Sat, Nov 05, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Catholic terrorists attack London!

Guy Fawke's gunpowder plot 400 years ago has a resonance to contemporary terrorism for some people



Even by the standards of today's global terrorism, it was a bold and brazen act: sneaking 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament and blowing England's power elite to smithereens.

Tonight, the night sky across Britain will be alive with bonfires and pyrotechnics for the 400th anniversary of the gunpowder plot -- an unofficial holiday better known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day.

Comparisons with the July 7 attacks in London, in which 52 subway and bus commuters were killed by four apparent Islamist suicide bombers in the deadliest act of terrorism ever on British soil, may perhaps be inevitable.

Enduring, however, will be the popular fascination with Fawkes and his co-conspirators, drawn from a then-repressed Catholic minority who apparently felt that the nation, by embracing Protestantism, was treading the wrong path.

More than 50,000 people have already visited a gunpowder plot exhibition since it opened in July in the Gothic parliament buildings on the banks of the River Thames -- ground zero for the blast that might have been.

"Obviously there is a resonance [to contemporary terrorism], but we'd rather like people to come to their own conclusions," said the exhibition's project manager David Prior.

Other commemorations are underway at the Tower of London, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Archives (where Fawkes' signed confession is on display) and the Shakespearean Globe theater.

In a turn unthinkable for the likes of Osama bin Laden or the Irish Republican Army, the Museum of London is holding a day-long study today titled: "Understanding Guy Fawkes."

In southeast England, meanwhile, huge crowds are once again expected in the sleepy town of Lewes, East Sussex for Britain's biggest Nov. 5 gathering, a night of bonfires, fireworks, effigies and residual anti-Papist motifs.

Exactly how the gunpowder plot was cooked up is a fact lost in the haze of time, according to a fact sheet helpfully provided by the House of Commons information office on its Web site (

"Generations of historians accepted it as a genuine last desperate attempt to re-establish the Catholic religion," although another theory is that the plotters were actually agents provocateur aiming to discredit Catholics and reinforce Protestantism, it said.

One way or another, Fawkes and his original gang of four co-conspirators -- the numbers grew in time, making it harder to keep secrecy -- decided in 1604 to blow up parliament on Nov. 5, 1605, the day of its state opening.

The king would be there, along with his heir apparent, and every member of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The 36 barrels of gunpowder, big and small, were smuggled into a coal room beneath the parliament leased by one of the conspirators, and the plan was for army veteran Fawkes to light the fuses and then skedaddle to mainland Europe.

The official version is that a Catholic peer got a timely tip off, prompting a midnight search in which Fawkes was cornered in the basement with his deadly pile of barrels hidden under black coal.

While all the conspirators were rounded up, Londoners rejoiced on the streets at the plot's failure.

The scene turned gruesome in subsequent months as Fawkes and his cohorts, in the fashion of the day, were tried, tortured, disemboweled alive, then hanged and quartered for treason.

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