On Celebrating Terrorism

From the pleasant company of children and the elderly sharing life Camelot style (last week’s blog) to the dark side of celebrating the life and actions of a religious terrorist organization.

I’m thinking of November 5, 1605; the day Guy Fawkes – a Roman Catholic zealot – was arrested as he prepared to light a fuse leading to 36 barrels of gunpowder placed to destroy the English Parliament and kill the Protestant king who was scheduled to visit parliament that day.

Fawkes was arrested in the early morning hours and refused to answer any questions until King James, the first King of a united England and Scotland, authorized interrogators to use persuasive torture “gradually proceeding to the worst.” In the 1600s that would have been “the rack,” a feared machine designed to stretch arms and legs to dislocation and beyond. Fawkes resisted for two days before naming 12 Roman Catholic co-conspirators.

With the 13 zealots jailed, King James, with enthusiastic support from politicians who had just escaped ugly assassination, called for a celebration. The population was asked to light bonfires and set off a few minor fireworks but to make sure “that this testimony of joy be carefully done without any danger or disorder.” Before the first anniversary rolled, around November 5 was declared an annual national holiday by a formal Act of Parliament, a day on which the people should give thanks for such a “joyful day of deliverance.” It became compulsory to celebrate – or become a suspected terrorist.

Guy Fawkes Day remains a holiday in the UK and “bonfire night” has become a major tourist attraction in London and other high tourist centres. One of the bonfires is expecting a crowd of 30,000 this year. Traditionally, an effigy of Fawkes is tossed on the fire, although some Protestant-organized burns have torched a replica pope or two.

Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night is also still celebrated in New Zealand, Canada (Newfoundland, Ontario and British Columbia). However, it would seem that the celebration is diminishing in interest as Halloween, celebrated three days earlier and, once a children’s trick or treat event, has been taken over by adults and expanded. On Vancouver Island, Nanaimo maintains old and newer traditions with backyard bonfires on Oct. 31 – Halloween and November 5.

Nanaimo Fire Department posted its annual warning for bonfire lovers a few days ago: “Two fires means two fire permits – and be careful with the fireworks.” In Australia, Guy Fawkes Day stayed a big event until the 1970s when a spate of firework injuries and dangerous fires saw the government ban all sales and public use of fireworks. Without the blaze and bang, Guy Fawkes is now unknown Down Under.

It remains a wonderment to me that Fawkes is still kept “alive” by annual bonfires, mini-explosions and joyful celebration. He and his companions were found guilty of everything we profess to deplore: treachery and killing in the name of God. The gunpowder plot was organized to kill a Protestant king and many other innocents within range of the explosion. The would-be killers were religious fanatics who regarded any and all Protestants as mortal enemies to be converted or killed; and they brought unbelievable suffering to their law-abiding brother and sister Roman Catholics who found themselves suddenly banned by revenge-driven Protestants from practicing law, holding officer rank in the military or voting in local or national elections. It would be more than 200 years before the right to vote was restored.

Robert Catesby was the mastermind of the terrorist group. Fawkes just drew the job of igniting the fuse leading to 36 barrels of gun powder. When arrested, he was carrying a slow fuse and a rare pocket watch to time the main fuse lighting.

Eight of the plotters, including Fawkes, were brought to trial in January 1606 and quickly found guilty of treason by Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham. Each of the condemned was to be placed “with his head near the ground” and dragged by a horse to the place of execution. There he would be forced to climb a high ladder from which he would be pushed to hang “halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both” until by court order genitals were cut off and “burned before their eyes” and “while still living” their bowels and heart removed.

Decapitation followed with the remains left “prey for the birds of the air.” The bodies were then “quartered” and sent for public display to all corners of the kingdom. Fawkes jumped or fell from the ladder breaking his neck in the fall thus avoiding the agony and despair of the final mutilations. He was still quartered his body parts distributed around the country, a warning for all would-be terrorist

Some 492 years later on Nov 5, millions in Great Britain and thousands of ex-Brits around the world will again celebrate “the joyful day of deliverance” with bonfires and bangs and maybe a mulled glass of wine or two. A few might wonder about the tragedy of it all and have another drink.

After all it was a long time ago and why spoil a good party.


  1. I’ve always felt that religious fanatics lack confidence in the rightness of their cause and the virtue of their faith. A true believer would leave it to God in the next world to sort out and punish the infidels and blasphemers; there should be no need to destroy them here. But yet they do.

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