“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot. But what of the man? I know his name was Guy Fawkes, and I know that, in 1605, he attempted to blow up the houses of Parliament. But who was he really? What was he like? We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught. He can be killed and forgotten. But four hundred years later an idea can still change the world.” – Evey Hammond, ‘V For Vendetta’
So what is Bonfire Night all about then? Guy Fawkes has been described as the only man ever to have entered Parliament with honest intentions, but why did he do what he did? And what exactly was it he actually did in the first place?
England in 1605 was a confused and confusing place to live. During the previous eighty-odd years, the official religious denomination of the country had switched from Catholic to Protestant and back again, several times, after Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic church in the 1520s in an attempt to gain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Throughout this period, those whose religious beliefs had been swept aside by the multiple switches between denominations plotted to return the country to what they believed was the ‘true faith’, mostly with little success. Henry’s eldest daughter, the Catholic Queen Mary had renegade Protestants burned at the stake, and her fiercely Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I was happy to execute Catholic plotters, including the unfortunate and not very bright Mary, Queen of Scots.
With the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the throne went to Mary, Queen of Scots’ son, the Protestant James I. Despite his Protestantism, British Catholics fervently hoped that James, unlike his predecessor, would introduce official and legal toleration of their faith, and at first it seemed as if the persecution they had suffered under Elizabeth would indeed finally end.
But it was not to be. James was not prepared to compromise with either the Catholics or the extreme Protestant Puritans, and re-introduced the harsh religious penalties for non-attendance at Protestant church services that had made Catholic lives a misery during Elizabeth’s reign.
The idea was to wait for the next State Opening of Parliament and somehow blow the king, most of his family and the whole of Parliament to kingdom come. Once that had been achieved, the rest of the king’s family would be taken hostage and a country-wide revolt would be triggered in order to return England to Catholicism.
Most of those involved were seasoned plotters, but they had little practical experience in actually meeting the ends they had set out to achieve – which was why Guy Fawkes was brought in to the conspiracy. A Catholic gentleman who had previously been a mercenary in the Spanish army, Fawkes had a great deal of experience in the sort of explosive situations the plotters were dealing with, and it was he who was to play the most dangerous role in the entire plot.
After an abortive attempt to dig a tunnel from a nearby house to the Palace of Westminster, the plotters happened upon a real stroke of luck. Via some useful contacts, they were able to rent a cellar right underneath the House of Lords itself! In the guise of a servant stocking up a supply of fuel for the winter, Fawkes filled the cellar with at least thirty six barrels of gunpowder – easily enough to send the entire place sky high.
Once that was done, the conspirators had only to wait for the State Opening of Parliament, which was due to be held on the 5th November. However, it was at this point that things started falling apart. No-one really knows exactly what happened – perhaps the plotters had made their intentions known to too many people – but somehow their conspiracy leaked out.
Their downfall came when the ‘reformed’ Catholic and brother-in-law of one of the plotters, Lord Monteagle, who was due to be present at the Opening, received an anonymous letter ten days beforehand, warning him to stay away from Parliament on the 5th November. Monteagle immediately took the incriminating letter to one of the most powerful politicians of the era, the Secretary of State Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury.
It is entirely possible that Cecil, who had spy networks all over the country, already knew about the plot and was in the process of neutralising it. It is certain that, despite the obvious threat to the king posed by the suggestions made in the Monteagle Letter, Cecil appeared slow in reacting to it, not searching the cellar until the 4th November. Fawkes was caught red-handed and arrested in the cellar that evening.
The news of Fawkes’ arrest spread rapidly, and the rest of the conspirators went on the run, making one last, futile attempt to pull together their long-promised uprising. It didn’t work, and most of the Gunpowder Plotters were swiftly arrested, although four of them were killed in a bloody shoot-out at Holbeche House in Staffordshire.
Those who were captured were taken to the Tower of London, interrogated, tortured and eventually executed. The effects of the torture inflicted on the conspirators can clearly be seen in the two famous images of Fawkes’ signature – one from a confession made on the 8th November, and the other on the confession he made a day later. The difference is pronounced, to say the least. He was executed on Old Palace Yard, Westminster on January 31st 1606.
The very public capture and execution of the Gunpowder Plotters seems to have brought to an end any active Catholic conspiracies in England, but many Protestants remained paranoid of Catholicism. However, many Protestants also celebrated the breaking of the plot as evidence that King James and England had been delivered from Catholic conspiracy by god.
It is in these celebrations that the origins of the modern bonfire night, or Guy Fawkes night, are found. By letting off fireworks and burning a ‘guy’ on a bonfire, we are, often without realising it, harking back to an earlier era of social and religious intolerance, when the crushing of dissent by one religious denomination against another could be a cause of celebration.