Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
Guy Fawkes was born in Yorkshire in 1570, during a time of great sectarian turbulence between Protestants and Catholics both in England and in Europe. Fawkes became infamous when he was arrested as part of a conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate the Protestant King James 1 on 5th November, 1605. The failure of the plot is still celebrated on 5th November and known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night.
Who was Guy Fawkes ?
Although Guy Fawkes was born as a Protestant, at the age of eight, his mother remarried a recusant Catholic after Fawkes’ father had died. Recusant Catholics were religious dissenters, who refused to attend Anglican Church services, remaining loyal to their religion and the pope. Protestant England feared that the pope was looking for secular power over England in alliance with France and Spain, and consequently, anyone who was suspected of supporting the Catholic religion was penalised with fines, confiscation of property and even imprisonment. Guy Fawkes converted to Catholicism after his mothers’ remarriage and as an adult, his Catholic beliefs led him to enlist in the Spanish army in 1593 to fight in Flanders against the Dutch Protestant Army. Also known as Guido Fawkes by now, he fought for Spain again in Calais, northern France, in 1595, and these military assignments taught him how to use explosives.
The Gunpowder Plot
On Fawkes’ return to England, he became involved in a plot with Robert Catesby and a small group of fellow Catholics. They planned to overturn the Protestant monarchy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament and placing Princess Elizabeth, James’ daughter, as a Catholic monarch on the throne. The group of conspirators rented an undercroft, a type of cellar, under the House of Lords and began to store barrels of gunpowder there. Their plot was dashed when, in the early hours of 5th November 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered with the stockpiled explosives in the cellar. There were actually thirteen conspirators in all who were charged with the conspiracy, but Guy Fawkes is the only one whose name is instantly recognizable in regard to the Gunpowder plot. Persecution of religious dissension was already the norm during this period but along with high treason, the plotters could only expect the worst punishment from the state. Guy Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, a horrific death. At the last minute he jumped from the gallows, effectively breaking his neck, and as a result, avoided the excruciating agony of the rest of the process.
Celebration of Guy Fawkes Night
On the night of November 5th, 1605, the people of London held bonfires to celebrate the failure of the plot and the King’s escape. Within a context of religious persecution, these celebrations also promoted anti- Catholic feeling. From 1650 fireworks were added to the festivities. In the 1670’s an effigy, usually of the pope, was placed on the bonfire to burn, but in time other unpopular figures were also used. By the end of the 18th century, Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night had finally lost most of its anti-Catholic overtones and children would make effigies of Guy Fawkes and beg for money, typically with the phrase “ a penny for the guy”. During the Victorian period, the festivities began to be held away from small communities and bonfires were lit on their outskirts, resembling the modern day events held today in parks. Victorians were familiar with much older songs that usually started with the words: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”. The celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, sometimes known as Gunpowder Treason Day, also extended to parts of the British Commonwealth. Early settlers to North America took the tradition with them, where it was sometimes called Pope Day. As the American Revolution drew near and anti-British sentiment increased, the commemoration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot went into decline.
Guy Fawkes’ legacy
Bonfire Night in England in the twenty-first century has long been a non-sectarian occasion, generally held in a park or suitably large venue with bonfires and a firework display. Effigies of Guy Fawkes can still be spotted although other unpopular celebrities of the moment are sometimes placed on the bonfire instead. Today there are concerns about public safely and the environmental risk posed by the toxins in the air from the bonfires. From the 1980’s onwards, when an Americanised version of Halloween began to increase in popularity, the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot has been somewhat overshadowed. Even so, in 2005, when the film V for Vendetta was released, its main character was an anarchist who wore a Guy Fawkes mask. This mask has been adopted by anti-establishment groups, is commonly seen during their protests and is to date the best-selling mask on Amazon. And did you know the Yeoman of the Guard, the famous Beefeaters, still perform a ceremony to this day, when they check the cellars under Westminster before the Opening of Parliament every year?