Tonight, all over England (and perhaps other parts of the UK), people will be lighting fires and setting off fireworks in celebration of . . . What? Well, we know that on this day, the 5th November, many, many years ago, a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament was thwarted, and the perpetrator, a certain Mr. Guy Fawkes, was arrested and sentenced to death. A rather macabre thing to celebrate, but we’ve been doing it for so many years now, the actual meaning of Bonfire Night is somewhat lost. Read on to learn more.
Who was Guy Fawkes?
Guy Fawkes was born on or around the 13th April 1570 in York, England, into a well-to-do family of Protestants, although his mother came from a staunch Catholic family. This may be what drew him to Catholicism after his father died when he was 8 years old when his maternal grandparents took more control over his education.
He fought in the 80 Years War for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch and in 1603 he returned to Spain to seek support for a rebellion against King James I. However, the King of Spain was reluctant to enter into further conflict with England and refused to help him.
So, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
The Gunpowder Plot
Having joined a group of English Catholics who were plotting to murder the King and replace him with Princess Elizabeth, Guy agreed to take 12 of the group down to London, where they would hatch a plot to blow up the House of Lords. They met in a pub known as the Duck and Drake, sadly no longer standing, and discussed how they would go about it.
Guy had taken on the name of John Johnson at this time, and he managed to get a job as a caretaker to the house of the keeper of the King’s wardrobe. This gave him insight into the comings and goings of Parliament, and he discovered that there was a room that had a cellar that stretched right under the House of Lords. Contrary to popular belief that a tunnel was used to gain access (although this may have been part of the original plan), they bought the lease to the room and used the cellar to store 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Something else not many people know is that all this took place in the summertime, as Parliament was scheduled to open in July. However, due to the threat of The Plague, the opening was put back until November. If not for that we would be setting off fireworks in mid-summer!
Guy Fawkes’ Arrest and Interrogation
The plot began to fall apart when one of the conspirators wrote to a Catholic Lord warning him to stay away from the opening of Parliament as it would “receive a terrible blow” that day. Lord Monteagle thought that it might be a hoax but decided to show it to the King, who immediately ordered a search of the undercroft to the House.
Poor old Guy was caught red-handed, literally as he had a slow-burning match in his hand ready to light the fuse at the allotted time. He was arrested and taken to the Tower of London for “questioning”.
At first, he refused to give his real name, providing instead his assumed name of John Johnson, but after torturous interrogation, he signed his confession as Guido Fawkes, Guido being his Italian nickname given to him by his comrades in the Spanish war. He was subsequently sentenced to death along with the co-conspirators.
His death is often misquoted. He did not burn at the stake, and, unlike his co-conspirators, he was not hung drawn and quartered. In fact, he took his own life by jumping from the gallows as he was being led to meet his gruesome fate, breaking his neck in the process. The date was 31st January 1606. Despite him being dead, they still cut his body up and “cast his limbs to the four corners of the Kingdom”, to warn others of the consequences of treason.
Remember, Remember the 5th of November
A year later, the Observance of the 5th November Act, 1605 was passed, designating that day as a day of Thanksgiving, and people were encouraged to light fires across the country. Fireworks became a part of the celebration in 1650 and in 1673, the first effigy was burned, although back then it was meant to represent the Pope!
Over the years, many a politician or celebrity have been portrayed as the effigy, but the use of Guy Fawkes is the most endearing. It is only in relatively recent times that Guy has been used as the focal point, maybe to make it less political following the repeal of the Act in 1859, when children were encouraged to parade around the streets shouting “penny for the Guy”
So, when you set fire that rag filled suit of old clothes, give a thought to the person who has been described as “the last man to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intentions”.
It seems ironic that, in this day and age, Guido has greater political influence than at any time in our history, and it stretches right across the globe.
Does this mask look familiar?