York celebrates its famous son (the one who tried to blow up Parliament)

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The Independent Online

This week the city begins a three-month festival to mark Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the House of Parliament in 1605. The city's Guy Fawkes 400 event will explore the way that England's large, disgruntled minority of Catholics spawned a bomb plot.

Included in the city's celebrations are a permanent Guy Fawkes trail and a Plotters' Ball, which is already sold out at Fawkes' old school, St Peter's - where the burning of Fawkes' effigy has always been considered inappropriate.

There will also a concert of 16th-century music entitled "Ye Traitors All" and fireworks by the Derbyshire firm that is said to have made the gunpowder Fawkes planned to set off.

London has been less inclined to "Remember, remember the 5th of November". The House of Commons commission, chaired by the Speaker, Michael Martin, a Catholic, rejected a suggestion for a fireworks display to mark the anniversary, despite an offer from a pyrotechnics firm to put on a privately financed event to supplement an exhibition that is going ahead.

The Commission declared that planning for the exhibition had "been careful to avoid associating the event with any notion of celebration" since "even after 400 years there are sensitivities to be taken into account (and sadly, perhaps especially in today's international climate) so the approach will be dispassionate and educational".

There were also plans to make an ITV programme about the plot, hosted by the Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, in which a full-scale Jacobean House of Lords, filled with crash test dummies to represent those who would have frequented it, was to have been blown sky high. These are on hold. The best London seems to have managed is the small exhibition in the Palace of Westminster and a small display at Shakespeare's Globe in Southwark.

York has always been far more comfortable about Fawkes, whose father, Edward, worked as a notary of the ecclesiastical courts and an advocate of the court of the Archbishop of York and whose mother, Edith, was from the eminent Harrington family, merchants and aldermen of York.

Although the son of middle-class Protestants, Fawkes' conversion to Catholicism is believed to have been influenced by one of his tutors at St Peter's, John Pulleyn. His fellow pupils, among whom were the brothers John and Christopher Wright (later part of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy) may also have played a role. The conversion was cemented when his father died and his mother remarried a Catholic.

He enlisted in the Spanish army and from afar became deeply disillusioned with the way in which the highly materialistic, highly commercial and highly nationalistic culture of his native country was leading further away from the embrace of the Roman Catholicism that represented for him the ideal of heaven on earth.

Fawkes' concern for the plight of Catholics in England led him to seek support for a Spanish invasion of England. This mission failed, but he soon met Thomas Wintour, another fellow conspirator, who may have recruited him as one of the Gunpowder Plotters.

York's events will be supplemented by an exhibition at Coughton Court, near Alcester, Warwickshire, the estate of the the Throckmortons, descendants of Robert Catesby, the bomb plot mastermind. Clare Throckmorton said it was not a celebration of the plot. "They were terrorists, no different to the terrorists we see now," she said. "Most of the Throckmortons did not agree with it."