A Moment in History – Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

November 2, 2010

This week, on November 5th and surrounding days, people across England will mark Bonfire Night, an annual event which involves burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on top of a bonfire and setting off copious amounts of firecrackers.

So who was Guy Fawkes and what’s it all about?

Bonfire Night (the 5th November is also known as Guy Fawkes Day or Fireworks Night) has its origins in 1605 when a group of Catholics – including Guy or Guido Fawkes (the latter the Spanish form of his name) – attempted to blow up parliament in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot.

Born in York in 1570, Fawkes converted to Catholicism some time before selling his inheritance and heading to continental Europe where he fought as a mercenary for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch in the Eighty Years War.

Having later travelled to Spain where he unsuccessfully tried to drum up support for a Catholic rebellion in England, he then returned to England where he was introduced to Robert Catesby, who planned to assassinate King James I and much of parliament and put a Catholic monarch back on the throne.

Having leased an undercroft beneath the House of Lords, the group of 13 plotters stockpiled gunpowder there with Fawkes put in charge of lighting it on 5th November before making his escape to the Continent. An anonymous letter, however, to Catholic Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend the State Opening of Parliament, led authorities to the site around midnight on 4th November and there they found Fawkes guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Arrested (he initially gave them the name of John Johnson), he subsequently confessed under torture and was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – a sentence which he shortened by leaping off the scaffold and breaking his own neck before it could be carried out. The other plotters were also either killed, imprisoned or executed.

Bonfires were supposed to have been lit the night after the plot was foiled – 5th November – to celebrate the king’s safety and they have been ever since that date (in fact, James I passed an Act of Parliament making 5th November a day of thanksgiving – it remained in force until 1859).

Effigies of Fawkes followed (although some people substitute that of Fawkes with other people) as did the firecrackers. Some children carry effigies of Fawkes around asking for a “penny for the Guy” in an effort to apparently raise money for firecrackers. The poem which starts “Remember, remember, the fifth of November” is also associated with the night.

The night, which is now celebrated for all sorts of reasons – some suggest Guy Fawkes should be recognised as a hero for defending persecuted people against governments, is reportedly still observed in places as far afield as the US and New Zealand.

The cellar where Fawkes was arrested no longer exists – it was destroyed during a fire which consumed much of the medieval Houses of Parliament in 1834. But interestingly, the Yeoman of the Guard still do search the Houses of Parliament before each State Opening of Parliament. Two confessions signed by Fawkes are held at the National Archives.

PICTURE:  Agata Urbaniak (www.sxc.hu)

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