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Guy Fawkes Day.

November 5, 2007

Please to remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot. This was a chant children would sing every year on November 5th, when I was a child growing up in London, to “commemorate” the failure of Guy Fawkes and his cohorts trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

Guy Fawkes day was our “version” of Halloween; having an outlet for some societal(ly) sanctioned scary stuff. (Pardon the sibilants.) Families would build a bonfire to burn an effigy of a “Guy,” usually made by filling old clothes with crumpled newspapers to look like a man. Children would display their “guys” by dragging them through the neighborhood, often on a wagon after dark, asking for “A penny for the guy.” There was much singing and revelry and, of course, fireworks. We were an unruly, blood thirsty bunch of kids.

Guy Fawkes was a member of a group of English Roman Catholics, who in the hope of ending the Protestant rule of King James I of England, stockpiled dozens of barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament. He and his co-conspirators were caught, tried for treason and hanged, drawn and quartered.

Hanged, drawn and quartered has always boggled my mind. Did the perpetrators of these punishments feel so inept at putting someone to death that they had to come up with many different ways to make sure they killed a person. Yes, yes, it was meant to be a deterrent for others, but on the other hand there’s a Monty Python-like quality to it.

Hanged is the obvious. Strung up by the neck for a short time until they were dead, Or almost dead? Drawn meant being disemboweled and emasculated (the latter where the innards and genitalia were cut off and burned before the condemned’s eyes). And quartered was just that, where the body was divided into four parts after being beheaded. Usually the head was sent to the Tower of London and sometimes the other four pieces were sent to different parts of the country. What a civilized kingdom that was.

Apparently there is some confusion among modern historians about whether “drawing” referred to the dragging to the place of execution or to disembowelling. I say, What the heck, let it refer to both. My countrymen at the time were obviously into overkill, so does it really matter which delightful example the word refers to?

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Copyright © 2007

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