Saturday November 5, 2005
Four hundred years ago today, in 1605, the Gunpowder Plot was averted, miscreants brought to the fearsome justice of the age and a massive disruption to English history avoided. Goodness only knows how many lives were saved not just in the planned explosion but in the armed struggles that would have resulted as a new King was selected and brought to the throne.
Shortly afterwards, November the Fifth was declared to be a day of national thankfulness, with sermons to be preached on that day in churches up and down the land. King James, along with his personal cruelty and corruption, went on to stimulate the creation of the Authorized version of the Bible, still a jolly good read, and the creation of the United Kingdom, bringing the crowns of Scotland and England together and, along with Wales and Ireland, forming the political concept of Britain. Religious and national strife wasn’t ended there and then, but a path towards peace and unity in these troubled islands was created along which we still fumble our way.
Fair enough. Guy Fawks was a baddie. His co-conspirators were baddies. The baddies in power won, and the baddies out of power lost. History was written, then cleaned up and re-written to shove the nasty side into the background where it could conveniently be forgot. Now, four hundred years later, we go out into the garden each November the Fifth, light a bonfire, burn an effigy, set off some fireworks and enjoy baked potatoes and mulled wine, with seldom a thought for what actually happened.
The thing is, history isn’t clean, and you can’t conveniently forget the nasty side. The evidence used in the prosecutions was gained by torture. Confessions were extracted and signed on the rack, and used in the place of truth. Consequently, we’ll never know the real truth.
I regret that. I know that a contributive factor was occasioned by a King who, fighting an unpopular and protracted war, needed to raise revenue for his armies and was prepared to do the most unsupportably vile things to get it. Torture, secrecy and oppressive legislation were part of the tool kit he used to pursue his ends.
We’re supposed to learn from history, using it as a mirror on our own times and our own affairs.
It works, after a fashion. Not so sure about the ‘learn’ bit, though. When you see direct parallels between historic torture, secrecy and oppressive legislation writ large on the world stage today, with the CIA flying unknown prisoners from secret location to secret location around the globe so they may be interrogated and confessions extracted out of sight and beyond the law, it’s difficult to believe we’ve learned much at all, and easy to believe the worst. That’s the problem with secrecy. What you are prevented from knowing of current events you tend to fill in with what you do know from history. The names may have changed but I’m not so sure we’re doing any better at the job of protecting the innocent.
Uncomfortable thing, history.