Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pope Paul V

“BURN THE POPE!” I heard them cry. This was my introduction to the Fifth in Lewes, 20 years ago, deep in a banger-strewn crowd at the Cliffe bonfire. Being a cradle, though lapsed, Catholic it was hard to know what to make of it. Perhaps a slightly over-the-top protest at the conservative policies of the Roman Catholic church? Or possibly I’d misheard and the sentiment was merely to spurn the poor old Pontiff. Or it might even have been something to do with soap. It was hard to tell with all the noise. But craning my neck above the crowd there clearly was a Pope. Sitting on top of a big pile of sticks. What on earth, I wondered, was the trouble with the Pope that caused him to be incinerated on a yearly basis?

 Courtesy of Viva Lewes
I’m not sure whether I felt reassured to find out that this ritual had been going on since the 1670’s and that the Pope concerned was well past caring about his profile in Sussex. The Pope who is burned (the same one every year) is Paul V, head of the Catholic Church from 1605 until 1621, and who thus just managed to get himself in the frame to be in charge at the time of the Gunpowder Plot.

So was he really so bad? Well it depends on your perspective. For many he was a champion of the Counter-Reformation who re-established Catholicism in southern Europe and completed some of the greatest projects of the Renaissance, including St. Peters and the Vatican Library. For others he was an overbearing autocrat with an exalted view of the Church’s authority over secular powers. He succeeded in pissing off most European governments including that of Venice who, when they got a bit uppity about running their own affairs, found themselves excommunicated. His CV also included the first condemnation of Galileo for suggesting the earth might not be the centre of the universe. Probably not one to mention at an interview when you think about how things turned out.

Paul’s dealings with England were comparatively mild. He’d barely got his bum on the Papal throne by the time Catesby and Co moved into action and it’s not clear he was even involved in any plotting. English animosity seems to rest on a letter he sent to James I in July 1606 which by all accounts contained friendly congratulations on James’ accession to the throne. True, James had been King since 1603 so this might be considered a bit late but Paul had only been in office himself for a year or so and who knows what the post was like in the 17th century. The real reason the English take a dim view of Paul was that the he also condemned the  oath of allegiance James demanded of his subjects. If you’re wondering whether James was annoyed I ask you, is the Pope Catholic?

Of course James may also have been feeling a little sensitive after the latest in a sequence of several plots to assassinate him. It seems James wasn’t all that popular, with his main qualifications for kingship being that he was a Protestant and that he was prepared take a  relaxed view of his mothers decapitation by the previous regime in return for supreme power. It’s strange then that we still celebrate the deliverance of the king Charles Dickens described as “cunning, covetous, wasteful, idle, drunken, greedy, dirty, and cowardly”. Still he was obviously relieved at the thwarting of the plot and decreed that “Henceforth and in perpetuity ye Rooks and DFLs of Lewes shall annually drink a bellyfull of local ale, bury your differences and shove fireworks up the backside of that bloke in Rome before torching him whilst making as much noise as possible”.

Or something like that anyway.

John McGowan