James Sharpe : Why the Gunpowder Plot Is Still Relevant

Roundup: Talking About History

[James Sharpe is professor of history at the University of York. His latest book is Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.]

... Some thirty years ago I was stopped in the street by a young girl who asked me for a penny for the Guy, the “Guy” being a fairly basic effigy she had propped against a nearby wall. I replied, jokingly, that I wouldn’t give her anything as I had been baptised a Catholic. “What’s that got to do with it?”, she asked. The old rhyme exhorts us to “Remember, remember the Fifth of November”, but some fundamentals about the Gunpowder Plot had clearly been forgotten – or never learned – in this urchin’s cultural milieu. This year, with the media attention which the anniversary has been afforded in Britain, there may be a heightened awareness of the story of what happened in 1605. But despite Guy Fawkes’s status as an iconic figure, one doubts if most of those attending bonfires on 5 November will have much idea of the origins of Bonfire Night.

Does this matter? I would argue that it does. Britain (and I guess much the same will be true of other western countries) is becoming an historically illiterate nation. History ought to be something which addresses complexities, forces us to examine uncomfortable topics (and hence encourage us to ask uncomfortable questions about ourselves), helps hone our critical edge as we confront modern political issues, and gives our culture depth and maturity.

But for most people such contact with the past as they experience comes through what the anarchist writer Colin Ward (in a 1985 review of a seminal book by the cultural historian Patrick Wright, On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain) called the “heritage industry”.

This flourishing industry – unkindly, but not totally inaccurately, described as “history through dressing up” – is evident in a proliferating number of television programmes where presenters frequently see themselves as more important than the topic in question, through popular biographies of monarchs or members of the upper classes, and through the superficial retelling of familiar stories using modern gizmos that function more to distract than to educate and inspire curiosity.

The Gunpowder Plot is one of those episodes from the past which, despite its chronological distance, helps us hone that critical edge, and makes us aware that history – real history, not the saccharine or formulaic pap that constitutes so much of its popular and media presentation – ought to be put back on the agenda as a focus of social concern. Contemporary events and processes in Britain underline that history is directly relevant to far more than those with a professional interest in the subject.

The 1605 plot happened, after all, because extremist members of a religious faith felt that the political system they lived under was so oppressive that it needed to be overturned. This is, presumably, what motivated the suicide-bombers who struck in London on 7 July 2005. We inhabit a culture where, for most people, there is little place either for a strong religious faith or for ideological politics more generally. This is why acts of terror (whether the July bombings, 9/11, or the IRA bombings in several English cities in the last three decades) seem so incomprehensible. If nothing else, the history of the Gunpowder Plot provides a shortcut to understanding a world where people were willing to die, and kill, for their religious faith. ...

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