Tonight Is Guy Fawkes Night by Barbara Ardinger

Mark Twain is reported to have said that while history does not repeat itself, it often rhymes. Let’s see what rhymes we can find in Tudor and Jacobean England and Trumpean America. Here’s the history lesson. What has changed in 400 years?

After about a thousand years of Roman Catholicism in the British Isles (with a few thrusts toward reform, like the 14th century theologian John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into medieval English), it is Henry VIII who is usually given credit for “reforming” the English church, i.e., declaring his independence from the Roman church and the pope in 1534. While Henry still called himself a good Catholic (and even condemned Martin Luther), it was the Tudors and their advisors that thrust a militant and puritanical Protestantism on the people.

The Tudor dynasty, which lasted just over a century, began with the victory of Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII) over Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485. (Shakespeare turned Richard’s story into a Tudor propaganda play. In real life, Richard was a good king.) Henry’s second son, Henry VIII, was a tyrant who is best known today for his six wives. He was also more interested in luxury (in his day synonymous with vice) and self-aggrandizement than anything else.

Henry married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, whose proudest accomplishments were driving the Muslims and Jews out of Spain, establishing the Spanish Inquisition, and financing Columbus’ expedition to “discover” the New World. Catherine gave birth to a daughter and several still-born sons, but what Henry demanded was a live male heir. (The last English queen—actually a “Female King”—was Maud, the daughter of Henry I and wife of the Holy Roman Emperor. When her cousin Stephen claimed the throne—mainly because he was male—in 1139, there was a civil war. The English throne went to Henry II, Maud’s son and a tyrant who kept Eleanor of Aquitaine imprisoned for two decades.) As we know, after divorcing Catherine, Henry married Anne Boleyn, whose daughter grew up to be Elizabeth I. Henry finally got his son from his third wife, Jane Seymour. This was Edward VI, a sickly boy who occupied the throne from age nine to age fifteen. He was a fanatical Protestant teenager surrounded by fanatical advisers. His reign was filled with social, economic, and religious strife.

Edward was followed by his older sister, Mary I, who was highly educated and cultured. (I recommend The First Queen of England by Linda Porter.) But because she was Catholic, the Protestant propaganda machine turned her into “Bloody Mary.”

Then came Henry’s second child, Elizabeth, whose all-consuming interest was self-preservation. (Well, yes, she also enjoyed the theater.) We remember her best for her fabulous clothes and her speech to the the navy before it went out to defend against the Spanish Armada, but Elizabethan England was actually a police state with everybody spying on everybody else and mandated attendance at Protestant churches. Elizabeth’s spies were everywhere.

Because Elizabeth did not name an heir before she died in 1603, the son of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. took the throne as James I, the first Stuart monarch of England. A great-great grandson of Henry VII, James was a scholar who wrote a book titled Daemonologie (which is one reason Shakespeare wrote Macbeth). James also united England and Scotland, authorized the Authorized Version of the Bible, and kept his kingdom out of the Thirty Years War that was devastating Germany and much of central Europe—Catholics versus Protestants, everybody versus the Jews, and a universal excuse for misogyny and witch hunts throughout Europe.

After Catholicism was outlawed in England by Henry VIII, those who clung to the Old Religion went underground. They hid altars and traveling priests in secret rooms in their houses. Many of these priests were either illegal aliens or Englishmen who had studied in Catholic lands and were smuggled back home. When arrested, they and their supporters were tortured and executed.

Some members of the Catholic gentry also turned to terrorism. They blew things up. Guy Fawkes, who had fought against the Spanish, was recruited into a London cell by a gentleman who was planning to assassinate James. On November 3 or 4, 1605, the members of this Catholic terror cell planted kegs full of gunpowder in  the basement of the Parliament. Their goal was to blow up the entire government and kill the king. Guy was assigned to guard the gunpowder, but someone sent an anonymous letter to the authorities, and on the night of November 4-5, he was discovered, then arrested, tortured, and hanged. (Fortunately for him, the hanging broke his neck, so when they mutilated his body, he was already dead.)

The event immediately became known as the Gunpowder Plot, and that very night, Londoners began lighting commemorative bonfires. November 5 became a holiday, and they soon began lighting fireworks and hanging Guy (or the pope) in effigy. But the 19th century turned Guy into a sort of romantic superhero. Someone said he was “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions,” and in 1841 he became the hero first of a sentimental novel, then of penny dreadfuls. Today the so-called Guy Fawkes mask has become an icon of rebellion and anarchy.

What are the historical “rhymes” here? Terrorists blowing things up in the name of an alien religion. Illegal aliens. Tyrannical rulers more interested in themselves than in their subjects. What else do you see?


Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (, is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Categories: Christianity, Family, General, Herstory, holiday, Power relations, Reform

Tags: , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Wow this is a view of that period I didn’t know.

    Remember, remember,
    the 8th of November.
    Hatred, Lies, and Russian Plot,
    and now look at what we have got.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. “Remembering” should help us to refrain from making the same mistakes, but in the dominant culture no one appears to be capable of learning anything. Instead, we re-enact atrocities ad nauseum.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sara, you’re right. When we’re dealing with the long, long, long history of white male privilege, how can we women help but remember? How can men in power help but forget history and keep perpetuating their privilege? Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I just read Susan Hawthorne’s “Dark Matter’s” which addresses this problem of women forgetting (remember the 53 percent of the women who voted for T – they FORGOT) in the most visceral way. A book like this can help women remember… but for those of us that do how do we continue to stand what we know. I confess, that I have days when I simply cannot tolerate knowing what i do.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks for this essay, Barbara, bringing to life something I was only vaguely aware of. Would have passed right over the NYTImes piece today had you not brought all this to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent history lesson, Barbara. A good corrective view of Elizabethan England. I love Carol’s rhyme!


  5. Yes, we generally have a highly romanticized view of Tudor England, especially the reign of Elizabeth. I held that romanticized view when I first started studying the literature. A bit later, I decided it would be useful to read some history to put the plays by Shakespeare, Jonson, et al. in context. A very good book is The Tudors by G.J. Meyer (2010). The subtitle tells it all: “The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty.” It’s very useful to know something about history.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, suppose it helps that Elizabeth was on the throne and alive long enough to have some control over her legacy while it counted. Yeah, I always wondered how glossed over things were regarding her reign. I heard that she apparently ordered more tortures than any other monarch of the era, too. Anyhoo, I’m gonna have to look that book up now…wow. Thanks for the heads up–I’m a sucker for a good book.


  6. Great piece Barbara. Thank you.


  7. And the odd thing is that he’s treated as a folk hero by some. In York, where my mother’s cousin lives, they have a landmark for his birthplace, a pub named after him, and yes, even a landmark for where he went to church! It’s insane!


  8. A great reminder, Barbara, thank you! Another important piece to all this history is that all the religious strife is the background to our own separation of church and state. It was, I believe, this European history that showed the creators of our Constitution that when religion, especially religious fanaticism, is joined with the power of the state, you can end up with endless violence and so they must be kept separate. In my own state of Massachusetts, before the Constitution, we had, of course, the Salem witch hysteria, but also the state sanctioned executions of Quakers.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You always have a wonderful point of view and take on any topic. This is an interesting point of view and certainly fills in information which most people wouldn’t know. Thank you for this lovely piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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