An Elimination Thought Experiment, Courtesy of Guy Fawkes


Welcome to that most British of holidays–Bonfire Night–Guy Fawkes Night–the Fifth of November. The holiday that, when I was a kid, was exponentially bigger than Halloween, as for a few days before, children would push around a wheelbarrow laden with a straw-stuffed effigy of Guido Fawkes, usually dressed in their father’s cast-offs or scrapings from the bottom of the charity clothes-barrel, shouting “penny for the guy!” collecting their small change, buying a few fireworks with it, and then, dizzy with excitement, setting a bonfire ablaze, throwing the “traitor” onto it and watching him crackle and dance, before setting off their Roman candles, Catherine wheels, and sparklers in a gluttony and excess of high spirits.

Why do I call it the most British of holidays? Because, in the best tradition of my countrymen and our spirit of inestimably fair play, it celebrates the underdog. The failure. The one who couldn’t. The one who didn’t. The one who wasn’t even really the leader of the plot, just an also-ran who got caught in the crossfire. We’re really serious about that sort of thing. As with so many failures, human and otherwise, we embrace Guy Fawkes and clutch him to our bosoms, refusing to let go. We write books about him.  We make television programs about him. We love him. (Stay tuned. Wouldn’t surprise me if, in another 413 years, the UK will be celebrating “Brexit Night” every June 23, carting around dummies dressed like Theresa May (kitten heels and all), and setting fire to them with the most ecologically-sound fossil-fuel alternatives they can find, to celebrate the day that Britain voted to leave the EU, and then, you know, didn’t.)

The “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the House of Lords on the opening day of Parliament, to assassinate the newly-crowned Protestant King James I (the first Stuart king, and the uniter of the monarchies of England and Scotland), and to replace him with the Catholic Philip III of Spain, was conceived by Robert Catesby, a British noble who’d already tried to overthrow the government once, a few years before, and had, foolishly as it turned out, been pardoned for his efforts. Frustrated by several low-level and unsuccessful attempts to bring about change, Catesby recruited a dozen or so similarly-minded rebels to his cause.  One of them was Guido Fawkes, a tall, handsome Yorkshireman with a thick mane of red hair and a red beard, a zealous Catholic faith, and an extensive knowledge of explosives.

From the start, though, things did not go the plotters’ way. Attempts to tunnel their way under Parliament proved too much for them, and they had to fall back on a plan to rent several cellars under the House of Lords in which they could place their explosives. Leaks abounded (of the political sort, not the watery sort, despite the nearby presences of the Thames), and anonymous letters were passed into the hands of suspicious House members, warning of a “terrible blow” about to come and of treason afoot. Finally, the drumbeat of suspicion found its way to the King’s inner circle, and on November 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes himself was arrested in the cellars under the House of Lords, as he stood guard over 36 barrels of explosives, and the fuses and matches needed to set them off.

His brave swaggering before the King, during which he promised to “blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains,” notwithstanding, Guy Fawkes crumbled under torture (in those days when government-sponsored torture usually meant torture to the death), and signed a full confession naming and shaming his fellow conspirators, who had fled London, but were tracked down and arrested. Those who survived the encounters (not many) were brought back to London and hanged, drawn, and quartered in Westminster’s Old Palace Yard along with Guy Fawkes himself.

Unsurprisingly, anti-Catholic sentiment in England increased after the Plot. Parliament ordered an annual observance of the Fifth of November, complete with the ringing of church bells to commemorate the treasonous affair. The “Popish Recusants Act” was made even harsher, and additional fines were imposed on Catholics who refused to attend Church of England services at least annually, or those who acknowledged the authority of the Pope in any sphere at all. Catholics were also barred from the legal and military professions and were disallowed from voting.

My own memories of Guy Fawkes night are few as most of my childhood wasn’t spend in England. But, as with special childhood memories, those few are indelibly inked on my brain: My dad’s childlike joy at organizing a fireworks extravaganza, and in setting off things that go “BANG!”  Massive, and beautiful explosive displays, the likes of which I’ve never seen since (suspect there might be a bit of affection, and a bit of false memory at play there). Sparklers. The warmth of the bonfire on the chilly November night.  Potatoes baking. Hot chocolate.

And, always, the memory of the poor little crow, minding her own business under the porch roof, and so terrified by a particularly loud rocket that she vacated her nest with a screech, flew straight through the open door into the house, parting my mother’s hair with her beak as she went, and causing hours of frustration and mirth as we sought to remove her. Eventually, my mother rounded her up in the bread bin, clapped the lid on, and took her back outside. But the magic of that particular night was gone, and it was just dark and cold by then.

I know you’re thinking, Good Lord, this time She’s really lost the plot. Even She can never bring this home. And, you’re about to ask me, before you lose your mind with frustration, what this little post could possibly have to do with the subject of this month’s group writing challenge, elimination?


What if the Plot had succeeded in its plan to eliminate most of Parliament, and assassinate the King?  (Studies of the explosives discovered, their amount, and their strength, indicate that had they gone off, they’d have completely destroyed everything within a 500-foot radius of the epicenter. Parliament would have been gone. Hundreds would have been dead. The country would have been plunged into chaos.)  Perhaps even (shock, horror!) England would have become a remote territory of Spain (had that happened, the food would probably have been better by now, I’ll give you that).

