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“Remember, Remember”: What the Fifth of November Can Teach Us Today (Part One)

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Friday, November 06, 2009 at 12:38 am
The seventeenth century saw the consecration and addition of three important dates to the liturgical calendar of the Church of England. The first of these was 5 November, commemorating the discovery and prevention of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, thereby saving not only the life of King James I, but the lives of the members of Parliament as well.
Tags: king charles the martyr, book of common prayer, lancelot andrewes, gunpowder plot, royalism, 1662, king james i, king charles i

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Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
the Gunpowder Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
should ever be forgot.

- Children’s rhyme, 17th c.


The seventeenth century saw the consecration and addition of three important dates to the liturgical calendar of the Church of England. The first was 5 November, commemorating the discovery and prevention of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, thereby saving not only the life of King James I, but the lives of the members of Parliament as well. The second was 30 January, commemorating the martyrdom of King Charles I in 1649. The third and final of these was 29 May, commemorating both the return of King Charles II to England in 1660, and the date of his birth in 1630. Each of these was given a special liturgy, appended to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and each liturgy was used annually until they were removed by Parliament in 1859. These three days were all associated, therefore, with the English monarchy. On the one hand, this gives us some insight into the theological and devotional foci of post-Reformation Anglicanism – and one of those foci was the monarchy itself. On the other hand, the consecration of these dates gives us an insight into the liturgical practice of the Church of England – and one of those practices involved the consecration of holy days for ecclesial-national remembrance. The purpose of this essay is to note the first of these dates, 5 November, and to use it as a springboard for a constructive consideration of what the distinctly royalist heritage of Anglicanism might mean for us today.

This essay is divided into three sections. The first gives some historical background on the monarchy in and before the seventeenth century. This is important to understand, because monarchy was no merely political phenomenon to England or its church in the early modern period. Rather, it was a theological and devotional reality. The monarch, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, was central to the Church of England’s raison d’être. The second section of this paper turns to the Gunpowder Plot itself and, after briefly outlining its history, I turn to a sermon given by Lancelot Andrewes in 1606, before the person of King James VI and I, on the first official commemoration of 5 November. Andrewes was, in his day, one of the leading lights of the Church of England, and he remains not just an important historical figure, but someone whose life, witness, and writings do much to justify his standing as one of Anglicanism’s leading saints still today. The concluding section of this paper turns towards the possibility of constructive retrieval that 5 November presents us with. How do we take a national and once-religious (but now largely secularized) holiday and use its history and memory to build up Anglican existence today? It involves an imaginative leap, for sure, as we must appreciate the political and theological dynamics of a world so foreign to our own.

I. Royalism and Devotion

In considering the importance of royalist holy days, we do well to note those historical details that help clarify the importance of these dates to Anglican memory and identity in the 17th – 19th centuries. The liturgical articulation given to these three dates in 1662 was no mere novelty, and developed out of longer-standing Anglican beliefs – both scholastic and popular – concerning the importance of monarchs. Only by understanding and appreciating the now-defunct importance of monarchy to post-Reformation Anglicanism can we begin a process of critical negotiation with the past, in which the past again becomes a source of theological creativity.

Any time a plot against a nation is discovered and prevented, there is reason for celebration. In many ways, the realities of 5 November are not far removed from our own world; the psychological strain and feelings of horror experienced by many Americans in the wake of 9/11 provide a fertile common ground for considering how the English must have felt when they learned, in 1605, that a small group of Roman Catholics, led by Guy Fawkes, attempted to murder King James I and blow up Parliament while in session. Furthermore, and again not unlike our current situation, Roman Catholics such as Fawkes perceived themselves fighting a religious war, but Anglicans perceived their acts as instances of civil and religious terrorism. There is, however, an important difference between us and our spiritual forebears: in the monarchy, the English have an institution that is more than 1,500 years old – and, therefore, the English have a level of institutional history that Americans have a very, very hard time imagining. The monarchy is the nexus upon which multiple streams of English identity converge. In defending King James I, the English were not just defending a political institution or a head of state. Rather, they were defending a way of life, with all of the richness, continuity, and order – both metaphysical and political – that the English monarchy signifies.

We may note two important historical elements of English monarchy in the seventeenth century – one devotional, and the other more broadly political. The first of these, which is one of the most interesting elements in the history of English monarchy, is also one that is now largely forgotten: the Royal Touch. According to tradition, St. Edward the Confessor, the eleventh-century king of the West Saxons, was given the ability to miraculously cure his own subjects of diseases. Every English king after Edward was also given this ability, and the historical records indicate that many of them put it to good use, laying their hands upon thousands of sick persons and signing them with the cross. The high medieval period saw the development of this practice in important ways. Kings began to bless coins and rings, which they gave to their subjects as a way of warding off disease and pain, and these practices, along with the continued execution of the Royal Touch, were synced with the liturgical calendar in the 14th and 15th centuries, thus giving the devotional practices of high medieval English Catholicism a strong royalist element. These practices continued unabated until the reign of William and Mary (1689 – 1702), and although it was revived in the reign of Queen Anne (1702 – 1714), it was never again practiced after her death – although it remained an important feature of popular sentiment well through the nineteenth century, just as its remembrance remains an important feature of High Church Anglicanism still today. Charles I practiced this when he was king, and even healed some of his jailers. After his beheading in 1649, his relics were said to heal in his place. When Charles II returned to England in 1660, he immediately began resumed the practice of the Royal Touch, and laid his hands upon more than 100,000 people during his time as monarch. The miracle-working powers of the king testified, like the office of monarchy itself, to continuity, order, and – in an iconic or typological fashion – to the rule of God.

The second historical element of English monarchy that we must focus on is the role of the monarch as the “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England. It is well known that when Parliament acclaimed King Henry VIII the “Supreme Head” of the Church of England in 1534, this officially cut all ties with the papacy and brought the church under royal control. Although Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, maintained the title of “Supreme Head,” Queen Elizabeth I changed this title to “Supreme Governor” – a practice continued by every English monarch after her. Whether or not this change was intentionally theological is unknown, but the pragmatic effects of it may very well be the most important: the monarch was ultimately in charge of the Church of England. We do well to underscore two points. First, the monarchy reveals that the Church of England was hierarchical. It is not unfair to see the monarch as occupying a quasi-papal role, making enforceable administrative and theological decisions – a position of authority that no one person or group of persons within contemporary Anglicanism currently has. Second, although the monarch was not an exclusively religious figure, there were many who felt that the monarchy should have been its own form of holy orders – debates about whether or not the monarch could, by virtue of his office, consecrate and celebrate the sacraments was a live point of debate until at least the time of Charles II. Thus, the political reality of monarchy points to its devotional reality – even if, on this latter point, that devotional reality was speculated upon and debated, rather than actual.

It is not too much to write that monarchy was bound up with the worldview of seventeenth century English men and women. There were, as one might expect, other ways in which monarchy shaped both the religious and political realities of the past – and some of these blurred the lines between the political and the religious. Thus, for example, it was longer-standing practice to commemorate the day upon which a king (or queen) ascended the throne; the commemoration of 29 May in the 1662 BCP simply fused this tradition with the historical reality of King Charles II’s return and the dual restoration of both the monarchy and the Church of England. No mere institution, monarchy was the focus of political and devotional realities. Its maintenance was an unquestioned assumption in 1605 when Guy Fawkes and his associates sought to murder the king and, in the process, blow up Parliament. Its unquestioned necessity and continuity help us to understand why the English reacted with such outrage when the Gunpowder Plot was exposed.

[Read Part Two of this essay.]
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