Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Guy Fawkes, Empire, and the Scapegoat.

Today will be my first proper "Guy Fawkes Night" here in the United Kingdom. Having recently moved to the UK from Canada, I have the unique opportunity to experience a holiday as an 'outsider looking in' on a cultural norm. I find the whole day quite fascinating to say the least. Guy Fawkes Night features fireworks, celebrations, and a large blazing Bonfire - that may or may not feature a effigy of none other than Guy Fawkes. 

Guy Fawkes Night occurs every year on the 5th of November. The holiday is a celebration of the foiling of (Catholic) Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up (Protestant controlled) England's House of Parliament on November 5th, 1605. An effigy of Guy Fawkes (or the Pope) is burned on bonfires across England in recognition of his part in the failed 'Gunpowder Plot of 1605'. 

This popular poem captures the tradition and story of Guy Fawkes Day:

 The Fifth of November English Folk Verse (c.1870)
 Remember, remember! 
    The fifth of November, 
    The Gunpowder treason and plot; 
    I know of no reason 
    Why the Gunpowder treason 
    Should ever be forgot! 
    Guy Fawkes and his companions 
    Did the scheme contrive, 
    To blow the King and Parliament 
    All up alive. 
    Threescore barrels, laid below, 
    To prove old England's overthrow. 
    But, by God's providence, him they catch, 
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match! 
    A stick and a stake 
    For King James's sake! 
    If you won't give me one, 
    I'll take two, 
    The better for me, 
    And the worse for you. 
    A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, 
    A penn'orth of cheese to choke him, 
    A pint of beer to wash it down, 
    And a jolly good fire to burn him. 
    Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! 
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! 
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

What I found particularly interesting while reading up on this odd holiday, was the discovery that Guy Fawkes had a very small part to play in the Gunpowder plot. Guy Fawkes was, in actuality, was just the man who was caught red handed. Fawkes’ notoriety results from his discovery on scene and his confession under torture which indirectly led to the deaths of the other conspirators. 

The roots of the dissension, that I believe led to the 'Gunpowder Plot of 1605' began seventy-one years earlier during the establishment of the Church of England. King Henry VIII founded the Church of England in 1534 when parliament declared that the King was the supreme head of the church. King Henry VIII needed to establish an English church because he wanted a divorce. The Papacy, based in Rome, would not grant the divorce to the English King. Henry VIII decided to bypass Rome and declared himself as the head of the church. This in turn allowed Henry VIII grant himself the divorce. The move strengthened the economy of England. King Henry VIII no longer was required to send monetary contributions to Rome in support of the Papacy. The money was now redirected to the benefit of England. In addition to no longer paying Rome, all Catholic cathedrals, monasteries, parishes, and church properties now became incorporated to the State. It would be no small understatement to suggest that this created a strong rift between practicing Catholics and the State. This began a long feud between Catholics and Protestants in England. The tension was not helped by the reign of  Mary, Queen of Scots -who tried to reestablish Catholicism, or the failed invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588- which was an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Queen Elisabeth I.

Catholics were pushed further to the margins when Queen Elisabeth I  made it law for all public and religious officers to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of Church and State. Catholics felt hopeful when the throne fell to the Protestant James I, Elisabeth’s second cousin twice removed. Catholics were hopeful for King James the First, as his own wife was said to have converted to Catholicism. Yet despite their hopes, freedom of worship for Catholics in England continued to be a constant dilemma, to which change was not happening fast enough. James was distrusted in Continental Europe for the perceived continued repression of the Catholics. Governmentally, the Privy Council was pushing James to show even less tolerance towards the Catholics. One such legislation that continued under James' rule was the fining and taxation of Catholics who refused to attend services in their local Anglican parish.

This all culminated in the'Gunpowder Plot' of 1605. The hope of expanded freedoms for Catholics was diminishing with each passing day of King James’ rule. This led to conspiracy. The Gunpowder Plot was masterminded by three men: Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, and John Wright, with several others such as Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes added after the original three had tried and failed to win the support of King Phillip III of Spain and Pope Clement VIII to engage in military action against England.

The plot, on that fateful night of November the fourth, was to position 34 barrels of gunpowder under the Parliament buildings with the intension to detonate the following day with none other than King Henry present. Fawkes, whose role it was to guard the gunpowder once in position, was arrested after intercepted anonymous correspondence was shown to the King only five days prior. Fawkes was discovered in the cellars underneath Parliament early on the morning of the 5th of November. Guy Fawkes had with him a dimly lit lantern, a pocket watch and matches. Guy was a relatively small person in the conspiracy. Fawkes’ has become a household name because of his discovery on scene and his confession under torture which indirectly led to the deaths of the other conspirators. 

In reaction to the Gunpowder plot, Parliament put forward the “Observance of November 5th Act 1605″, which was passed the following January.  Guy Fawkes was the scapegoat for the plot and the other actors in the story: his co-conspirators, the tyrannical Protestant establishment, the peacible Catholics who refused to engage in violent uprising, are largely ignored in popular retellings of the story. The reaction to the Gunpowder Plot strengthened the resolve to continue Catholic persecution; particularly in the form of the "Popish Recusants Act 1605". The Act forbade Roman Catholics from practising the professions of law and medicine and from acting as a guardian or trustee; and it allowed magistrates to search their houses for arms. The Act also provided a new oath of allegiance, which denied the power of the Pope to depose monarchs. The recusant was to be fined £60 or to forfeit two-thirds of his land if he did not receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper at least once a year in his Church of England parish church.The Act also made it high treason to obey the authority of Rome rather than the King.

