One example of how much change and chance we live in

Guy Fawkes was neither the ring leader nor the instigator of the atrocity he was thwarted from concluding. A few readings this evening and I know this little pocket of history a little better.

1605 was a torrid time in European history. Martin Luther and the protestant break from the Catholic church (1517 onwards) was still a major new force of change. The might of the Spanish charge over Catholic Europe facing up to this new threat. The Spanish Armada limping home in 1588 still a recent memory. A recurring revolt from the vassalage of the protestant Netherlands refusing to acknowledge new Spanish suitors in their realm. Uprising, rebellions, and a regularity of revolt facing monarchy of all nations through this time.

If I wished, I could write many more chapters on the wars between Catholics and Protestants. But I won’t. It was a dreadful era.

Ernst Gombrich “A little history of the world” opening line of Chapter 30 – Terrible Times

Confessions to priests was a cleansing of the soul but was it more than just God listening in? In the power games of this era there was fear in both this world and the next. There was paranoia aplenty and every court of every King was a place of high visibility of riches on display, the favours of high office and of church.

In England, Henry VIII had made much of the protestant opportunity. A period thereafter of short-lived reigns and then a strength of a Virgin Queen to whom all England stayed openly intolerant of Catholic practice

A faith divided in Europe

Throughout Queen Elizabeth’s reign, until 1603, Catholics were forced into hiding, enforced conversion, forced into debt, or required to die at the stake for their faith.

Not that Catholic Spain or France were offering more tolerance. We can observe this at much greater scale. The first encounter between the Inca and Spain was in 1532. On 16th November the Conquistador Francisco Pizzaro met the absolute monarch and most powerful leader of the Inca. This was Atahuallpa, a man held to be a sun-god by his people. And these were the most advanced civilisation of the New World. Conquerors or unifiers of all lands they knew. A Conquistador of Spain, meeting the deity of a race.

They met at a Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca. Pizzaro represented the Holy Empire of Spain and led 168 men, in unfamiliar surroundings, and one thousand miles from any support. Atahuallpa was in the middle of his empire of millions of people, accompanied by a war-ready 80,000 troops. Yet within minutes of the first encounter, the Catholic faith had been offered and declined, melee quickly ensued, and with great loss of their Elite men, Atahuallpa was captured and forcibly detained. He was to be held hostage for 6 months until a ransom of gold able to fill a 22ftx11ftx8ft space was paid. Atahuallpa was a sun-god to his people. His capture was a shock to the core of an existence. It was the first time horse or gunpowder had been seen, heard, and keenly felt. With a sun-god imprisoned, the Spanish could insist upon safe passage of scouts to map the wider terrain. The delivery of gold marked the execution of their sun-god. Reinforcements had arrived to drop off more troops and carry away the gold. And Europeans advanced across a new map (Jared Diamond, 2015 pp67 ff).

In these times, we can better understand the motivations of people through their faith. Everything was at stake between European powers. The Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of priests founded by St Ignatius Loyola – 1534 – were Men of high education, high resolve, and zealous in opposing the Reformation. These Jesuits acting by sanctioned authority of the Pope from 1541 and soon at the front line of education in Europe, missionary settlement in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. For the world was now being connected, and Europe was gearing up for new cause in the name of their faith, their Kingdoms, or themselves. To understand the politics of Guy Fawkes, this greater tension and ambition must be known.

Lat Am silver trading for grain

New coin from new world metals were being imported (exploited) from South America, repurposed as coin, and exchanged for foods from a more arable north. A dynamic of trade in a time of intolerance, tensions, fear of starvation, and war.

Food stuffs were being introduced from the new world too. New influences and new reasons to be taking interest in seeking to influence, even more so than what the feudal era had been.

The potato beginning to feed a European population
Spain was dominating Lat Am
British and Dutch protestant settlers

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 sits amidst this wider history. Fireworks representing the 35 kegs of gunpowder retrieved from under the Houses of Westminster. Bonfires are lit with a Guy upon them. Whether we know it or not, what we celebrate was the foil of a terrorist plot. In an age when terror was a weapon of faith, power, and vanquish. This one act, motivated by a persecuted Catholic supporting minority, in one pocket of a much bigger political plot. Two sides made this plot. The reforming others delicately balancing their own powers, that unites behind a feared Catholic ambitions. Ambition to return former outside political influence back to a British (and wider European) set of thrones.

In England, Rome’s excommunication of a Queen’s power (1570) was a formal acknowledgement to which fractures of faith were destined to remain inflamed. A unifying King of England and Scotland anointed in 1603. Power base splits born of a basic choice, as influence and interests at home or in Rome. Add to this the Netherlands breaking from Spain. A European wide 30 Year War not far away (1618-1648). In England a war of three Kingdoms awaited the next King – a King who lost his divinity, his crown, and his head.

These were terrible times to live through indeed.

Not that this era of reformation (of the Western Christian Church) can be considered an isolated incident of power and monotheistic belief colliding with violence. History reflects many such moments. From Roman rise once Christianity found its way in. Or the splits reflected at the Battle of Karbala which was as much about control of tributes as it was a divine hereditary or meritocracy dispute. This has been a reality of life and death since the Axial Revolution.

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions. Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.

Yuval Noah Harari 2011 “Sapiens : A brief history of Humankind” pp243

So what of Guy Fawkes, what now does he represent? If he had succeeded the power vacuum would have been immense. The opposing force of interest at home and abroad ever ready to steer interests their way. But the Gunpowder plot was betrayed from within. Per the London Encyclopaedia 3rd edition 2008, he was betrayed from within a conspiracy party of 30. His original co-conspirators had planned their deed at Hart’s Horn Tavern, Carter Lane, EC4. They were Robert Catesby, Thomas Winwith, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Guy Fawkes (pp365). There is some debate as to who betrayed the plot, but a tight group of five needed to swell to a looser thirty trusted men. Lives of a King, his family of all heirs, a parliamentary elite and the great and the good were saved. On arrest gruesome torture would have awaited at the Lieutenant’s lodgings within the Tower of London (pp929). Guy Fawkes was tried at Westminster Hall – (Parliament Sq. SW1, (pp1011). Executed by hanging, but taken down alive to know of the drawing out of all innards, before being quartered by horses at Old Palace Yard SW1, 1606 (pp601). The four quartered limbs would have been sent to the four corners of Britain. Heads of all conspirators would have been left atop spikes to look upon a London now readying for world-wide change.

If they had succeeded, how different the world may have been.


  • Overy, R. “Complete History of the World : the ultimate work of historical refence” 6th Edition, 2004. The Times, Mapping History. Illustrations pp201-213
  • Yuval Noah Harari “Sapiens : A brief history of Humankind” 2011. Vintage edition 2015, pp243
  • Gombrich, EH. “A little history of the world” 1936. English translation 2008
  • Weinreb, B., Hibbert, C., Keay, J., Keay, J. “The London Encyclopaedia : Completely revised third edition”. ed. 3, 2008 MacMillan London Limited
  • This YouTube video is also worth a watch

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In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

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