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21 October 2017updated 06 Sep 2021 2:55pm

The Gunpowder Plot’s influence on Britain goes far beyond BBC TV series or fireworks

Kit Harington's performance may capture the drama, but not the significance, of arguably the UK's first terror attack.

By Rebecca Rideal

It was 6pm on Wednesday 5 November 1673, and thousands of Londoners flooded towards Poultry market. Led by a procession of hundreds of torches, the crowd followed an effigy of the Whore of Babylon.

The life-like model had been arranged by the apprentices of the city and was adorned “with all the Whorish Ornaments” one would expect for such an occasion: in one hand, it held a chain of catholic beads; in the other, a cross and a set of keys. The keys, one onlooker believed, represented those used by Guy Fawkes to access the cellars beneath the House of Lords almost 70 years earlier. This was, of course, Bonfire Night and like the effigies of other religious, political and cultural hate-figures in years to come, the Whore of Babylon was there to burn.

Tonight, the BBC is set to revisit the event that sparked the curious tradition of Bonfire Night with its new three-part drama, Gunpowder. The series stars Kit Harington as mastermind Robert Catesby and follows the infamous group of Catholic recusants who plotted to blow up parliament, overthrow King James VI & I, and install the king’s young daughter on the throne instead.

Early reports suggest that Gunpowder does not shy away from showing all the gory details of the incident, and it will doubtless make gripping television. What the series cannot show, however, is the most significant feature of the Gunpowder Plot – its profound legacy.

Colonialism and warfare aside, in terms of our national story (if such a thing exists), the Gunpowder Plot is perhaps second only to the break with Rome as the most important isolated event in early modern British history. It occurred during the vanguard of printed news and spawned, as the historian Robert Appelbaum asserts, “journalistic accounts, memoirs, sermons, fictionalisations, allegorisations, lyric poems, political and philosophical meditations”. Not only did it set a model for later plots, intrigues and perceived attacks, but it also entrenched the fear of the home-grown “other”, motivated centuries of catholic persecution and injected a heady dose of nationalism into the Protestant state religion. Indeed, as Mark Kishlansky has argued, anti-Catholic propaganda was “an essential element in the making of Protestant England”.

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Almost immediately after it had occurred, the Gunpowder Plot formed the backbone of anti-Catholic rhetoric. In popular imagination, it cemented the connection between Catholicism and Hellfire. It was woven into propaganda during the Civil Wars of the 1640s; the Great Fire of London was believed to be the plot come true; the 1688 invasion of the protestant William III began on 5 November; the Gordon Riots of 1780 rested on the premise of a Catholic insurgence; and when discriminatory laws against Catholics were repealed in 1850, it was to the Gunpowder Plot writers went for comment.

Of course, there had been religious atrocities before 1605 and Protestants had an easy guide to some of them thanks to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Yet, the symbolic nature of Catesby’s plot – the total destruction of parliament – seemed to defy convention. Dumbfounded contemporaries saw no precedent and, as the historian Peter C. Herman has noted, they felt that “something new had entered the world, a type of political violence that had never before existed: we call it ‘terrorism’”. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, King James was described as being “in terror”, not daring to eat in public and surrounding himself with Scottish rather than English guards. Sir Thomas Edmondes spoke of the plot having “no example in no ages” and William Barlow declared it to be “a Treason without Parallel”.

Yet, whether it really was terrorism, in the modern sense, is still very much debated. It wasn’t until the final years of the 18th century that “terrorist” emerged as a distinct term in English. Therefore, any application to previous periods is fraught with difficulty. That said, the paradigm put forward by the historian Randall D. Law offers a potential model to measure historic incidents. To him, terrorism needs three things: the perpetrator, the act itself and the reaction to the act from the perpetrator’s target (in state terrorism this is usually the population at large, in anti-state terrorism this is usually those in power). In this sense, terrorism is a form of violent performative and symbolic communication whereby the incident, victims and damage serve as a conduit to the ultimate target. Here lies the problem with the Gunpowder Plot. The anti-state attack was designed to skip the middle man and go straight to those in power. The intention was not to send a message (or invoke terror), it was to completely overthrow the status quo. If successful, it would have resulted in a revolution.

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However, because the plot was foiled, its symbolism took on a greater importance, which served to push the incident, and certainly its mythology, into Randall D. Law’s paradigm of terrorism. The failed plot became a message and that message became terror. In this sense, it can be seen as the starting point for a long tradition of political, religious and ideological groups using terror as weapon to antagonise the state – from nineteenth-century anarchists and early twentieth-century suffragettes to more recent attacks and atrocities.

Returning to the Plot. Part of its enduring appeal has been its mutability. Over the centuries, it has been all things to all people. During the 18th century the 5 November grew to become a day of subversion, associated with revelry and disorder – a far cry from the aims of the Plot’s originators. Over the years, Guy Fawkes has been depicted as a demonic figure in pamphlets, burned in effigy on Bonfire Night and, more recently, regenerated into an anti-hero: in films like V for Vendetta, during protests such as the Million Mask March and as the symbol of the hacking group Anonymous.

Perhaps, with social media and 24-hour news tracking the devastation wrought by modern terrorist attacks, it is right that we reassess the Gunpowder Plotters once again. By placing Robert Catesby, rather than Guy Fawkes, at the heart of the story, the BBC looks set to offer a fresh take for a new generation.

Celebrating Bonfire Night is no longer entrenched in law but – just as the witness to the 1673 burning of the Whore of Babylon remarked – it seems after 400 years: “The memory of that never forgotten day, is [still] carefully transmitted from the Elder to the Younger”.