But, suppose it had worked? Britain, and the fledgling United Kingdom, essentially, gone, eliminated in one inglorious revolution, and with a loud bang? How would world history have been changed? What would the United States, as we know it today, be instead? The British Empire? The language, even? Where would we be? Where would the world be, and more importantly, where would I be?

As one might expect, alternative history discussions abound on the web. Wikis, conspiracy nuts (not to put too fine a point on it; yes, there are 511 truthers out there), folks who haven’t got their facts quite straight, or who are peddling their own brand of nonsense. I haven’t really found a convincing counterfactual history explanation anywhere yet that satisfies me.

So, I’m asking you to come up with one. England, to all intents and purposes, is eliminated as a significant force in the world on 5 November, 1605. What happens next?

h/t @vectorman for the image

Published in Group Writing
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  1. Rōnin Coolidge

    She (View Comment):

    DonG (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    It could have gone bad sooner than that.

    At the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776, the Maryland militia were among the most highly trained units in Washington’s army.

    Let me quibble for the fun of it. Why assume the British had any influence in North America? Wouldn’t Spain have colonized North America the same way they did in South America? A combined British and Spanish navy under the Spanish flag would have conquered the world and been unrivaled. The Protestant reformation would have been crushed. There would be no treaty of Westphalia and we be typing in Spanish now.

    The Spanish colonialists were very different from the British. Not sure what the end result would have been in your scenario.

    I’m currently reading about the Spanish conquista and colonization period between 1492 and 1832.  It appears that Spain literally hit the jack pot in Mexico, Central and South America for most of the 16th century, but didn’t push permanent colonization until after the easy money (i.e. looting what the locals had already found) dried up late in the 17th century.  After that, Spain struggled trying to establish settlements within the interior of their empire, to create a tax revenue base to offset what Spain was losing in it’s silver and gold mining operations.  The main problem they ran into was that Spanish colonialist for the most part, expected to return to Spain rich, for the English, German, Scottish and Irish colonialist it was a one-way ticket.

    • #31
  2. Stina Member

    Rōnin (View Comment):
    I’m currently reading about the Spanish conquista and colonization period between 1492 and 1832.

    So I just posted this question in the new parenting group, but you can answer, too!

    Any good books that a kid with 6th grade reading level could read on Florida colonialization?

    • #32
  3. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England

    DonG (View Comment):

    I think it is unlikely that killing all MOP would topple a country. But assuming it did, I would expect that most British colonies would not have happened. No Hong Kong and no English speakers/influence in India or Africa. Perhaps they would have become Spanish colonies and the sun would never have set upon the Spanish empire. I assume that more English would go to North America, but they would have to align with France and Germany to survive. The southern half of the US would be part of Mexico and the northern half would be part of Canada. Democrats would still be calling for open borders.


    You’re thinking of a modern division of society. If Fawkes had succceeded, he’d have killed not just the political leaders, but the economic, ecclesiastical, and social leaders as well. This is both because the House of Lords was filled with the people who owned most of the country and the House of Commons was filled with businessmen, but also because everyone who was anyone, but not a politician, would also attend the event.

    The civil war that followed would be bloodier for having so many of those involved having lost family, and for having the older and wiser heads being removed, leaving many choices to be made by bereaved teenagers. Jonah’s Miracle; capitalism, democracy, etc., came about because Fawkes failed. Most of the world is relatively free and free from starvation thanks to the bad luck of the one man. It is super appropriate to have American elections on the following day. 

    • #33
  4. Rōnin Coolidge

    Stina (View Comment):

    Rōnin (View Comment):
    I’m currently reading about the Spanish conquista and colonization period between 1492 and 1832.

    So I just posted this question in the new parenting group, but you can answer, too!

    Any good books that a kid with 6th grade reading level could read on Florida colonialization?

    Nothing Florida specific.  I’m currently reading volume 1 (of 2) of  History of Spain and Portugal, by Stanley G. Payne.  It was published in 1976 as a collage text, but well written and not too dense.  I got them from Amazon: 

    I’ve also read The Coronado Expedition 1540-1542 by George Parker Winship.  The re-print I got from Amazon sucked. There were missing pages and pages out of order throughout the book. I found a digital copy of both the untranslated and English versions and printed the full text. Between the three versions I was able to sort out the above problems. This is (and reads) like any military field report, so it’s not a page turner. One must also keep in mind that the expedition was a total failure and this field report is Coronado’s legal defense for that failure, had he returned to Spain as Cárdenas had, he would probably have been convicted as well. Either way, the adventure ruined him and brought on a early death. Bottom line here is, there are no Seven Cities of Gold to be found in Kansas, but following the Coronado Expedition trail is a lot of fun and I do recommend stopping in Amarillo at the The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Brewer (check out the 72 oz steak challenge when you go). I’m sure Coronado would of loved to find a place like this.

    And another good book on Spanish history is Spain at the Dawn of History: Iberians, Phoenicians and Greeks (Ancient Peoples and Places), byHarrison, Richard J.  But this may be a little too deep for a child subject.

    • #34
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