Guy Fawkes Night reminds me of the power of Empire and of Scapegoating. There was a mimetic crisis brewing in the socio-political climate of England. A tension had been brewing on a international and national level towards the English persecution of Catholics and the weakened state of the monarchy. There was a mimetic desire for the ring of power- one sides desire to maintain it, and another's desire for it. It appears to me that Guy Fawkes and his associates could be placed in the category of Scapegoats and victims of Empire. Their failed rebellion and subsequent execution provided an offered victim- to which strengthened the identity of the nation state and justified the continued persecution of Catholics by the Protestants. Michael Hardin summarizes Scapegoating beautifully in his book "the Jesus Driven Life":

"No one wants to be a scapegoat; it is not exactly an office for which one runs. Yet… human culture, whether religious or ‘secular’, needs its scapegoats in order to function as a community. There is no human community without victims. We define ourselves less by who we are than by who we are not."

Why make a spectacle out of the perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot ? Could they not have been put on trial and subsequently forgotten? Why ritually enact the burning effigies of Guy Fawkes and the Pope? Why did Protestant ministers openly preach sermons to denounce all seditious practices against King and country? Why did Catholics in England continue to suffer persecution for another two hundred years? 

I believe that a 'Girardian Lens" is helpful to understanding the deep reasons for why there is such a thing as "Guy Fawkes Night". Michael Hardin explains: 

"The victim, randomly chosen (or seemingly so), is placed under collective guilt. The channeling of mimetic fury to the death of the victim is the act which empowers all other social bonds. The unity of the community arises only in connection with the surrogate victim. A marvelous exchange has occurred. The mimetic woes that had plagued the community are (temporarily) washed away and peace has occurred through the ritual enactment of death. As the community cannot take the blame for its own blindness and superstition and so must blame the victim before they can justify killing the victim, even so, the benefits that accrue are attributed to the victim. In short, the victim is given divinity. A differentiation has occurred between the victim and the rest of the community. The victim is thus the origin of transcendence." 

Could it be possible that the reasons behind 'the reason' for Guy Fawkes Day are deeper than a mere celebration of a foiled plot? What if society needs the sacralization of the victim? Did not the failed rebellion of Guy Fawkes give the country a resolve to nationalism? Of all the English victories to celebrate, why the day of November the 5th? Why is there no 'Spanish Armada Day'? Why is there no "Magna Carta day'?  Perhaps, because the most dangerous perceived enemy is one who threatens our societal constructs? 

My suspicion is that 'Guy Fawkes Night' or as it was originally called, "Gunpowder Treason Day", contributed to the firm establishment of an English identity - both nationalistic and religious- above a formerly interconnected Roman-Euro-centric identity. A nation rejoices in a surrogate victim that provides a momentary uniting force. Social order was temporarily restored as people are satisfied that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual(s), BUT, as Girard makes clear, the cycle will begin again. (Perhaps this is what contributed to the English Interregnum?) 

So what about Guy Fawkes Night's meaning to us today? Do we still scapegoat(s)? Do we still seek identity crisis resolution through blame and accusation? Surely, us 'modern' people have moved past all that petty scapegoating and rivalry. Or have we? In 2012 the BBC's Tom de Castella concluded:

"It's probably not a case of Bonfire Night will ever decline, but rather a shift in priorities ... there are new trends in the bonfire ritual. Guy Fawkes masks have proved popular and some of the more quirky bonfire societies have replaced the Guy with effigies of celebrities in the news – including Lance Armstrong and Mario Balotelli – and even politicians. The emphasis has moved. The bonfire with a Guy on top – indeed the whole story of the Gunpowder Plot – has been marginalised. But the spectacle remains."
I leave you with these words from Rene Girard's seminal work, Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World. Thanks for reading. 

“Culture does not proceed directly from the reconciliation that follows victimage; rather, it is from the double imperative of prohibition and ritual, which means that the entire community is unified in order to avoid falling back into the crisis, and thus orients itself on the model – and the anti-model – which the crisis and its resolution now constitute. To understand human culture it is necessary to concede that only the damming of mimetic forces by means of the prohibition and the diversion of these forces in the direction of ritual are capable of spreading and perpetuating the reconciliatory effect of the surrogate victim. Religion is nothing other than this immense effort to keep the peace. The sacred is violence, but if religious man worships violence it is only insofar as the worship of violence is supposed to bring peace; religion is entirely concerned with peace, but the means it has of bringing it about are never free of sacrificial violence.” 


  1. Great analysis Paul. Question for you. In your opinion, what do you think are the most prominent examples of the scapegoat mechanism currently operating in western culture?

  2. A recent example was the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Throughout the U.S.A. people poured into the streets and celebrated openly that, "the world was now a better place". It didn't last long.

    I might suggest that at the heart of racist actions is the scapegoating mechanism. We choose to believe that the "other" is the reason for the problems in the world. It's exactly the tactic that Hitler's propaganda machine utilized against the Jewish people.

    Others have suggested that the scapegoating mechanism can be found in the death penalty. While we don't deny that those on death row are often guilty of terrible crimes, execution still has a kind of sacrificial aspect about it. Instead of dealing with the violence we have toward each other, society channels the violence on murderers in an attempt to wipe our hands clean of the violence that pervades our society. We think that if we can only get rid of the “evil people” like those convicted of rape or murder, then our society will be less violent and generally more good. Those we execute become scapegoats for our society.