At a busy crossroads in a small Kentish town stands a memorial to some very ordinary local heroes, who defied the government of their day and paid for it with their lives but whose sacrifice would enable their cause ultimately to prevail.
We have just celebrated Guy Fawkes Night, the commemoration of the defeat of a terrorist conspiracy to commit mass murder in order to subvert the constitution and impose a singular religious vision on the country. The occasion is marked with bonfires, toffee apples, rather unpleasantly baked potatoes and, of course, fireworks, an ironic gesture towards an explosion that never happened.
Yet it is equally traditional to predict the imminent end of these festivities. Every year, Guy Fawkes Night seems to become that little bit less fashionable, as the meaningless nonsense that is Hallowe’en, arguably America’s least desirable import, becomes more commercially dominant. Such pessimism has been routinely expressed ever since 1859, the year in which the fifth of November ceased to be a public holiday.
Perhaps the decline (if it is declining) of Guy Fawkes Night is owed to the very different world in which we now live. In 1605, the government was not actually innocent of imposing a particular religious programme on the people itself, so perhaps Fawkes, Robert Catesby and the other plotters now enjoy a kind of sympathy as members of an oppressed minority. Modern cynicism about politics is also a factor. Some people, in their hearts, celebrate not the salvation of Parliament but the fact that someone tried to blow it up. This attitude has been more than understandable in 2016, which has proven to be an unusually and constantly interesting political year, in which first one side and then the other has felt a loss of control over the country’s destiny.
This attitude is also unfair. People have always been cynical about politicians (in Shakespeare’s plays, the word is used as an insult) but rarely have they wanted to murder them and even more rarely have those who have murdered them won public approval. Furthermore, Catesby and his fellow plotters were not pitiable members of an oppressed religious minority. They were fanatics and, if they had seized control of the government in the wake of the chaos that the explosion would have caused, their regime would have been far more oppressive towards Protestants, who by that time made up the majority of the population of England, than the Protestant regime had been to the followers of the Church of Rome. We know this because it had happened before, within the memory of people still living in 1605, in the reign of Bloody Queen Mary.
Frittenden is a small village in the Weald of Kent. It seems an unassuming place, hardly likely to produce a hero and yet it did, two of them. They were that essentially English thing, the ordinary man and, indeed, the ordinary woman, who just wanted a quiet life but who discovered great courage and resolve within themselves when the occasion called for it. They were Edward Allen, a miller and his wife Katherine.
The Reverend John Tailor was appointed Rector of Frittenden in the reign of the zealously Protestant King Edward VI, by the equally zealously Protestant barrister and politician Sir John Baker. The King’s religion was shared by the people of Frittenden, including the miller, who could read and held Bible study classes for the villagers. In 1553, however, Edward VI died and Mary became Queen. Tailor shifted with the wind and preached in favour of the Roman revival, setting his sights in particular on Edward Allen, whom he resented for personal reasons: Tailor, unusually for a clergyman, had never been to university, so the surprisingly well-educated miller was an embarrassment, as well as a religious subversive. Tailor had an ally in the Rector of the nearby parish of Staplehurst, the Reverend Thomas Hendon, and in 1557 they reported Allen and his wife to Tailor’s patron and fellow turncoat, local Justice of the Peace Sir John Baker.
We have met Bloody Baker before, whose sudden and fiery devotion to the Popish Queen and her religion would make him a bogeyman of Wealden folklore for hundreds of years to come. He had the Allens arrested, prompting a fellow Protestant, John Webb, to flee to Calais, an English possession at the time. Baker imprisoned the miller and his wife in his manor house at Sissinghurst, giving them time and encouragement to convert to Roman Catholicism. When they refused, he sent them to Maidstone to be tried at the assizes but, while staying at an inn en route, their guard left them alone together while he took a toilet break. When he returned, they had gone.
The Allens joined Webb in Calais but they grew tired of this foreign land and wished to see their own country again. Showing either foolishness or Christ-like resolve, depending on one’s disposition, they returned to Frittenden. When Tailor noticed them absent from church, he rallied his congregation against them. They marched from the church to the miller’s house, where they arrested Allen and seized that most incriminating of evidence: A Bible in English. They also stole his money, which the Rector kept for himself.
Sir John Baker and his chaplain interrogated Edward Allen, who proved intransigent, so they put him in the stocks for a night. After a second bout of interrogation, he still refused to acknowledge the Real Presence in the mass, so he and his wife were sent to Maidstone for immolation. They were burnt on the sixteenth of June 1557, while a priest stood by, preaching to the crowd about the heretics’ sins.
Today, on the crossroads through Staplehurst, there stands an obelisk dedicated to the memory of five local martyrs, including the Allens, who perished under Queen Mary. They were only a handful of her nigh-on three hundred victims and the tragic, heroic story of Edward and Katherine Allen is duplicated all over England. By 1605, when the Gunpowder Plot was hatched, nearly executed and then defused, there were still people living who had been children during those days of blood and fire. For them, it was not some liberal paradise of religious toleration that the Plotters were going to create, but rather a return to that religion of terror and death and to a political system that controlled people’s minds through fear. It is no wonder that the English would celebrate the plot’s defeat with such unconcealed glee for hundreds of years to come. Until the relatively liberal days of the nineteenth century, the century that saw Roman Catholics enfranchised and a hierarchy of biretta-wearing bishops established, it was not Guy who was burnt atop the bonfires but the Pope.
In 2016, when Britain is once again threatened by violently-minded religious extremists, it is more fitting than it has been at any other time in the last four hundred years that we should celebrate an occasion when just such terrorist scum got exactly what they deserved. Heaven knows it happens rarely enough today.