Remember, Remember the 5th of November – Catholics, Witches and the Gunpowder Plot…

Currently, the BBC is showing the dramatisation ‘Gunpowder’ , which examines the facts (and gunpow1myths) surrounding Robert Catesby and the other Gunpowder Plotters. The leading role is taken by actor Kit Harrington who, through his mother, is a direct descendant of Robert Catesby.


The question, at the outset, is what exactly persuades a monied Catholic gentleman, with land and connections to risk all in a plot against the King and parliament? The answer is simple; circumstance.
As a child, I remember tripping over ‘Guys’ (clothes stuffed with paper or straw and made to look human) in the streets during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, in my local town. Boys and Girls would collect money, ‘a penny for the guy’ , which would then go towards the purchase of fireworks for November 5th Bonfire Night celebrations.

This, most British of rites, began on November 5th 1605, when a man named Guy Fawkes was arrested whilst guarding explosives placed beneath the Houses of Lords in an attempt to bm_camp-fire_freeassassinate King James I. All but four of his fellow conspirators met their maker whilst being pursued but the King’s men in the ensuing days, however Guy, along with four lesser conspirators was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – the traitors death. In reality Guy Fawkes leapt from the scaffold with the noose about his neck, which was broken instantly. He, at least, was dead by the time the more horrific elements were conducted. To celebrate the plot’s failure, people built and lit fires all over the city, this filtered through the rest of Britain too. Two years later the ‘Observance of the 5th November Act’ created an annual, public day of thanksgiving which, decades later, became ‘Gunpowder Treason Day’ – a name which had distinct Protestant connotation. At that time Protestant preachers delivered sermons, and effigies were burnt, many based on unpopular Catholics at the time.

The custom of building bonfires and burning effigies has been in the UK since 1605, but it also has a more macabre background, set in the darkness of the inquisitional crusades against religious factions, including Catholics and Protestants. The persecution of Catholics in the early Stuart period was reaching a crescendo; priests were being horribly tortured and murdered; almost with the same level of ferocity as the ‘Burning Times’ when so-called Witches were persecuted and hounded unto death. Even Noble families were given the same treatment.
For some bizarre reason, association with ‘The Burning Times’ sells drama – hence (spoiler alert if you not seen this program yet) the execution scene of Robert Catesby’s Aunt. Thismargaret characterbeing very loosely based upon the Yorkshire, Catholic Saint, Margaret Clitherow, one of the 40 martyrs of England and Wales who, at the age of thirty, and pregnant with her forth child, was tortured and finally put to death for harbouring Catholic priests during the later half of the 16th century. The BBC character, however, is blatantly designed to make her look like the classic 17th century witch; wild long grey hair, dirty white shift, blood on face, feet and hands. It is this imagery that sparks the imagination. However, in Margaret’s case, death came within fifteen minutes, and in the following days Queen Elizabeth herself wrote to the people of York, expressing her horror at such treatment. She argued that, as a woman, Margaret should not have been put to death in such a way.

However, many other Women also suffered, not only for their Religion but for their healing abilities and sometimes just because they were ‘different’. Bodies of purported ‘Witches’ have been found in peat bogs all over Europe, heavy weights having been placed upon them- superstition dictating that the witch be pinned into the ground, so as not haunt the tormentors.
For me, the fact that we are constantly reminded of these terrible atrocities against women of healing, power, beauty or wisdom, is most disturbing. However, persecution of Catholics and Protestants was also, let us not forget, an evil. Even today, we are still suffering, and still seeing the results of what happens when dissension in religion gets the better of us. It causes chaos and flames.


If Halloween is the night of the Celtic New Year, of ancestor worship, of feasting before the fast of winter; and of facing death head on, then we could suggest that Bonfire Night (and coincidentally, my birthday) reminds us of why we must always be aware, and careful what we worship and do on Halloween/Samhain, or we may find ourselves in a symbolic ‘Tower of London’ facing various torments too! It could also teach us a more positive message – that when we are about our business, of cunning craft and magic, we spare some of our time to look back into those terrible flames, and call the victims through to us, so that we can honour them today and give them food and drink in our offering to see them find peace.
A condemned witch from early 18th century Scotland was recently exhumed. Having escaped the flames, through death in captivity, her skull formed the basis for a recent reconstruction. Of course, this shows a woman not unlike any one of us today, so, perhaps it would be meet to honour her properly, and help her to become a symbol of the real victims of persecution.

witch scot