10 November 2008


i. Guy Fawkes -- The night after the election was Guy Fawkes night in England. If you've seen V for Vendetta, you may recall that the character "V" wore a mask modeled after Guy Fawkes, and you may also recall a little rhyme that starts out like this: "Remember, remember, the fifth of November / The Gunpowder Treason and plot / I can think of no reason the Gunpowder Treason / Should ever be forgot."

The objective of the plot in question was to assassinate King James I and blow up the Houses of Parliament in London, in response to the anti-Catholism of the Crown and the government. It failed, and the conspirators were executed. Fawkes was not the ringleader of this band of 17th-century Catholic terrorists, but he was the one caught with the explosives, so it is his name that has gone down in history.

Naturally, Fawkes is remembered here as the villain, not the hero, of 5 November. Today Guy Fawkes night is marked with fireworks, bonfires, and burning effigies of Fawkes. By now the night has lost most of its original political content and is basically an excuse for pyrotechnics and merrymaking. I attended the festivities in Cambridge, still in an exhausted stupor from the election all-nighter. It's a pretty big production here, with roughly 20,000 people crammed onto Midsummer Common and all manner of carnival rides, games, and booths. When you're so engrossed in university life, it's easy to forget that people actually live in Cambridge, so I was glad to share in a local and national tradition.

ii. Oliver Cromwell -- Craving some solitude on Saturday afternoon, I hopped a train for a short trip to Ely (EE-lee), a small town two stops from Cambridge on the northbound line. (The intermediate stop is a conspicuously landlocked placed called Waterbeach.) Ely is famous primarily for its magnificent cathedral, which I did visit, and slightly less famous for being the home of Oliver Cromwell when he launched his political career. If you're not familiar with Cromwell -- and I believe most Americans are not -- he's thought to be part of the reason why the Founders of the U.S. initially avoided a strong executive under the Articles of Confederation.

A half-century after the Gunpowder Plot, Cromwell and his associates actually did succeed in killing the King--this time for being too Catholic. He was a member of Parliament and a devout Puritan who thought King Charles I was introducing a little too much pope-ish stuff into the liturgy and suppressing religious liberty. Cromwell became a leader of Parliament's army during the English Civil War and was one of the signers of Charles' death warrant. The country had a brief period of commonwealth government under an ineffectual Parliament, which Cromwell eventually dissolved, making himself "Lord Protector." He wielded near-absolute power for five years until his death. His son Richard took over before a brief spell before England reverted to the old monarchy under Charles II.

I visited Cromwell's house in Ely, which is now a museum. In various rooms you can try on period dress (with helmets!), vote on whether Cromwell was a hero or a villain (roughly 50/50 according to monthly tallies), and view a bizarre replica of Cromwell on his deathbed. Probably the most memorable part of the visit was a book I saw in the gift shop, called Oliver Cromwell's Warts. The double-entendre refers to both the Lord Protector's moral failings and the actual warts that dotted his face. The book jacket provides a wealth of gee-whiz facts about Cromwell, including a claim that he "once attended a party covered in poo." I would love to know that story, but "poo" was not listed in the book's index, and I didn't have time to look the hard way.

One gee-whiz fact about Cromwell that I can verify is the undignified fate of his earthy remains. Since he died before the reinstated monarchy could bring him to justice, Charles II had him exhumed and then posthumously hanged and beheaded. His head eventually came back to Cambridge, his alma mater, where it was reinterred at Sidney Sussex College. This plaque commemorates the occasion. It is said that only the Master of Sidney Sussex and a couple other college bigwigs know the actual location of the head, but I suspect that's a bit of Cambridge lore -- of which there are many -- that might not withstand scrutiny.

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