Losing the plot. Four hundred years ago, Catholic conspirators gathered in dark Westminster cellars, preparing to assassinate the king and parliament. Robert Winder on why we should remember them

God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's forbidden priests and the hatching of the gunpowder plot

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It now seems almost inevitable that, some day soon, a furious gang of religious extremists, their imaginations stunted by an excess of faith, will carry out a lethal terrorist attack on a famous London landmark. If this comes to pass, it will no doubt be presented as unprecedented devilry, the malignant intrusion of a foreign creed. But religious terrorism is nothing new, and once again, in a tradition stretching back over four centuries, the country will crunch toffee apples and ooh-aah at fireworks in memory of Guy Fawkes's failed attempt to blow up the king and parliament in November 1605.

Modern historians have cast many aspersions on the classic children's story - the swarthy papist plotter caught red-handed in the cellars at night, followed by the ghoulish torture and execution of the ringleaders. Conspiracy theories abound: what if it was the king and his chief minister who staged - and dramatically uncovered - the plot, to strengthen their anti-Catholic regime? The truth is that it was probably a joint venture: there was a plot, but the king milked it for all it was worth, and was happy to unleash a wave of cruel Romophobia across the land.

Fawkes (alias John Johnson) was the frontman of a group of Catholic desperadoes furious at the failure of James I to halt the bitter persecution they had suffered since Elizabethan times. The plotters, led by Robert Catesby (a landed aristocrat), felt - like today's terrorists no doubt feel - that they had been left, as the saying goes, with no other option. A single terrific blow that knocked out England's ruling elite would restore Rome to its proper place in the national life.

There is nothing wrong with Antonia Fraser's account of the gunpowder plot (Faith and Treason, 1996), to mention only one of several extant works. But this anniversary year has inspired a neat quartet of additional titles. Of these, the most telling - given our present preoccupation with religious bombers - may be Alice Hogge's God's Secret Agents, an exciting account of the Catholic resistance in England under Elizabeth. She does not labour the point, but as her purposeful Jesuits steal across the country on the sly, whispering false names in the shadows, they resemble nothing so much as a 16th-century al-Qaeda cell.

It is possible to see them in quite another light - as doomed heroes of the resistance. One of them, Nicholas Owen, was the pioneering architect of the so-called priest holes, the concealed compartments that hid Catholic clerics in stately homes, and which are today one of the highlights of National Trust Britain.

As always, what actually happened is not the same as what later generations imagine. History is not the past; it is the story we tell ourselves about the past. And Guy Fawkes, as the seven contributors to Gunpowder Plots: a celebration of 400 years of bonfire night demonstrate, has proved explosive material for myth-makers. He has been relentlessly used to celebrate the Anglican supremacy, and may also lie close to the heart of the British preference for the underdog: he is one of the most celebrated Englishmen, yet he was an abject failure. His death has been re-enacted a million times, most fervently in Lewes, East Sussex, the capital of English pyromania, but all over the country too - except at St Peter's School in Leeds, where it has always been thought unseemly to burn an old boy.

James Sharpe, professor of history at the University of York, is also a local boy, and his suggestive remembrance of bonfires past, Remember Remember, is even dedicated to Guy. From the word go, the defeat of the gunpowder plot was seen as a triumph over the murderous heretics in Spain and Rome. Like the "divine wind" that saw off the Armada, it proved that God was an Englishman. Sharpe traces the way Fawkes continued to represent sublime deliverance throughout the 17th century, before going underground after the Restoration (when dancing on his grave was, for a while, banned). William III's birthday (4 November) overshadowed Fawkes for another generation, but eventually he was reinvented as a pantomime villain on the Victorian stage. And however hard the authorities tried to suppress the public nuisance of mobs burning effigies of "Guy Faux", the popular festival slowly became entrenched again. In the late 20th century, it became the nearest thing to a communal national get-together, the nearest thing to harmless fun, on offer.

None of it would have been possible without gunpowder, and Clive Ponting has put together a concise and effective history of the stuff. Europeans have long imagined that nothing of value could ever have been invented in any other part of the world, but Ponting describes the birth of the explosive mixture in China, where alchemists first mixed saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal, and probably lost a few fingers in the process. To begin with it was medicinal - good for "hot epidemic fevers" (such as medieval avian flu, perhaps) - and festive, in fireworks. But it was soon used as a weapon, and the Chinese invented many early rockets with wonderful names - the nine ox-jar battery, the flying cloud thunderclap eruptor.

At this time (around 800 AD), Europe was the most primitive place in Eurasia; it was the Islamic world that had the organisation and education to develop gunpowder further. When the Ottoman sultan sacked Constantinople in 1453, he began by bombarding it with cannons, Somme-style, for six weeks. But Europe caught on fast. It was gunpowder in the muskets that conquered Africa, the Americas and India. Yet though we celebrate it in name, gunpowder is almost extinct, having been supplanted by more dangerous explosives: dynamite, gelignite, TNT and the full range of modern horror-compounds. It isn't even the only fire in a firework. Gunpowder is orange; for the brilliant whites, blues and reds, magnesium, copper and strontium nitrate are needed.

Bonfire night might be on its last legs, too. An ungainly marriage between modern safety regulations and insurance guidelines has dampened the fiery and anarchic quality of the occasion, reducing it to a tame, do-not-cross-the-rope routine. The appetite for spontaneous fun and mischief has migrated to Hallowe'en, which lacks the thrill and gravitas of Guy Fawkes night, but does insist that children be let off the leash for the evening. The thrill of bright flames dancing across faces in the dark, sugar on the tongue, burning sparks showering up into the cold night sky - these may soon be memories. These books are a gallant attempt to make us gunpowder-literate, but these days no one wants a penny for the Guy; indeed, as one sign I passed a year ago said, we are quite capable of requesting a penny for the Gay.

On the other hand, the urge to meet round a fire as the winter darkness falls is a profound one, and may not be easy to banish. On 7 November 1605, one letter writer observed that London had celebrated the plot's failure with "as great a store of bonfires as ever I think was seen". Four hundred years on, the pulse still quickens. Stand back! Light the touchpaper, and retire!

Robert Winder is the author of Bloody Foreigners: the story of immigration to Britain (Abacus)