Over at the Witanagemot Club there is a poll - Who is the Greatest Englander?
My choice would be Charles Darwin for his Theory of Natural Selection and Origin of the Species, both of which came about following his fantastic adventures onboard the Beagle. Today it is hard to understand just how contentious Darwin's work was, but as a religious man Darwin had to overcome a huge crisis of conscience: a conflict between his faith and science. Even to this day the conflict goes on with Creationists attempting to level the intellectual field by describing evolutionary biology as 'Darwinism' and by doing so implying that it is simply an alternative philosophy rather than established fact, or at least an established scientific principle and discipline.
Other scientists can be credited with a contribution to the sum of the parts (including Englishman Robert Hooke and his observations on fossils, and Darwin's contemporary Welshman Alfred Russel Wallace, who published his own theory of natural selection) but what makes Darwin great is the quality and depth of his work, the crisis of faith that he overcame to publish, and the fact that he almost - we are still working on that - destroyed a central pillar of Rome's teachings.
According to Terry Eagleton of Manchester University Charles Darwin can take his place alongside Pope John Paul II as one of the biggest disasters to befall the Catholic Church:
It was the grotesque irony by which the Vatican condemned - as a "culture of death" - condoms, which might have saved countless Catholics in the developing world from an agonising Aids death. The Pope goes to his eternal reward with those deaths on his hands. He was one of the greatest disasters for the Christian church since Charles Darwin.
It may not be the epitaph that Darwin would have wanted but it is testament to his greatness.
My second choice would be Guy Fawkes, the Guy that failed to blow up the English parliament and who we English now ritually burn effigies of every Bonfire Night on 5th November.
It's worth recalling that Mr Fawkes' motives were not only religious but patriotic too. As background, James I of England and VI of Scotland had promised English Catholic emissaries that if he succeeded Elizabeth I he would ex-tend religious tolerance to the beleaguered Catholics. Instead, once on the English throne he increased persecution to new heights - sowing the seeds of the Gunpowder Plot. Not only that but he imported with him a gaggle of Scottish 'nobility' who, in shades reminiscent of our own time, proceeded to rule England for their own and Scotland's benefit. This provides the context to explain why, when Fawkes was brought before the gloating King James who demanded to know the reason for the Plot, instead of begging for his life Guy boldly replied: 'I wished to blow you and all you Scottish beggars back to your mountains'. Hence: Guy Fawkes, English patriot and martyr. - John Whitbourn.
Back in those days, can you believe, England was ruled by a tyrannical Scotsman that surrounded himself with a cabal of Scots. Guy Fawkes should be considered a patriot - albeit a misguided one - and instead of trying to ban fireworks or impose restrictive regulations on them the Government should make more of 'Guy Fawkes' night, one of the few intrinsically English celebrations that we have left.
In 2004 the UK Government, responding to NIMBY complaints, imposed restrictions on the use of fireworks, with some curfew exceptions:
The curfew will be extended until 1am for some traditional and cultural events, including Diwali Night, the Chinese New Year and New Year's Eve. It will begin at midnight on 5 November.
For some reason the English Bonfire Night festival was given a shorter extension that the Chinese and Hindu festivals.
Bonfire Night is a peculiarly English tradition and I suppose we should be grateful that the UK Government recognise it as such even if they don't see it as important as Chinese and Indian celebrations. But was Guy himself actually great, or simply a great failure and terrorist? We'll probably never reach a definitive answer to that. But his legacy and the myth that surrounds him is great, and, as oft remarked, he was one of the few to ever enter Parliament with honourable intentions. What is certain is that his capture, and subsequent torture and execution, was a great PR exercise for the Scottish King, and probably went some way towards the future cementing of Britain as a political union. Fawkes and his co-conspirators believed that the people of England would welcome the overthrow of the unpopular Scottish king. And they probably would have done, as would Parliament itself which was continuously in conflict with the King, but the English did not take kindly to an attack on English institutions (Parliament and Monarchy) so the plot was probably doomed to failure even if it had succeeded.
William Shakespeare and William Tyndale can certainly claim more credit for enhancing the English language and coining various phrases, but it is from Guy Fawkes' name that we get the word 'guy'. So when Tony Blair says that he is 'a regular kinda guy'....it could be taken to mean that he is a Catholic; a terrorist, and; one who despises Parliament and the Monarch, all of which, to some extent, to some people, he is.
Whatever you do don't take an effigy of Guy to the bonfire night celebrations at St Peter's School in York because the school refuses to burn the effigy of its former pupil (I wonder whether Fettes would take the same stance?) It wasn't always the case that poor Guido was the one that got burnt. In previous times it was traditional to burn an effigy of the Pope on English bonfires [Bone fires] - as they still do in Lewes - but that practice was largely put a stop to in more politically correct times (recent celebrations have seen effigies of Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Gypsies and John Prescott burnt in celebration/protest). My advice to you is to burn an effigy of Tony Blair this year.
You can vote for Bonfire Night at the Icons of England website.