It’s been 400 years, let’s stop burning Guys, guys

Bonfire night is coming up. As the name suggests, alongside the fireworks and sparklers, most people will be celebrating by lighting bonfires. And on top of those bonfires will more than likely be a ‘guy’. 

I’m aware there are larger issues at hand, and at this point, guys are just symbolic rather than actual effigies of Guy Fawkes, but it has always irked me that so many people just blindly spark up bonfires and set alight these ‘guys’ without fully understanding the history behind it all. 

While most with a basic English primary school education will know all about the Gunpowder Plot, I think it’s fair to say that we’re just taught why we burn guys; it’s lumped in with the rest of strange British traditions, rather than led to challenging the reasoning behind burning them. 

I’m doing my dissertation on the plot and something sad struck me while doing some reading. Ambrose Rookwood, another one of the plotters, had some poignant last words. While on the scaffold, and awaiting his punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered, Rookwood confessed that he was not afraid to die – he was only afraid of how people would remember him. He was afraid that history would treat him unkindly, and that his name would be tarnished forever. 

While Rookwood’s name is not as widely remembered as that of Fawkes’, it struck me how true his last words came to be. Very few people know of the extent of the violence committed against Catholics in the period (i.e. the reason why the plot was ever devised at all) and instead, everyone only remembers the evil of the plotters. While the conspiracy was no doubt an act of what we would now term terrorism, the Catholic side of the story is too often brushed under the carpet.

As aforementioned, while guys nowadays are merely symbolic, it’s important that we remember they get their name from a very real person: Guy Fawkes. What makes things even sadder is that contrary to popular belief Fawkes wasn’t even a driving force behind the plot, he was instead a relatively minor figure in the whole thing. Desperate for a person to cast as the main villain in the whole affair, his persecutor Robert Cecil decided on him largely because of his foreign-sounding name.

So, while the plotters were certainly guilty of treason, it’s important that we remember more than just ‘gunpowder treason and plot‘. We owe it to the plotters to remember them as more than just villains and conspirators – arguably they were proto-freedom fighters. Doubtless, they were incredibly desperate men willing to sacrifice everything – as they ultimately did – for what they truly believed to be the greater good. I also see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgotten, but I just ask that we remember it as it actually happened.

Serena Smith

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