When Was the Gunpowder Plot?
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot; for I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” – so goes the old English chant associated with the yearly burning on thousand of village greens and in millions of private gardens throughout England every fifth of November of the effigy of Guy Fawkes. For November 5th celebrates the discovery of the famous plot to blow up the English House of Lords.
Guy Fawkes was a Catholic gentleman who played a major role in Robert Catesby’s plot to blow up King James I and his Parliament for failing to honor Jame’s pledge to extend more toleration to the Catholics. Catesby apparently had vague ideas of a Catholic take-over of the country. There were five main conspirators, including Fawkes.
The conspirators’ principal aim was to kill King James, but many other important targets would also be present at the State Opening, including the monarch’s nearest relatives and members of the Privy Council. The senior judges of the English legal system, most of the Protestant aristocracy, and the bishops of the Church of England would all have attended in their capacity as members of the House of Lords, along with the members of the House of Commons.
Another important objective was the kidnapping of the King’s daughter, third in the line of succession, Princess Elizabeth. Housed at Coombe Abbey near Coventry, the Princess lived only ten miles north of Warwick—convenient for the plotters, most of whom lived in the Midlands. Once the King and his Parliament were dead, the plotters intended to install Elizabeth on the English throne as a titular Queen.
The fate of Princes Henry and Charles would be improvised; their role in state ceremonies was, as yet, uncertain. The plotters planned to use Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, as Elizabeth’s Protector, but most likely never informed him of this.
In May 1604 they rented a house near the Parliament building and started to dig a passage which was designed to reach a point just below the House of Lords. But in 1605 the conspirators were able to rent a neighboring cellar which was directly beneath the Palace of Westminster. They linked their passageway to this cellar and Fawkes was allotted the task of preparing the explosion. He gathered together at least twenty barrels of gunpowder in the cellar and covered them up with wood and coal.
All seemed set for the great day, which was the November opening of parliament. By this time the number of conspirators had risen to thirteen, one of whom, Francis Tresham, had a brother, Lord Monteagle, in the House of Lords. Tresham sent a secret letter warning his brother that a “terrible blow” was to be delivered against Parliament and adding “yet they shall not see who hurts them”. Monteagle took the letter to the King’s ministers. On November 4th they had the cellars at Westminster searched and Guy Fawkes was discovered there with his gunpowder.
In Britain, the 5th of November is variously called Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, or Guy Fawkes Night. It remains the custom in Britain, on or around 5 November, to let off fireworks. Traditionally, in the weeks running up to the 5th, children made “guys”—effigies supposedly of Fawkes—usually made from old clothes stuffed with newspaper, and fitted with a grotesque mask, to be burnt on the 5 November bonfire.
These guys were exhibited in the street to collect money for fireworks, although this custom has become less common. The word guy thus came in the 19th century to mean an oddly dressed person, and hence in the 20th and 21st centuries to mean any male person.
November the 5th firework displays and bonfire parties are common throughout Britain, in major public displays and in private gardens. In some areas, particularly in Sussex, there are extensive processions, large bonfires and firework displays organised by local bonfire societies, the most elaborate of which take place in Lewes.
According to the biographer Esther Forbes, the Guy Fawkes Day celebration in the pre-revolutionary American colonies was a very popular holiday. In Boston, the revelry took on anti-authoritarian overtones, and often became so dangerous that many would not venture out of their homes.