Had not a second check of the vaults of the palace of Westminster found Guy Fawkes ready to ignite a colossal quantity of gunpowder, the King, the Lords and the Commons would all have been blown sky high in an instant.
The subsequent chaos in England can only be imagined and how defenceless it would have been – 1066 all over again a mere 17 years since the destruction of the Spanish Armada! For the Spaniards, surely still thirsting for revenge, an invasion from their Netherlands possessions (Belgium) would have been easy – if the French had not got there first. In moments the hard-won liberties of the English people would have been swept away and a savage inquisition imposed.
Those liberties had not been won overnight. In 1215 by Magna Carta, two limits on royal power were established: the King was not above the law and no taxes were to be levied without the consent of the governed. Henry the Eighth, often considered an absolute monarch and Charles the First could not evade them, the latter beheaded for his folly.
By a slow process the commons gained power, Sir Peter de la Mare being appointed the first speaker of the House of Commons in 1376. The office of Black Rod was established in 1350 and Nicholas Maundit became the first Serjeant-at-Arms in 1415. In 1721 Sir Robert Walpole became de facto Prime Minister whose advice the monarch was bound to accept. The “Westminster system” was evolving. And that is what we have in New Zealand today, with appointments to all of these offices, albeit Black Rod is now purely ceremonial. Indeed, had Guy Fawkes succeeded would New Zealand as we know it exist today – or Australia or Canada? Would India be a parliamentary democracy? Would those countries of Europe and others who have followed the Westminster model have done so if Guy Fawkes had succeeded? We have few more important dates than 5th November and it is very fitting that we should celebrate it as we choose to do.
There are some among us however who think that rather more important is the somewhat indefinite time each year, around about June, when a certain cluster of stars first appears on the dark horizon –known to Maoris as “Matariki”. Being quite near the celestial equator, this cluster is visible for up to six months of the year from most populated places on earth and, being quite distinctive, it has been given many names. It is the “Seven Sisters” in English – though when Galileo first looked at them through his telescope he found many more than seven. To the ancient Greeks it was the “Pleiades”, supposedly derived from the word “plein” – “to sail” – since its heliacal rising – when it first becomes visible each year in the pre-dawn darkness – was the start of the Mediterranean sailing season. Even earlier it was “MulMul” to the Babylonians; it is mentioned three times in the Bible and it was “Mutsuraboshi” in 8th century Japan. The list is a long one – “Thurayya” to the Arabs, “Kritika” to Hindus and “Makali’i” in Hawaii.
So the whole world knows about the Seven Sisters but only we whose democracy has evolved as the Westminster system have good cause to be thankful for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and to celebrate accordingly.
(Reprinted from “New Zealand; the fair colony”, 2nd edition, 2020, ISBN 978-0-473-53728-9 with minor revision. 21 June 2022 , the winter solstice at 9:13 tonight.)
Bruce Moon is a retired computer pioneer who wrote "Real Treaty; False Treaty - The True Waitangi Story".