The perfect Guy: cloak, whiskers, bomb

What exactly are we celebrating as we gather round our bonfires on 5 November? Murrough O'Brien looks at three new books about the Gunpowder Plotters and attempts to sift plain fact from enjoyable mythology
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The Independent Culture

It's impossible, having read these books, to avoid the conclusion that the history of the Gunpowder Plot has been dominated by some rather tangential questions: "Who were the plotters behind the plotters?"; "What would have happened had the plot succeeded?"; "Why has the festival survived?". In order: there weren't any to speak of, or at least, not nearly as many as the Jacobean government feared; the plot couldn't have succeeded, and even if it had, the political status of Catholics would have got much worse; well, everyone likes a bonfire, and if you've got someone to stick on top of it, that's even better. The central question, rather, must be: what on earth possessed the plotters?

In Remember Remember the Fifth of November (Profile £15.99), James Sharpe gives us a sturdy analysis of the plot itself (though there's not enough about the plotters), of how the custom of celebrating its defeat developed, and of the future prospects of the Fifth given the encroachment of Hallowe'en. Wistful talk about ancient Celtic ceremonies are given their just quietus: the Fifth was celebrated with the greatest ardour in the old Saxon heartlands of the south and east. He shows how the Pope gave way to Guy Fawkes as the prime candidate for burning in a period when the "catholic threat" was finally recognised as a chimera. But, you could argue, he was always destined to be the totemic figure of the movement. Boil away the Pope (who condemned the plot), the king of Spain (who had nothing to do with it), Robert Catesby, brave but poisoned by self-regard and callousness, and the distillation takes you to Fawkes. He was not, like Catesby, the man with the plan, but he had the huge advantage of being the man on the ground. And he was dashing, fearless, even principled in his way; in his trajectory from whiskered desperado to rack-broken victim he became the prototype of the antihero most dear to the Victorians, the dashing anarchist, complete with moustache, cloak and bomb.

James Travers's Gunpowder: the Players behind the Plot (National Archives £19.99) is much more sprightly. Its two central conceits, that there were other "players", in both senses, and that the plot became a vehicle for dramatic dissent, are happily discarded. Though Travers has a weakness for infesting his sentences with "schemed", "plotted", malcontents", "complex and shifting", and the gushing like, he makes some fascinating points. The plotters were plotting against a government of plotters. James I himself never lost the habit of writing in code. The strictly religious aims of the conspirators were often hijacked by more proximate issues of personal pique: Thomas Percy, for example, was carried away by the thought of his role as courier between his cousin, the earl of Northumberland and the then James VI. In all these books James remains the most truly mysterious figure. It is hard to believe that he was motivated just by expediency in promising so much to English Catholics, or that it was the same expediency in repose that made him renege on those promises. Travers has an extremely deft turn of phrase. Ben Jonson was "a consistent victim of Stuart patronage"; discussing Bacon's endlessly ingratiating treatises, Travers observes that the subtext was probably: "Get me a proper job close to the centre of power... or I shall write more of this stuff and dedicate it to you." Most importantly, Travers addresses the question of the plotters' motives. At first sight, it seems rather odd that this quixotic band of gentleman rebels should take up the baton of rebellion where their more harrassed co-religionists, whether aristocratic or humble, preferred to lie low. In fact, their position in the middle gave them more freedom to be fanatics.

Gunpowder Plots: A celebration of 400 years of Bonfire Night (Allen Lane £14.99) is a collection of musings upon the significance of the plot. The quality of the responses varies widely. David Cressy furnishes us with an excellent overview of the fortunes of Bonfire Night. The government moved swiftly to enshrine 5 November as a religious holiday, even as the people of London were already lighting bonfires in celebration. Later, Royalists and Parliamentarians fought over the festival's significance (the latter won). The anti-Catholic emphasis was kept artificially alive by the constant threat of a Jacobite revival in the early 18th century. With the Hanoverians it seemed that the Fifth might dwindle into courtly irrelevance, and then came the Gordon riots. For a festival which might appear to be the straightforward celebration of the victory of one particular party, Bonfire Night has proved remarkably susceptible to the blandishments of mutually antagonistic interests.

An essay by Justin Champion on the essential divisiveness of the festival would have been more stirring had its author not allowed his rage to be choked be fatty platitudes: a phrase like "Its presence in modern culture is unacceptable" is "unacceptable" in any culture - or context. Similarly, Antonia Fraser's erudite and imaginative counterfactual speculation of an English ruling class sobered into tolerance by the successful conclusion of the plot left me baffled and unconvinced. Mike Jay's account of the rites of Bonfire Night as practised in Lewes is a real treat. The bonfire societies range from the Cliffe, with their unapologetic "No Popery" banner, burning crosses and burning popes, to the groups celebrating the victory of female suffrage or the joys of PVC. Authority is mocked even as the most vicious reaction is celebrated.

In one way - though happily not the one intended - the plot succeeded, for it enshrined a strangely Catholic festival in the heart of protestant England. Quite apart from the fires and the effigies, the Fifth is a relic in the oldest sense: its magic is only intrinsic in the eyes of believers, like wafers which can turn to flesh with the ringing of a bell.

To buy any of the books mentioned above, each with £1 discount and free p&p, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897