Yesterday, my son was learning all about Bonfire Night at school. He happily came home and told me all about Guy Fawkes wanting to blow up the Houses of Parliament and how he was particularly keen to see King James killed and replaced. He was quite shocked (which doesn’t say much for our home or church teaching programmes) to find that we are Protestant Christians of the very kind Fawkes and his co-conspirators wished to remove from England altogether.
Bonfire Night has fallen out of favour and isn’t quite so widely celebrated. Perhaps it is because it follows, if you’ll pardon the pun, hot on the heels of Halloween. Perhaps it is what it remembers and celebrates. I recall getting in trouble at school for flippantly greeting some friends with a cheery ‘happy Catholic Burning Night.’ But, flippant or otherwise, that is effectively what is going on. Apparently dressing up as serial killers and extorting sweets from grannies at Halloween is just harmless fun while the foiling of a terrorist plot that secured the freedoms that we take for granted is just beyond the pale. We live in strange times.
To be fair, I am sympathetic to those Catholics who would rather not appear to celebrate one of their own being burned to death. But it should be noted that many Catholics, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, still think the tradition worth remembering. Because, of course, Bonfire Night isn’t really about remembering Guy Fawkes being burnt in a fire (not least because that’s not how he was killed!) It is about the foiling of a plot that would have removed many of the freedoms that had been hard won and we enjoy today.
Students of history will tell you that Catholic rule in this country doesn’t have a happy track record. Whilst those who favour Catholic rule will inevitably pushback that plenty of Protestants were not exactly pacifistic, it does bear noting that Elizabeth’s reign was a lot less bloody than that of her Catholic half-sister. It is also worth noting that only a few decades later, despite how it was often billed, Cromwell’s protectorate offered a lot of protection and tolerance for all kinds of Protestant, rather than just Anglicans as Charles II advocated. But it was, interestingly, only the Baptists – particularly in this tract of 1615 – who argued for religious toleration for all (including Catholics). It wasn’t until the 1680s that their case was widely accepted by the Anglican Ascendancy.
It is interesting to note that the British values that secularists are keen to tell us formed in a vacuum, having nothing whatsoever to do with religious beliefs, actually owe their existence to Protestantism. The values are not so much British values as Protestant ones. They did not develop under Catholicism – either here or in Europe – but came to the fore under Protestant rule. It is possible to argue that Cromwell saw the value of religious toleration because his New Model Army was filled with the dissenters who had so suffered at the hands of Catholic and Anglican elites. It is interesting that ‘as early as 1641… [Cromwell] was wanting to know why the Scots were so intolerant in their demands for Presbyterianism’ (source: Evangelical Times). It seems only the Baptists and Independents – who never came close to ascendancy – favoured toleration for all. But Cromwell was an advocate for such toleration and the position soon won out within Protestantism at large.
The reason why it is worth our while remembering Bonfire Night is because it is a potent reminder of the importance of our hard won rights. The ability to hold whatever religious views we like and to receive a level of toleration for our views owe their existence to the fact that the gunpowder plot was foiled. We are not revelling in the death of Catholics so much as the foiling of a plot that would have led to Catholic rule, subservience to a foreign papal authority and a clear rejection of many of the rights we take for granted.
I, for one, think that it worth remembering.