On this day in 1605, an angry English Catholic named Guy Fawkes along with a group of other angry English Catholics with other names attempted to blow the House of Lords and King James I to high heaven. The so-called Gunpowder Plot gave birth to centuries of stringent anti-Catholic legislation, an infamous graphic novel with a persecution complex, hactivism, and the abbreviated inquiry “WTF?”
Fawkes was born in 1570 in York, for which he cannot be held responsible. That he began fighting on the side of imperial Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch Republic in the Eighty Years War is a matter of moral culpability. It was not long before Fawkes was in Spain asking King Philip II to aid embattled Catholics in England.
A variety of factors created that embattlement. First there was Henry VIII, who asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry a bunch of other women, but was denied in a tastefully crafted letter that opened, “To whom it may concern.” The pope stood his moral ground, thus denying Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Catherine’s nephew, another excuse to bust up Rome. So Henry named himself head of the church in England, which enabled him to sleep with whomever he wanted, making things very difficult for those who remained loyal to the Bishop of Rome and traditional views of marriage.
Catholics had placed high hopes in the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603. (They had enjoyed a brief respite from persecution under Henry and Catherine’s Catholic daughter Mary Tudor, who did her best to kill as many Protestants as possible, earning her the nickname “Bloody,” after “Chloé” proved a tad precious.) James was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, who was herself daughter of the French Mary of Guise (who was also Queen of Scots—whether the same Scots is unclear, there having been quite a lot of Scots at one time).
Believing that James would at least soften the anti-Catholic laws that had left many adherents of the Old Faith impoverished, imprisoned, or dead, and that had only become more onerous after the Spanish Armada launched, Catholics were soon disappointed. James had no such intention, especially given a clinical paranoia that made King Herod look like a bodhisattva. (To be fair, James had been the object of earlier, failed Catholic conspiracies, called the Bye and Main plots. One of the plans had been to kidnap the king and hold him in the Tower of London until Catholics were granted full toleration, which becomes increasingly difficult to argue for when you’re holding the monarch captive, as there’s only so much antisocial behavior any king can tolerate before someone loses an eye.)
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