On the 5th of November, people across the UK celebrate Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night). This celebration originates from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy by a group of English Catholics led by Robert Catesby to assassinate the Protestant Kind James I of England and his ministers. But, how did they intend to kill him? They wanted to blow up the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament.
Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building. However, the scheme began to unravel when as anonymous letter was sent to William Parker warning him to avoid the House of Lords. The letter ended up being made public and this led to a search of the Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5th.
Explosive expert Guy Fawkes, who had been left in the cellar to set off the fuse, was subsequently caught when a group of guards discovered him at the last moment. He was arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave up the names of his fellow plotters. Nevertheless, he did not die from being hung, drawn and quartered. As we waited his grisly punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt to his death in order to avoid the horrors of the traditional death for traitors (which in 17th-centure England it was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in public). He ended up dying from a broken neck.
Some people believe that it is somewhat unfair to blame it all on Fawkes as he was not the Gunpowder Plot’s ringleader. There were 13 conspirators in the plot, which was masterminded by Robert Catsby, a charismatic Catholic figure who has a reputation for speaking out against the English Crown. But since it was Fawkes who was caught, he ended up as the primary face of this night. Nevertheless, all conspirators were either killed resisting capture or tried, convicted, and executed.
The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the state opening, which has been held in November since 1928. The idea is to ensure no modern-day Guy Fawkes is hiding in the cellars with a bomb, although it is more ceremonial than serious.
The cellar that Fawkes tried to blow up no longer exists. In 1834 it was destroyed in a fire which devastated the medieval Houses of Parliament.
Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated in the United Kingdom, and in a number of countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, with fireworks, bonfires and parades. Straw dummies representing Fawkes are tossed on the bonfire, as well as those of contemporary political figures.
This historic event has been used in many different art forms, especially in literary and cinematic works. The most well-known is probably the English poem titled “Fifth of November” which was popularised by the film “V for Vendetta”. Here is one the most popular versions of the poem:
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
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