Guy Fawkes by Cruikshank
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
I’ve never really been a fan of fireworks. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my dog used to get really frightened of them and shake in the corner of our kitchen whenever he heard them going off. But even as a small child when I was taken to watch the bonfire and firework displays, I would always be morbidly fascinated by the ‘Guy’ that was on top of the bonfire and how the crowd would watch him burn. It was my grandfather who told me why we did it, and whilst his story made me shudder inside, I thought it was all kinds of awesome. Maybe in a way, hearing my grandfather tell me the story of the Gunpowder plot is what sparked my interest in the Seventeenth Century. But what I find amazing is that even today we celebrate the fact that Guy Fawkes and his conspirators tried to blow up our parliament. Only in Britain eh?
But why do we do it?
In the early hours of the morning on November 5th 1605, a magistrate and gentleman of the Kings Privy Chamber (Thomas Knyvet) were sent to search the vaults beneath Parliament. King James I was incredibly suspicious of any plot to murder him and even more so after Lord Monteagle showed him a letter. This letter had been sent to Monteagle by one of the conspirators, warning him not to be in Parliament on November 5th as the place would be blown up.
As Knyvet and the Magistrate searched the vaults they discovered Guy Fawkes making his way out of a room. He was fully dressed with his boots on, and thinking it slightly suspicious Knyvet had him arrested. As Fawkes was hauled away, Knyvet’s men discovered 36 barrels of gunpowder and wooden faggots. It became glaringly obvious what had been planned and what had been so close to being successful.
Guy Fawkes was imprisoned and interrogated. Yet Fawkes refused to give away the names of his fellow conspirators, and his fortitude actually impressed his interrogators. Faced with a barrage of questions he admitted he had recently been to Flanders and when the reason why was demanded he retorted that he had gone to sight see and pass the time! The real reason was of course to try and get help for the conspiracy. When he spoke plainly, and it wasn’t often, he expressed his dislike of the Scottish King but other than that he refused to give any other answers. It was only on 7th November, likely after torture, that he gave the interrogators his name and that was only after a letter addressed to him was found in his pockets. At the same time, thanks to being tortured that he implicated his fellow torturers. Fawkes however was the only conspirator to suffer torture, and once King James had the answers he wanted, the torture was stopped.
Four of Fawkes’ co-conspirators perished in a skirmish at Holbeach House in Staffordshire as the army tried to arrest them. The remaining 8 men were captured and imprisoned, and they were kept in the Tower of London until January 1606 when they were all tried for treason. On 27th January 1606, they faced trial in Westminster Hall, although the verdict was already a foregone conclusion although all but Sir Edward Digby pleaded not guilty. On 30th January, four of the men were executed in St Paul’s churchyard and the following day it was the turn of Winter, Ambrose, Rookwood, Keyes and Fawkes. They were hung, drawn and quartered in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster.
And the reason we still light bonfires today? King James I ordered that bonfires should be lit every year on November 5th in celebration of his lucky escape from the treasonous plotters. And until 1859, prayers of thanksgiving for the King’s escape were still being read. Indeed, the celebrations kept on going as well due to the country’s dislike of Catholicism and popery at the time and the plot was seen as one of the most horrific catholic conspiracies ever committed. Indeed the Puritans kept on the tradition well into the reign of Charles I’s reign as a stand up to the Catholicism that was feared to be creeping into the royal court. James II’s court tried to ban the celebrations in the early years of his reign (as James was a catholic) but the idea fell flat on its face, especially after William of Orange landed in England and took the throne from James.
Although these days the country is open to religious toleration, the celebrations of November 5th still go on. It seems it is ingrained into the minds of the English, and we still celebrate the downfall of the notorious plotter Guy Fawkes. For the most part, the celebrations are just that, celebrations although in some parts of the country there are still some towns which stay with the traditional anti catholic tradition; not only with their bonfires and fireworks but also parading with an effigy of the Pope which then gets burned on the bonfire. An excellent example of this is Lewes in Sussex.
The traditional ‘anti catholic’ 5th November celebrations in Lewes, Sussex
Whatever you are up to tonight; whether you are going to watch a bonfire and fireworks display or staying in, do stay safe. And try not to forget the reason why we still light bonfires on 5th November.
Mark Nicholls, ‘Fawkes, Guy (bap. 1570, d. 1606)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9230, accessed 5 Nov 2012]