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England's dark intrigue

The history of 17th century terrorism can be traced from London north.

November 02, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

London — London

ON Guy Fawkes Day, bonfires crackle and leap all over England. Children inveigle passersby for small change, chanting, "Remember, remember, the 5th of November." Scarecrows stuffed to resemble the most hated man of the hour are tossed on the pyre.

This public exorcism of demons has been celebrated in England for almost 400 years but, like Halloween's in the United States, its meaning has been obscured by the smoky glass of time. Guy Fawkes was a traitor whose capture on the night of Nov. 4 or early on Nov. 5, 1605, saved England from rebellion and regicide. This bloody red-letter event in English history foreshadowed such contemporary tragedies as Sept. 11.

British historian Lady Antonia Fraser told the tale of terrorism and religious persecution that came to a head on that dark night in English history in "The Gunpowder Plot: Terror & Faith in 1605," which I read in little more than a sitting when it was published seven years ago. Then, last summer, I took the book with me to England and used it as a Baedecker guidebook to see where the plotters -- dashing Renaissance gentlemen all -- made their plans and were thwarted, interrogated, tortured, tried and executed for treason.

I grew up thinking British history was the greatest story ever told though, admittedly, only a hard-core Anglophile would go to England specifically to follow such a seemingly obscure historical yarn as the gunpowder treason. But could I win your forbearance by mentioning that Shakespeare wrote about the conspiracy in "Macbeth" and may have known the plotters? That such popular sites as the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey can be freshly appreciated for the roles they played in the plot? That those who venture miles north of London to Warwickshire, where most of the plotters lived, are met with some of the finest Tudor manors in the land and the English countryside at its bucolic best?

So hie we hence to London, a city greatly changed since the early 17th century. The old palace of Westminster, in the heart of the city, home of English kings, was almost destroyed by fire in 1834, replaced with a new palace, commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. This noble neo-Gothic edifice, profusely decorated with statues and heraldic panels, stretching 872 feet along the embankment of the River Thames, is a London icon, of course. Britons can tour the complex year-round, by arrangement with their members of Parliament; tourists who want to see inside must visit in July, August, September or October, when tickets are required.

Gunpowder plot enthusiasts must see Westminster, at least from the outside. If you stand by the equestrian statue of Richard the Lion-Hearted on the western facade, you will be near the coal cellar where Guy Fawkes amassed 36 barrels of gunpowder, intending to blow up the House of Lords when the peers of the realm and King James I attended State Opening day in 1605.

An anonymous letter shown to Secretary of State Robert Cecil alerted the government in time; the cellar was searched and Fawkes was arrested, followed by the apprehension or death of the other plotters during a wild chase through Warwickshire. Among the traditions that arose from the event are Guy Fawkes Day and the ritual search for explosives at Westminster by Yeomen of the Guard every year on the opening of Parliament.

More echoes of the plot can be heard by those with summer opening tour tickets, especially in the House of Lords, where the explosion would have rained terror on assembled peers, commoners and sovereign. In a glass case outside is a relic of the conspiracy, pages from the Nov. 5, 1605, Commons Journal, with margin notes recording the discovery of Fawkes by the fuse in the cellar.

At the end of the tour, visitors pass through Westminster Hall, one of the only parts of the medieval palace to survive the 19th century fire. Angels carved at the buttresses of its massive wooden ceiling beams have witnessed a long chain of solemn occasions, including the trials of eight gunpowder plotters, seven of whom pleaded not guilty, despite evidence and confessions -- given under torture, many historians say -- to the contrary.

Four centuries after the fact, it's hard to imagine how deeply England was shaken by the gunpowder treason. In "Witches and Jesuits," a study of references to the plot in the text of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," author Garry Wills suggests an analogy: "Imagine America in the 1950s, and suppose that a communist cell -- made up of Americans acting under foreign direction -- has planted a nuclear device under the United States Capitol ... timed to go off when the president is addressing both houses of Congress." Perhaps the best parallel is Sept. 11, when a cadre of terrorists plotted an act against innocents that, unfortunately, was not foiled.

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