Returning to the Flames of Hate: Bonfire Night, Terrorism and British Memories of Religious Persecution by Justin Champion

As I watched an episode of Question Time on the BBC last week (26 October 2017), the uncanny and disconcerting frisson between past and present was too pressing to ignore. Members of the audience were demanding a response to the question of how the British state ought to handle the problem of IS fighters returning to the UK from the Middle East. The issue was raised in the light of a government minister suggesting that such people should be killed without hesitation. The audience and panel responses were split between those who simply agreed with the draconian policy of state sanctioned murder, and those who defended the British tradition of the rule of law, human rights, and trial by due process. The latter, more restrained position was countered by demands for a reinvigoration of treason legislation to deal with those militants who were also British citizens. One panellist pointed out that the British state had just as much responsibility for garnering intelligence from returning combatants, as for ensuring that no further threats to security, anywhere in the world, were imminent. The programme, which aired less than ten days before 5 November, and thus came to viewers in the same week as BBC’s Gunpowder and various documentaries about the Elizabethan deep state, resonated profoundly with me as an early modern historian.

The language of fanaticism, holy violence and conspiracy, used to demand a more reactionary security policy today, has echoed down the centuries from its birth in the post-Reformation wars of religion. Historical accounts of antichristian plots against the British Isles, whether from Spanish Jesuits, or in contemporary times from IS ‘death cults’ use the same narratives to justify extraordinary punishments as a response to alien threats. Whether hanging, drawing and quartering Roman Catholic priests for their illegal allegiance to a foreign Papacy, or unleashing American drones on brainwashed fanatics in Raqqa, the legitimations for the mobilisation of state violence against these perceived enemies within does not seem to have changed much over the centuries, although technology has made the ethics of usage more complicated. Killing those who are convinced they have a religious duty to kill others, whether they pose a direct danger or not, is regarded somehow as a sensible, efficient and morally acceptable policy in the name of ‘security’. This approach fails, however, to understand the motivations and psychological motors of such dissidence.

Execution of the Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, German Engraving 1605, Nat. Portrait Gallery

Commemorations of past events in which the perceived enemies of the state were put to death can potentially fan the flames of hatred embedded deep in modern memory. Of course, this unthinking mobilisation of historical memory ignores the nuance of the debates undertaken in the past. Many 17th century minds came to believe that persecution of tender conscience, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant or sectarian, was a troubling and dangerous policy. Indulgence would make peaceable citizens out of those tolerated, whereas persecution and penal laws would breed hostility and perhaps eventually destructive resistance. Tolerance, forbearance and freedom, some believed, would bring economic advantage and a deeper respect for order. The outcomes of such a policy of state indulgence might enable a more profound collective understanding of how subscription to varieties of religious truth could combine to produce a communal and cosmopolitan culture. The potential result would be the emergence of a civil religion for the 21st century, which recognised and even celebrated religious difference rather than stigmatising and penalising that natural human diversity. But where do we start to achieve this sort of historical reflection on contemporary problems?

Some years ago, not long after the London bombings, I was invited to comment on the persisting commemorative moment of bonfire night, having just been involved in the publication of a collection of essays on the subject. The substance of the article is reproduced below, with some expansion and reflections upon more recent representations of the persecution Roman Catholic communities faced in the early modern British Isles. We’ve been treated to a spate of historical and drama documentaries on the period of late, most notably BBC’s Gunpowder, which has attracted mixed responses from historians, but also productions such as Elizabeth I Secret agents (Monday 23 October 2017, 9.00pm-10.00pm, BBC TWO), which explored the Queen and her spymaster servant William Cecil’s attempts to prevent acts of conspiracy and terror.

In broad terms, my Guardian comment, received positive responses, including a supportive message from a young Muslim woman who felt it had offered a useful perspective for the contemporary experience of oppression suffered by stigmatised and innocent communities after acts of atrocity and terror. Yet the piece also elicited a number of highly aggressive and critical replies from individuals in Spain and the US condemning my sympathetic support for the experience of Roman Catholics in British culture: ‘Was I in favour of the inquisition?’, or a Francoist?, were questions posed by the anonymous posters. Such readers seem to have been clearly incapable of distinguishing between historical analysis and personal and contemporary commitments. The wilful misunderstanding of both the historical tradition, and my perspective, was striking indeed, but it confirmed my belief that the contemporary world is only too ready to make political capital out of miss-readings of the past. Commemoration is always a political act, especially when condoned by the establishment. Bonfire night festivities are not simply an excuse for setting off fireworks, bobbing apples, or burning garden refuse (often at the cost of killing hibernating tortoises and hedgehogs): they also marginalise those who are not invited, or are excluded by their own religious or philosophical commitments. The commonplace comment that most people have no idea of the historical origins and tradition is not a good enough excuse to ignore those potential resonances in others’ minds.

