Monday, September 11, 2006

Remember, Remember: November 5, 1605

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Ever should be forgot.
I know I'm not the first person to draw this parallel, but whenever I come across contemporary references to the Fifth of November--Guy Fawkes Day, the Gunpowder Plot, the Powder Treason, or the Popish Plot, as you prefer--I'm always struck by how similar the official rhetoric used to describe that particular terrorist event is to that used by our own officials to describe September 11th. Indeed, although the popular Early Modern analogue for George W. Bush is Charles I, I think that in some ways James VI and I makes a more instructive comparison.

In the first speech that King James gave before Parliament after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, he takes full (and unjustified) credit for uncovering and stopping the plot:

For as I ever did hold Suspition to be the sicknes of a Tyrant, so was I so farre upon the other extremity, as I rather contemed all advertisements, or apprehensions of practices. And yet now at this time was I so farre contrary to my selfe, as when the Letter was shewed to me by my Secretary, wherein a generall obscure advertisement was given of some dangerous blow at this time, I did upon the instant interpret and apprehend some darke phrases therein, contrary to the ordinary Grammer construction of them, (and in an other sort then I am sure any Divine or Lawyer in any Universitie would have taken them) to be meant by this horrible forme of blowing us up all by Powder; And thereupon ordered that search to be made, whereby the matter was discovered, and the man apprehended: whereas if I had apprehended or interpreted it to any other sort of danger, no worldly provision or prevention could have made us escape our utter destruction. (Nov. 9, 1605; Political Writings, ed. Sommerville, p. 150)

He's a great reader and puzzle-solver, is James, and if he hadn't understood the "obscure" meaning of that letter, then King, Parliament, and all would have been blown sky-high.

More typical is this passage from the second edition of Triplici Nodo (1609), James's defense of the oath of allegiance that was to be administered to Catholics suspected of being disloyal:
The never ynough wondered at and abhorred POWDER-TREASON . . . being not onely intended against me and my Posteritie, but even against the whole house of Parliament, plotted onely by Papists, and they only led thereto by a preposterous zeale for the advanceme[n]t of their Religion. . . . And soone after, it being discovered, that a great number of my Popish Subjects of all rankes and sexes . . . had a confused notion and an obscure knowledge, that some great thing was to bee done in that Parliament for the weale of the Church; although, for secrecies cause, they were not acquainted with the particulars. . . . Some of the principall Jesuites likewise being found guilty of the foreknowledge of the Treason it selfe . . . . If this treason now, clad with these circumstances, did not minister a just occasion to that Parliament-house, whom they thought to have destroyed, courageously and zealously at their next sitting downe, to use all meanes of triall, whether any more of that mind were yet left in the Countrey; I leave it to you to judge . . . .This Oath of Allegiance, so unjustly impugned, was then devised and enacted. And in case any sharper Lawes were then made against the Papists, that were not obedient to the former Lawes of the Countrey; if yee will consider the Time, Place, and Persons, it will bee thought no wonder, seeing that occasion did so justly exasperate them to make severer Lawes then otherwise they would have done. The Time, I say, being the very next setting downe of the Parliament, after the discovery of that abominable Treason: the Place being the same, where they should all have beene blowen up, and so bringing it freshly to their memorie againe: the Persons being the very Parliament men whom they thought to have destroyed. And yet so farre hath both my heart and government beene from any bitternes, as almost never one of those sharpe affitions to the former Lawes have ever yet beene put into execution. (STC 14401)
The way that James keeps reminding his audience of their personal peril--right here! In this place! all of us! an abominable treason!--to excuse the laws that were made (and which were not, anyway, as repressive as they might have been, given the circumstances), well. . . it all sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?

It doesn't stop in 1609, either: James refers to the Gunpowder Plot in later speeches, always reminding his auditors and readers of the danger they were in; how providential their deliverance was; and how they don't seem to appreciate that he's just looking after the safety and the best interests of the nation.

November 5th is also a popular subject in sermons. Even in 1622, 17 long years later, the subject is still topical enough (albeit for somewhat different reasons, including the proposed match between Prince Charles and the Spanish Infanta) that John Donne delivers a sermon of commemoration which he begins with a prayer that the entire country may always have before its eyes the memory of that day, and never let Catholicism retake England. Although the sermon is laced with the usual anti-Catholic rhetoric, its real aim isn't to whip up prejudices (or at least no more than is useful), but rather to condemn those who, for whatever reason, would so much as speak ill of their king, much less think of rebelling against him. It's a brilliant move, actually--one that manages to play to religious bigotry while simultaneously forestalling any rebellion that might result from that bigotry--but it's hardly Donne's most attractive moment. (Sermons, ed. Potter & Simpson, vol. 4, sermon 9.)

I'm sure that 11/5 isn't the only historical event with parallels to 9/11, but it's the one I know best.

5 comments:

phd me said...

Very interesting, Flavia. I think historical parallels have much to tell us and this one...well...it says a lot.

kfluff said...

You'll have to excuse the less-historically minded, Flavia, but have you seen or read "V for Vendetta"? If I remember correctly, it begins with the same verse you cite, and makes precisely the same comparison: beware the propaganda springing from treasonous plots--only it works, I think, to *remind* us of the ways that governments like to use these examples (or "whip up prejudices" as you say) for control over the populace.

Flavia said...

KFluff: I haven't read or seen "V," but I'm sure you're right that it begins with that nursery rhyme--as I understand, the plot revolves around a latter-day, would-be Guy Fawkes (the mask he wears is actually a Guy Fawkes mask).

I really should see that movie. GWB is a fan of the graphic novel, and we're both interested in aspects of what might be broadly considered political theatre. . . okay, now we totally have to go rent it!

Holly said...

Nice mini lecture on 11/5 - very informative. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Just a reminder to your reading audience that 11/5 underwent a change in meaning over the course of the 17th century. The early Whigs changed it into an anti-Stuart ritual, an annual reminder to the monarch of what might come his way if he sought to overextend his power.

Stick to your guns, folks.

From the belly of the beast,
GWB