BLANKLEY: “Remember, remember the 5th of November!”

Letter submitted by John Blankley

Our local election this year fell on November 5th, and by the time you read this the date will have come and gone and the more than usually contentious last few weeks will be behind us. We will have new selectmen, a new BET and a new BOE and we’ll all be breathing a sigh of relief. Campaigns are all consuming for the candidates and can be tiresome for voters – I should know, having participated in both roles!

I’d like to dwell however on the date of the 5th of November because it has special resonance for those, like me, of English heritage. I cannot let the coincidence of the election date and what happened on that day, just over 400 years ago, go by without sharing a little history and hopefully thereby enabling us all to count our blessings that we live in more tolerant times in this special haven, our hometown of Greenwich.

So on November 5th 1605 a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament was foiled. Had it succeeded the entire political leadership of the country would have been decapitated and English and indeed world history would surely have been radically different. At issue was the catholic versus the protestant version of Christianity. The plotters aimed to reverse the protestant Reformation started by Luther and its English manifestation, the Anglican church founded by Henry VIII.

This religious strife consumed all of Europe. Over ten thousand protestants (the Huguenots) were slaughtered in Paris on what is known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. Many thousands more were killed in the Netherlands in the decades before and after that and a war broke out in the German principalities, called the Thirty Years War, that only ended in 1648.

In England, Queen Mary, a catholic, had thousands of protestants burned at the stake in the 1550’s, for their “heresy,” until Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne and an uncertain peace prevailed, though repression of catholics and execution of catholic priests continued during her reign.  Elizabeth was succeeded by King James (yes, he of the magnificent King James bible.) James however was a protestant and this excited a group of catholic plotters who planted barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament. But they were betrayed and captured and, as was the way for treason at the time, hanged, drawn and quartered; no prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in those days. In fact, “cruel and unusual” was the point!

To commemorate all of this, bonfires were lit all across the country, a tradition that continues to this day. November 5th is known in England as Guy Fawkes Night, named after one of the plotters and celebrated in a poem about “the season of gunpowder, treason and plot.” Fireworks are set off and a catholic “guy” (a stuffed puppet) is thrown on the bonfire.

In the long catalogue of conflict and carnage in the history of man this is but one small incident but its anniversary fell this year on Election Day and inspired me to tell the tale.

Our national discourse is of course nothing like as “incendiary” as that in England in the early 17th century but still distressingly divisive. Maybe I can be allowed to hope that here in Greenwich at least we will be able to return to former levels of civility; and to help along the way I say: “remember, remember the 5th of November.”