Friday, November 5, 2010

The Big Bang Theory

Magnet # 386: Westminster Palace

 Material:  Resin

Purchased By:  Debbie

I hope you've remembered this is the 5th of November.  Over in England, that means they're celebrating Guy Fawkes Day.  You've probably heard the story of how Fawkes and a band of thirteen conspirators conspired to perpetrate the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  Their intent was to blow up the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster on November 5th when it was filled with leaders from around the country for the State Opening of Parliament, assassinating King James I, a Protestant ruler, in the process.  They would thereby start a riot and replace the slain ruler with his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who was Catholic.  And it was Guy Fawkes, an ardent Catholic who had once fought for Catholic Spain during the Eighty Years' War, that was chosen to guard their 36 barrels of gunpowder in a space beneath Westminster Palace that had been rented in preparation for the assault.  Unfortunately for him, the authorities received word of the plot and when they searched the structure, they discovered Fawkes with the stockpile.  But the former soldier wasn't going to give up his compatriots easily.  He claimed to be John Johnson and was so direct and unrepentative about his actions that even the king was impressed.  However, he was still tortured until he gave up about half of the men with whom he'd conspired, along with his own name.  The room in the Tower of London where the dark deeds were administered is now known as the "Guy Fawkes Room."  By the time their names were revealed, most of those involved in the Gunpowder Plot had fled and some of them took refuge at the Holbeche House, northwest of London.  But their pursuers found them out and a fight ensued during which several of the conspirators were killed, including Sir Robert Catesby, the actual leader of the band.  Those who were left alive were dragged back to London to face trial.  Over the following months, the rest of the men were hunted down and rounded up.  Among them were several Jesuit priests.  Fawkes and seven others were tried and sentenced to death in January of 1606.  The method that was to be used was a particularly gruesome one - hanged, drawn, and quartered.  Defiant to the end, Fawkes, the last to stand on the scaffold, managed to throw himself off and break his neck.  His early death spared him the horrors of  what was later inflicted on his body as a warning to those who might follow in his footsteps.

Ever since that first night when Fawkes and the gunpowder were discovered, Britain has observed the survival of its monarch with Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Day.  At the inaugural event, the people of London were encouraged to light fires and celebrate that King James had escaped assassination and the Houses of Parliament still stood.  Before the century was over, fireworks were accompanying the bonfires and participants were tossing an effigy of Fawkes on the flames.  But others who have incited the public over the years. like the Pope, Margaret Thatcher, and Paul Kruger, have also been represented by the effigy.  Most often, children create this figure using straw, newspapers, and old clothing.  They also carry it through the streets, asking for a "penny for the guy" that they can use to buy fireworks.  This is a pretty popular event all over the nation.  I talked to a couple of friends who grew up in England and Guy Fawkes Day was an important part of both of their childhoods.  The one who lived in the country said that they prepared their bonfire for months, piling up all of the dead leaves and materials of Autumn.  For the occasion, they had bangers, or English hot dogs, while the fire blazed.  And when the flames rose to their highest, they cheered and hurled their guy on the fire.  She said she always felt bad for the figure, not wanting to burn it.  And she's not alone in her sympathy.  To some, Guy Fawkes has become a sort of folk hero for standing against the government, and there are those who wear his masks, like the vigilante hero in the comic book story V for Vendetta, which was later turned into a movie.  Of course, it's worth keeping in mind that if the Catholic sympathizer had gotten his way, countless innocents would have perished in an explosion that would have easily flattened Westminster Palace and nearby buildings.  Some might draw parallels between him and the 9/11 conspirators.  Still, the legend of Fawkes clearly has an influence on our modern culture.  Even now, when the Queen makes her annual trip to Westminster Palace for the State Opening of Parliament, the cellars of the structure are searched by the Yeoman Guard, according to tradition.  But despite Fawkes and his fellow conspirators' best efforts - and the later Great Fire of London - this centuries-old meeting place still stands.  It's one of the most recognizable landmarks in all of Europe and has been the site of events ranging from assassination and attacks to the passing of legislation bringing about equality and freedom.  And the British government, well-aware of the threats this structure might face, is diligent in watching over it, doing its best to ensure that it will stand tall for many years to come.

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