Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes Day

Bonfire Night  - how Englishmen like to commemorate an explosion
that didn't happen over 400 years ago

Happy Guy Fawkes Day! Today Brits traditionally light bonfires and burn figures of Guy Fawkes in effigy to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605. That was the date Robert Catesby, Fawkes and 11 others planned to assassinate King James I by blowing up the House of Lords.

Catesby and other English Catholics were unhappy with the Protestant rule in England and the suppression of Catholicism. They remembered when England was a Catholic country, before King Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome (Henry and the Pope had a beef over a marriage annulment) and established a separate Protestant church.

After the split English Catholics were persecuted for practicing their religion. Anyone who wanted to hold office in England had to swear allegiance to the reigning monarch, who was both the head of the state and the head of the church. Refusing to do so, and especially continuing to practice Catholicism, meant heavy fines and even imprisonment. Catholic priests ran the risk of torture and execution for saying Mass, and Catholic families would hide them from the authorities in “priest holes” built into the walls of their houses.

King James VI of Scotland and I of England,
by Daniel Mytens, 1821

In 1605, when King James VI of Scotland acceded to the English throne (following  Queen Elizabeth I, who was the last of the Tudors) the hopes of the Catholics in England ran high. They hoped their new king would be more tolerant of the Catholic religion. After all, King James’s wife was Catholic, as was his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.

And at first it looked as though the situation for Catholics was improving. King James made some reforms and lowered the fines for attending Mass. But then the king changed his tune. Under pressure from more radical Protestants, like the Puritans, he went back to enforcing English anti-Catholic laws, increasing penalties for practicing Catholics.

This caused widespread discontent in the Catholic community. By 1605 there had been two foiled attempts on the king’s life. Then Catesby and his fellow conspirators plotted a third try. Their idea was to kill the King and his ministers and put the King’s 11-year-old Catholic daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne. England would have a Catholic Queen and be a Catholic country once again. They chose November 5, the day of Parliament's opening session, to enact their plan. 

Princess Elizabeth at age 7, painted by
Robert Peake the Elder, 1603

The group put a military veteran named Guy Fawkes in charge of explosives.  Using a fake name and pretending to be a servant, Fawkes managed to collect 36 barrels of gunpowder, which he stashed in the cellar directly under the House of Lords. That was enough gunpowder to level the building and kill everyone inside it.

However, the authorities were tipped off in an anonymous letter the night before the event. Just after midnight on November 5 they searched the cellar and found Fawkes with the gunpowder, along with the matches and fuses he would need to set it off.

The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the Taking of Guy Fawkes, 
painted by Henry Perronet Briggs, about 1823

Under torture Fawkes confessed to the treasonous plot. His fellow conspirators fled London with the sheriff in hot pursuit. The conspirators went to a house in Staffordshire, where they made a final stand.

In the battle that followed Catesby and some others were shot and killed. The survivors, along with Fawkes, were tried and executed most gruesomely – hanged, drawn and quartered.

The Execution of Guy Fawkes, depicting the deaths of the Gunpowder Plot
conspirators, by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher, date unknown

And every year since the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, November 5th has been a holiday in Britain, commemorated with bonfires, sermons and other festivities in honor of King James' deliverance from his would-be assassins.

Children during the Regency would probably have been able to recite this rhyme by heart:

"Remember, remember, the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
should ever be forgot"

And to this day, nobody's forgotten!


Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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