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Guy Fawkes reimagined: it was all about tolerance

04 November 2022

Fergus Butler-Gallie goes underground to recreate the Gunpowder Plot

Fergus Butler-Gallie

Fergus Butler-Gallie immersed in plotting beneath the Tower of London

Fergus Butler-Gallie immersed in plotting beneath the Tower of London

THERE was a time when pious Church of England people would remember, remember, the fifth of November by listening to parsons giving thanks for the deliverance of His Late Majesty and the “barbarous and savage manner” of Guy Fawkes’s “unnatural conspiracy”.

Such opportunities to attend the Prayer Book service set for 5 November are rare these days — although not totally extinct. I recall one cleric visibly enjoying intoning the collect against “hellish Popish malice” while dressed in enough lace to render him easily confusable for a maiden aunt’s tea tray, or perhaps a model in Ann Summers.

The fifth of November was, really, one of the only days when the post-Reformation English Church did full blooded sectarianism. Invariably, the vigour of the state prayers were matched by wider incitement and direct action.

Charles Herle, one of another group of violent and terrifying extremists, the Roundheads — now bizarrely recast as good, kind, freedom fighters in the popular imagination — told the House of Commons, on 5 November 1644, that papists tunnelled into our national life from three places: Hell, Rome, and Oxford.

Well into the 18th century, Roman Catholic homes and chapels faced violence at the start of November. Effigies of the Whore of Babylon and the Bishop of Rome joined the Guy on the pyres.

Today, however, unless one is a traditionally minded Dominican, it is rightly frowned on to chuck bricks at Jesuits. So, I forwent the Bonfire Night pleasures of yore and instead took part in “The Gunpowder Plot”.

This was not, however tempting it might be at the moment, a conspiracy to blow up Parliament, but an immersive experience beneath the Tower of London, which uses live actors and — as regular readers of this organ may recall — my long-term foe, virtual-reality headsets, to tell the story of the infamous plot against Church, Parliament, and Crown in 1605.


THE entrance lobby is decorated with copies of graffiti from the Tower itself. All crucifixes, elaborately carved renderings of “IHS”, and images of the Sacred Heart. One prisoner had, however, ignored the religious and simply crudely traced around the outline of his hand, which reminded me of how I behaved in almost any organised craft activity in my youth.

It isn’t just the aesthetics that brought old school religion to this very modern entertainment. Faith is routinely referenced in the experience: actors assure participants again and again that they and we are “good Catholicks”. The “k” is, I fear, my own addition; there to preserve Protestant sensibilities.

Although it is referenced, it is never really explained or detailed. A priest — whom we help bust out of the Tower using the virtual-reality sets and a hugely unlikely pulley system over the River Thames — mentions a crucifix, and raises the smallest of qualms about the impending mass murder committed in the name of his Church, but he is quickly dispatched courtesy of an ill-timed cough from a priest-hole.

Indeed, the only person who ever gives any detailed justification for the impending violence is Guy Fawkes himself. He is played by the actor Tom Felton — Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series — and appears via the headsets towards the end of the experience.

The mercenary would-be terrorist is recast as a freedom fighter who simply wants a fair and free, modern-looking Britain — as opposed to the vengeful Catholic state that would invariably have been brought about. All that Fawkes is asking for is the chance for people to believe what they want to believe, love whom they want to love, be what they want to be. Less Spanish Inquisition and more Great British Bake Off.

During our escape with the priest, we were encouraged to don hooded robes. Quite how dressing like a group of monks would have been the best way to avoid detection as a Catholic cleric in post-Dissolution England, I’m not sure, but it made for suitably spooky photos.

After the brush with the priest-finders, our cowled group is led to a tavern, the Duck and Drake where we are served, rather than thin beer or mead, lager or inventive cocktails with explosive names — all from earthenware flagons that, if I remember my brushes with the vessels used in Vatican II religion in Rome, was oddly appropriate.

The interesting point comes when the group — for one is part of a gaggle of 15 or so — have to decide whether to back the plot, or continue working for the Crown. Aware of my oaths, my companion and I put in solitary voices for stopping the explosion.

Fascinatingly, the group were otherwise unanimous on the idea that we should press ahead with British history’s most infamous act of would-be terrorism. The deaths would, they opined, be worth it for the many who would be saved by the enlightened government that would inevitably take the place of Bad King James. It is touching how easily utilitarianism can be co-opted to justify mass murder, just as easily as religion. Good old modernism, eh?


SO, IT was as enthusiastic plotters that we progressed through a digitised Jacobean London towards Westminster, guided by Felton/Fawkes. St Mary Overie — now Southwark Cathedral, of course — made an appearance, faithfully rendered in its golden stone.

No Old St Paul’s, however, as, by the time we’d negotiated London Bridge, the city turned into an imagined world where Fawkes had been triumphant; all cheering crowds, happy and free. All for nothing, though, as, by a theatrical sleight of hand, the plot fails anyway.

So, Fawkes’s ghost guides us through the ages — watching in shock how he is commemorated. We are transported to 1710, and the London of good Queen Anne. St Paul’s finally puts in an appearance as a bonfire is lit outside. We are shown him meeting Londoners during the Blitz — mutual sympathy is expressed for “standing up for what we believe in”. Given Fawkes’s destructive plans, it might have been more appropriate having him meet Herman Goering.

We were finally dispatched back to the present day via the gift shop — not unlike visiting a cathedral, I suppose. Projected on to a wall on the way out is a reference to the 1859 Prayer Book amendment that removed the observance of 5 November from the liturgy — probably a first for a popular attraction.

In the shop, “Tiny Dancer”, by Elton John, played as people manhandled “plot toffee”, available to purchase, and then went back to their modern lives. Perhaps the plot was — is — merely one of those tiny dances that make up the overall span of history. It is undoubtedly worth a visit; it would make a particularly improving away-day for a diocesan “senior team”. Fundamentally, it was fun — a diverting escape into fantasy.

But then, of course, much of history is about creating fantasy, about building myth. In truth, such was the incompetence of the conspirators, and the skill of the Jacobean intelligence services, His Late Majesty came nowhere near to being dispatched in a “barbarous and savage manner”.

Yet it helps to tell us that he did, because it makes any movement against evil in our own time — or any of the intervening times — not some strange and threatening neologism, but part of a broader narrative about the efforts and decisions required to ensure the survival of what is good and right and true.

Salvation history tells a subtly different story: that the good and right and true survives despite the efforts and decisions that we — or Guy Fawkes, or James I, for that matter — make; and that, contra the frustrated thrashings, or tiny dancings, of freedom fighters or terrorists from 1605 to today, the triumph of earthly wickedness can rarely be avoided: crucially, it has no bearing on the ultimate triumph of the empty tomb. I know which narrative I find more convincing.


The Gunpowder Plot Experience takes place in the Tower Vaults, and costs £40-£70; £10 reduction for under-16s; advance booking advised.

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