What’s Guy Fawkes’ Night AKA Bonfire Night AKA Fireworks Night all about?
If you are anywhere in the UK tonight, you are probably either at a Bonfire Night party, a Guy Fawkes’ Night bash, or hearing the cracks and bangs and seeing the stars out of the window from other people’s celebrations.
The gunpowder plot, the failure of which is commemorated every 5th November, was an audacious plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November 1605.
It was the day of the State Opening of Parliament, and the plotters hoped to kill pretty much everyone involved in the government in one fell swoop – King James I, Members of Parliament, and the Lords Spiritual and Temporal (the House of Lords mob).
And now, 400 and more years later, it’s a big, annual event here, still. So this post will tell you all about the history of the gunpowder plot, and how its failure turned into the celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Night. The next post on this blog will be about the celebration of Bonfire Night to this very day.
As a poet wrote (in slightly doggerel form) at the time of the gunpowder plot:
- Remember, remember the fifth of November,
- The gunpowder treason and plot,
- I know of no reason
- Why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.
The Gunpowder Plot
Led by Robert Catesby, a group of disgruntled Catholics, who had hoped the accession of James I would lead to greater religious toleration, and had been disappointed in their expectations, had a big idea.
They decided to blow up the government, kill the King at the same time, dispose of most of his family, kidnap his 9 year old daughter, Elizabeth, lead a country-wide rebellion based in the Midlands, and then put Elizabeth on the throne as Queen of England and Scotland.
Guy Fawkes was a Roman Catholic who had fought for the (Catholic) Spanish Empire for at least 10 years, known in Spain as Guido Fawkes. He had a lot of experience of blowing things up, and became the man in charge of the Gunpowder Plot attempt to blow up Parliament.
In May 1604, one of the plotters, Thomas Percy, rented rooms next to the House of Lords, intending to tunnel underneath the House and put gunpowder there. The plotters started their excavations, but a nasty outbreak of plague caused the State Opening of Parliament to be put back to 1605.
A cellar under the House of Lords became vacant, and Thomas Percy quickly grabbed the lease and rented it. Guy Fawkes then arranged for 36 barrels of gunpowder to be put in the cellar, covered with firewood (36 barrels of gunpowder blowing up in one go would cause a pretty impressive explosion, by all accounts).
How it all went wrong
As the State Opening drew closer, Guy Fawkes prepared to supervise the explosion, and the rest of the plotters made their way to the Midlands, to start the rebellion once Parliament had been blown to smithereens.
At least some of the plotters were worried about blowing up fellow-Catholics attending the event. At the end of October, an anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle, a prominent Catholic, saying, retyre youre self into yowre contee whence yow maye expect the event in safti for … they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament (retire yourself into your county, where you may expect the event in safety, for… they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament).
Lord Monteagle, being a public-spirited sort of chap, brought the letter to the attention of Robert Cecil, Secretary of State and Earl of Salisbury, who showed it to the King. A search of the Parliament was ordered, and in the early hours of the morning of the 5th November, D-Day, as it were, Thomas Knyvet arrested Guy Fawkes leaving the gunpowder cellar.
The aftermath, torture, and executions
Guy Fawkes gave a false name (Johnson) and was held in the Tower of London. He claimed he had been acting alone, and later under torture gave the names only of plotters already caught.
Torture was only allowed by Royal Warrant or by the order of the Star Chamber, but James I cheerfully gave his written orders for torture to be carried out, writing
“The gentler tortures are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur” (“and thus by steps extended to greater ones, in English”), “and so God speed your good work.”
The Midlands rebellion was attempted, but fizzled out.
The plotters were tried in Westminster Hall, part of the House of Parliament to this day, in a grand public event, on 27th January 1606.
With a certain judicial swiftness, the men were found guilty in the one-day trial, and executed on 30th January in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London (4 men) and the rest, including Fawkes, were hanged drawn and quarted in Westminster on 31st January.
Fawkes managed to evade the really nasty bits of his punishment by jumping as he was hanged, so he wasn’t still alive to have his entrails removed and be chopped into bits.
James I gave a speech to Parliament a few days after the discovery of the plot, in which he described its failure as a miracle, and explained how it had confirmed his belief in the Divine Right of Kings.
It was that belief of the Stuart Kings which lead to all sorts of trouble later in the century, most notably, the regicide of King Charles II and the establishment of the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.