On the night of 4th/5th November 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellars beneath Westminster. The idea was to blow up the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament on the 5th November, and to assassinate King James I.
Although the plot happened in the Stuart period, in the reign of King James I, it actually had its origins in Elizabeth’s reign. Elizabeth had continued the work of Henry VIII, and Edward VI and made England a Protestant country. By the end of her reign, England was a dangerous place for Catholics, with the threat of persecution and even death hanging over them. As Elizabeth’s health deteriorated, the Catholics pinned their hopes on James VI of Scotland, who was married to a Catholic, and who was the son of the late Catholic queen, Mary, Queen of Scots. Although he himself was a Protestant, the Catholics felt sure that he would be sympathetic to their cause.
James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, on Elizabeth’s death, and although his reign started well for the Catholics, with James limiting the restrictions on Catholics, things took a turn for the worse when, after opposition from Protestants, James reversed his policy less than a year after implementing it. The Catholics’ hopes were dashed and they felt betrayed. One party of young Catholics, headed by Robert Catesby, a popular and rebellious young man at court, decided to seek revenge through rebellion. They met in London in May 1604 and hatched a plan to blow up the Palace of Westminster on the opening session of Parliament, thus killing the King, the Royal family, members of Parliament (MPs), the Lords and the leading bishops. This would be the first step in their rebellion which sought to replace James I with his daughter, nine year-old Princess Elizabeth, as a Catholic queen.
One of the plotters, Thomas Percy, a member of the King’s Bodyguard, was able to lease lodgings that were situated adjacent to the House of Lords, and the idea was that the plotters would dig down underneath the foundations of the House of Lords and place gunpowder there. Guy Fawkes (also known as Guido Fawkes), a man who had been fighting for the Spanish in the Low Countries, was the man chosen to put the plan into operation by preparing the gunpowder and lighting the fuse, and he posed as Percy’s servant, calling himself John Johnson so that he could stay in the property.
The Black Plague of summer 1604 meant that the plan had to be changed due to the opening of Parliament being delayed. However, this delay worked in the mens’ favour because during this time, they learned of a vacant ground-floor undercroft directly under the House of Lords Chamber. Thomas Percy was able to secure the lease of this undercroft. Guy Fawkes and other members of the group set about filling this space with 36 barrels of gunpowder, which had the potential to completely level the Palace of Westminster.
Everything seemed fine, and the plot looked as if it would be successful, until Lord Monteagle received an anonymous tip-off just over a week before the state opening of Parliament was due to take place. The letter, thought to be from Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law, Sir Francis Tresham, who had recently become a member of the plot, gave enough details for Lord Monteagle to go to Robert Cecil. Cecil took the news to the King, who ordered the cellars beneath Westminster to be searched. It was on the night of the 4th/5th November that Guy Fawkes was found red-handed with the evidence – 36 barrels of gunpowder!
Guy Fawkes was arrested and tortured for information, but despite this failure, Catesby still attempted to incite armed rebellion in the Midland. It, too, was a failure and Catesby, along with a few of his co-conspirators, was killed in a shoot-out on 8th November. Those who weren’t killed were arrested, tried and then hanged, drawn and quartered in January 1606.
On 5th November 1605, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s narrow escape by lighting bonfires around the city, and it is that celebration that is remembered in the UK every year on 5th November, along with the fireworks which have their origins in Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder. In fact, this celebration to give thanks for the deliverance of the King was made compulsory in the United Kingdom until 1859.
The traditional rhyme which is said on Guy Fawkes Night is:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
The UK has a Queen on the throne at present, so the last part of the last line is changed to “God save the Queen”.
I've been lucky enough to attend the Lewes Bonfire Night celebrations on a few occasions. Six different Bonfire Societies do processions and they really are incredible. Here's a video to give you an idea:
On Bonfire Night, it is traditional for us Brits to enjoy jacket potatoes (lovely done in foil around the bonfire) and toffee apples. Click here for a recipe for toffee apples - yum!