could still not pay the fines they would be jailed.

The laws reflected the popular opinion of Catholics as the number one enemy of the protestant people of England. Every child can tell you who the goodies and baddies in a story are, well in Seventeenth Century England the Catholics were ‘the baddies’. Catholics abroad and at home were co-conspirators in everything underhand that could possibly be imagined. No tale was too far-fetched. No example of Catholic depravity too ridiculous:

…The dutie of love to their naturall Countrey, cannot withdraw them from favouring rebellion at home, not lincking with strangers abroad; that the dutie of obedience of children to parents, or of parents affection to children, cannot keepe them from unnaturall crueltie; that the dutie of mutuall love, and societie betwixt the husband and wife cannot remove from them the monstrous immanitie; that the dutie of kinde and naturall pittie cannot stay a Papists hands from murdering feeble sexes, tender babes, or reverent age… cannot stay a Papists hands from sacrificing his dearest friends…

Our land cannot be at ease so long as theye lye on her stomacke… whose religion is politicke, learning bloudy, affections malicious, ambitious, divellish. The Inquisition is their Grammar, fire and fagot their Rhetoricke, fleet and letters their Logicke, the Cannons roare their Musicke, and poysoning their Physicke.

O Lord preserve our Noble King Charles, and all his posteritie from the power of all such Romish Regicides and bloody Traytors, who thus plot and practice to build up their Romish Synagogue with blood…

(Seven Arguments Plainly Proving That Papists Are Trayterous, 1641)

It’s easy to think of this 17th C anti-Catholicism as cartoonish and removed from reality, but this is anachronistic. It was something akin to the anti-semitic laws and propaganda of the Nazis. Other Catholics than Guy Fawkes, particularly priests, were executed or imprisoned (itself often a shortcut to death) and livelihoods were ruined on a regular basis. No wonder Catholics were secretive, the whole popular language of state and media was geared against them. You could ask, why didn’t they just pretend, attend the required church services and say the required oaths? Well some did, and these so-called ‘Church Papists’  were just as worrying, like Early Modern Cylons, hiding in plain sight. But, many Catholics could no more stop being Catholic than we could stop believing in gravity. Not only was it integrated into the beliefs and understanding of everyday life, but it defined their community and relationships with family, friends and patrons. To the rich it might be tied into the source of their influence, their kinship network, for the poor it might be the choice of their landlord or master. Survival in Seventeenth Century England was about community, if you happened to be part of the Catholic community then it was  a hard thing to turn your back and walk away, who would be there for you once you did so?

Catholicism has come a long way, but it took a long time. Nowadays the ‘Guy’ on the bonfire no more represents Catholicism on Bonfire Night than Jesus’ resurrection is represented in the chocolate eggs we eat at Easter. But, it is good thing that we remember the origins of 5 November, not just the terrorist plot, but also the context of the wider, largely innocent Catholic community in England in the Seventeenth Century. It’s a lesson in how easy it is to turn on those who are different, those that we don’t understand, and the human capacity to demonise.

If you enjoyed this post please share it, Like it, Tweet it and +1 it below. Failing that print it out and leave it in various public places.

*Yes, yes I know atheism isn’t a faith, but you know what I mean.


2 thoughts on “Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    Right up to the early 1960s we celebrated Guy Fawkes Night will great enthusiasm in Australia. Families with children made a huge fuss, preparing the bon fire, the guy and the fireworks in advance.

    But 25% of the Australian population was Catholic. Irish Catholic before 1939 and Italian Catholic after 1946. Thus it would have been totally inappropriate to celebrate the defeat of Catholic plotters who wanted to change Britain back to its pre-Anglican status.

    Guy Fawkes Night had to be rebranded, at least in Australia. The gang became evil men, working against the stability of parliament and good government, but to what end I never had any idea. In fact it wasn’t until I read history at uni that I discovered the Catholic elements of the plot.

    1. Tom Sykes Post author

      Thanks for the comment, that’s really interesting. I think there is some degree of that in England, the Catholic element is dialled down and it’s more about ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’, but not to the extent that you mention. I certainly remember discussing the religious significance at 12/13 yrs old in school.

      It makes you wonder how September 11 will be taught, or is taught in schools (if it is), in the future.


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