The recent drama documentaries will conjure up those dormant historical memories for many who watch them. Indeed, there has been condemnation for their representations of violent executions and torture, and formal complaints have been directed to the BBC. Yet one only needs to spend a little time in the seventeenth century to understand that corporal and capital punishment was routine, and indeed in some cases a festive moment for communities, reinforcing their collective identities against the imminent threats of invasion and tyranny.

The suffering of the victims of the July bombings and more recent atrocities in Manchester, London and elsewhere poses an historical question of how such events might be commemorated in an appropriate way in decades to come. Given the British predilection for bonfires, one can imagine that commemoration might be folded into the Guy Fawkes moment, with the burning of effigies of the bombers, identified by backpacks, or, even more unfortunately, representations of stereotypical bearded Islamists. Such commemorative displays would draw a line between one part of the community and the stigmatised minority. Thankfully, given the attempts to build bridges within communities in Manchester and London, we might have a reasonable optimism that no such bonfires will be kindled, although the rising influence of post-Brexit culture of open bigotry and racism could potentially feed a poison into public events. Although bonfires have been a persistent feature of our culture every November since 1605, and with new commercial developments the possibility of it being adapted to new circumstances remains on the cards.

Despite the popular view that bonfire night is a harmless, festive occasion, it is in fact a despicable relic of a culture that commended, in the name of Christian duty, the persecution of religious minorities, the burning of witches and the ritual desecration of suicides. A supposed celebration of the immolation of an individual became a political device exploited by successive governments in the name of national security.

The tenacity of the ritual in the 21st century is for many (even today) a residual act of anti-Catholic hatred, which reveals the Protestant foundations of modern political culture in the UK. The 1701 Act of Settlement established the British constitutional monarchy as a Protestant regime. William III, as the decorations on Hampton Court display, was a Protestant Hercules cleansing the British state of the filth of popery. The fact that the Williamite invasion was timed to coincide with Bonfire night was no accident. Protestant communities in Northern Ireland have reinvented historical memory, with the marching season and the communal activities that recall the defiance of the Apprentice Boys at the Siege of Derry. Few among the broader public on the “mainland” would acknowledge that, from the perspective of theRoman Catholic minority in England, bonfire night may have had as much oppressive force as the militaristic marching of the Orange Order. We might be invited to remember, remember – but, it seems, not too much.

Procession of the Martyrs’ Crosses in Lewes on Bonfire Night

Guy Fawkes’ night is a celebration of torture and execution. It might also be remembered that Roman Catholic communities, both in Ireland and in Britain, have borne the brunt of paramilitary and judicial punishment, just as Muslim communities are being subjected to abuse and hate crimes today. By placing the memory of such atrocity at the forefront of our mind’s eye, it may be possible to recognise that Fawkes’ end is a strange act to remember. In our pluralist age, we are encouraged to exercise tolerance for other faiths, but there are moments when the bare bones of earlier ages puncture the fabric of modernity. There are also lessons to be learnt about the effectiveness of a policy of persecution and oppression. The ‘Troubles’ were fed by these historical moments, and the fears generated by the Irish Rebellion of 1641. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (published first in 1570, but frequently reprinted into the nineteenth century) provide images of Papist atrocity to reinforce commonplace antipathy to the Roman antichrist.

Bonfire night is, to many, a prompt to memories of persecution, punishment and martyrdom. As good citizens merrily set fire to effigies of Guido Fawkes, they might usefully pause to consider the suffering that Catholic communities in England, Scotland and Ireland experienced over the past four centuries. English Protestant society was until fairly recently a persecuting culture. In the name of defending Protestant liberties, the freedoms of Catholic minorities were sacrificed. Sound familiar? Just substitute “democratic” for “Protestant” and “Muslim” for “Catholic”.

Recently, watching footage of the bonfire societies in Lewes on 5 November – masked figures marching in procession, carrying burning crosses – a black US based visitor remarked how uncomfortable it made him feel; was this the Ku Klux Klan in Sussex? It’s a difficult point, but one that every minority ought to ask itself: how long does it take before such rituals are safely emptied of their significance? As recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere in the US confirm, these symbols, rituals and public expressions still carry hateful contemporary meaning. While some may claim that 400 years is long enough for the brutal meaning of bonfire night to become a harmless bit of fun; but will the burning crosses or burning victims ever lose their cultural virulence? It’s difficult to approve of a world in which so much pain and injustice could be forgotten.


Justin Champion is Emeritus Professor of early modern ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London.



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