Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's mercy he was catched
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him?
The 5th of November, although not a British public holiday, has been celebrated in the United Kingdom for over four hundred years. Usually we gather
together for a private (or public) event where the focal point is an evening’s fireworks display and the burning of a “guy” (an effigy) on a
bonfire. This is usually accompanied by the consumption of hot foods such as soup, baked potatoes, burgers and sausages.
But what are we Brits actually celebrating and why?
I’ll be honest, I haven’t studied the Gunpowder plot since I was in infant school and all I really remember is that it was a foiled plot to blow
up Parliament. Guy Fawkes was the bloke arrested, caught red-handed and sentence to death. In fact somewhere in between I was never really sure if we
were celebrating the daring plot or the fact that it was foiled.
The story itself involves a plan to murder the King by men loyal to their Catholic faith and the nagging doubt that the state itself may have actually
have been behind the events.
The seeds of the conspiracy began back with Henry VIII. The monarch seized control of the Church from Rome in the 1530s. His heir, Elizabeth I,
oversaw a period when Catholics were marginalized, fined for not attending Anglican Church services (recusancy), imprisoned and even executed for
practising their faith. The Protestant Church dominated and the Spanish Armada of 1588 and deepened the suspicions of Catholics.
In 1603 Elizabeth I passed away to be succeeded by James I. It was hoped by many that he would be more tolerant to Catholics. At first it seemed he
would be. His wife Queen Anne was a Catholic and he immediately ended the recusancy fines. However this gave Catholics a higher visibility across
England and a number of plots against the monarchy came to light.
On February 4th 1604 denounced the Catholic Church and re-introduced fines for recusancy after the Pope sent a rosary to his wife Queen Anne. Gradual
suppression of Catholics continued with even a Parliamentary Bill threatening to outlaw the Catholic faith in England.
The Gunpowder Plot
Although his name is not associated with the celebrations today , Robert Catesby, was the mastermind who hatched what has become known as the
Gunpowder plot. Catesby studied at Oxford but did not take his degree to avoid swearing the Oath of Supremacy (an allegiance to the monarch and Church
of England) due to his loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. He fought in the Essex rebellion of 1601 against the crown but was spared his life by the
Queen. Catesby was a charismatic character and assembled a number of other Catholics, Guido (Guy) Fawkes, Thomas Winter, John Wright and Thomas Percy.
A group he believed would help him restore a Catholic to the English crown in a treasonous plan. The numbers of which grew as the plans began to take
The main objective of the plot was to kill King James. The King’s opening of Parliament would provide the ideal opportunity plus the bonus of a
number of other ‘targets’ would be present on the day. As fears over the spread of the plague gripped the nation, the state opening of Parliament
was delayed a number of times until November 5th 1605.
The official account of the times includes the story that the conspirators had been digging a tunnel under the Houses of Parliament. However this is
in some doubt as no physical evidence of this has ever been found. However as luck had it they were able to rent a cellar underneath the House of
Lords in March 1605. Over time the men smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar. Enough explosive power to blast everything in the vicinity
into the sky.
By late October 1605 the plan was in its final stages. Guy Fawkes, having previous experience with explosives, was to light the fuse and then escape
to Europe where he would drum up support for their acceptance amongst sympathetic nations. Digby would lead a Catholic uprising in the Midlands and
capture Princess Elizabeth, the King’s daughter, installing her as a puppet monarch.
There was some concern amongst the conspirators and their close circle for the safety of some of the noblemen who would be at the opening of
Parliament. Discussion and disagreement about whether to issue a warning to various people took place. Then on October 26th an anonymous letter was
received at the home of Lord Monteagle who asked one of his servants to read it aloud.
“My lord out of the love I bear to some of you’re frends I have a care
of your preseruasion therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this parliament for god
and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time and think not slightly of this advertisement but retire youre self into youre control
where you may expect the event in saftey for though there be no appearance of any stir yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament
and yet they shall not see who hurts them this councel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm for the danger is
passed as soon as you have burnt the letter and I hope god will give you the grace to make good use of it to whose holy protection I commend
This was then taken by Monteagle to Whitehall and handed to then Lord Salisbury (Robert Cecil) who was trusted with matters of state security by the
King. Salisbury chose to bide his time and wait, believing striking at the last minute to be the most effective way to deal with the matter. Although
the conspirators were made aware of the letter they chose to visit London and sensing no serious danger to their plans continued with their plan to
murder the King and most of England’s dignitaries.
An initial search of Westminster on November 4th was conducted where a large pile of firewood was found in the under-croft beneath the House of Lords,
along with Fawkes, who told them that the firewood belonged to his master, Thomas Percy. The name Percy aroused suspicion and the King ordered a more
thorough search later in the evening.
The King’s search party once again discovered Fawkes in the cellar dressed in hat, cloak and boots surrounded by the gunpowder barrels hidden under
piles of coal.
The plot was foiled.
The conspirators were found guilty and sentenced to horrific executions. The
government responded by introducing tough new anti-Catholic legislation and it would be 200 years before these laws were finally relaxed.
edit on 2/11/13 by mirageman because: tidy up