Lesson #30: Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November (1605)
[Kind of the prequel to "V for Vendetta." - HAC ]
In 1605, Guy Fawkes (also known as Guido—yes, really) and a group of conspirators
attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under
her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion.
James I had, after all, had a Catholic mother. Unfortunately, James did not turn
out to be more tolerant than Elizabeth and a number of young men, 13 to be exact,
decided that violent action was the answer.
A small group took shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby felt that
violent action was warranted. Indeed, the thing to do was to blow up the Houses of
Parliament. In doing so, they would kill the king, maybe even the Prince of Wales,
and the Members of Parliament who were making life difficult for the Catholics. Today
these conspirators would be known as extremists, or terrorists.
To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder and
stored them in a cellar, just under the House of Lords. But as the group worked on
the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack,
including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. Some of the
plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members even sent an anonymous
letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November
5th. Was the letter real?
The warning letter reached the king, and the king's forces made plans to stop the
Guy Fawkes, who was in the cellar of the parliament with the 36 barrels of gunpowder
when the authorities stormed it in the early hours of November 5th, was caught, tortured
and executed. It is ironic that his name became irrevocably associated with the Gunpowder
Plot to the point where the resulting holiday is even called Guy Fawkes' Night, because
Fawkes was in fact not the leader but a mere player. A better name would be the Catesby
Plot, but Fawkes just happened to get caught with the goods.
It's unclear if the conspirators would ever have been able to pull off their plan
to blow up the Parliament even if they had not been betrayed. Some have suggested
that the gunpowder itself was so old as to be useless. Since Guy Fawkes and the other
conspirators got caught before trying to ignite the powder, we'll never know for
certain. If the powder had detonated, then London might have gotten a taste of bombing
centuries before Zeppelins, the Blitz, the IRA and Al-Qaeda were even thought of.
Even for the period which was notoriously unstable, the Gunpowder Plot struck a very
profound chord for the people of England. In fact, even today, the reigning monarch
only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called "the State Opening of Parliament".
Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard search the
cellars of the Palace of Westminster. Nowadays, the Queen and Parliament still observe
this tradition. (In light of recent events, they probably need to.)
On the very night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires
were set alight to celebrate the safety of the king. Since then, November 5th has
become known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes' Night. The event is commemorated every
year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire. In fact Fawkes
and his fellow conspirators were not burned. They were hanged, drawn, and quartered,
in a gruesome spectacle of public execution which took several hours of screaming
and splattering, to the joy of the London mob.
Some of the English have been known to wonder, in a tongue in cheek kind of way,
whether they are celebrating Fawkes' execution or honoring his attempt to do away
with the government.