Guy Fawkes Day is a primarily British holiday commemorating the arrest of Guy Fawkes and his part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 CE. He was arrested for attempting to blow up Parliament. Also known as Guy Fawkes Night, Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night today, it was historically called the Gunpowder Treason Day.
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot
Tensions between Catholics and Protestants that erupted during the middle 16th century. Coming to play due to Henry VIII’s desire to get an annulment from Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Bolyen. The English Reformation began as the Church of England split from the Pope and Roman Catholic Church.
So, who was Guy Fawkes?
Guy “Guido” Fawkes was born in 1570 in Stonegate, York. At eight years old, when his father died, his mother married a Catholic man who firmly refused to attend or support Anglican church, called a Recusant Catholic.
A British soldier who fought in the 8 years war in Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers. In fact, he learned to handle explosives in Spain and that became a hallmark of his future. Fawkes had travelled to Catholic Spain to gain support for a Catholic rebellion in England. It was there that he met Thomas Wintour and through him Robert Catesby. They planned to assassinate James I in an attempt to restore a Catholic monarch to the English throne.
When the rebels rented an undercroft (cellar) beneath Parliament where they stockpiled gunpowder. Guy Fawkes was put in charge of the stockpile. There was enough gunpowder in the cellar to not only destroy the parliament building, but the whole Westminster area. Had they succeeded, it would have been the largest terrorist act in British history.
The Gunpowder Plot and what they actually planned to do.
Obviously, the Gunpowder plot failed. But what were they supposed to do? What was the plan?
On 20 May in 1604, conspirators met and decided how to make the greeted impact of the rebellion. The initial conspirators were Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Tom Wintour, Jack Wright, Thomas Percy. Robert Catesy proposed using gunpowder to blow up parliament. The date chosen was the opening Day of Parliament. This was originally an earlier date, but the threat of Plague pushed it off until November 5.
The plan was to light the fuse during an open parliament session. When the gunpowder exploded, they expected it to kill both James I and his eldest son. The plotters would then escape by boat, and start an uprising in the English Midlands. Upon success they planned to kidnap James’ daughter Elizabeth, and make her a puppet queen. With her under their control, they would have her marry a Catholic to restore the Catholic monarchy.
The Plot was discovered because of an anonymous letter.
The letter, sent on 26 October to a Catholic sympathizer recommending that they avoid the opening of Parliament. Some historians think that it may have been fabricated and that the situation was used by authorities to justify further persecution of Catholics.
Searches around parliament found Guy Fawkes in the cellar on 4 November with 36 barrels of gunpowder and matches. Arrested and taken to the Tower of London, the authorities tortured Fawkes for information. Fellow conspirators were arrested. Four of those conspirators including Gatesby, died in a shootout with English troops. They hanged, drawn, and quartered the surviving conspirators in January of 1606. Fawkes himself either due to being weak from torture or the way the rope was placed, actually broke his neck in the hanging, although he was drawn and quartered posthumously.
People in London lit bonfires in celebration after the arrest.
The people celebrated the arrests with bonfires, music and even explosions. Soon after, in 1606 Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act (also known as the Thanksgiving Act). This Act called for a public day of Thanksgiving that the plot was discovered. The 5th November thus became Gunpowder Treason Day.
The Gunpowder Plot was used to justify further persecution of Catholics. They were banned from Voting, practicing law, serving in the military, running for office and owning land. While some of these predated the Gunpowder Plot, many were direct reactions to it. They did not again become fully emancipated until the 19th Century.
Until the 19th Century, Guy Fawkes Day was framed as a protestant victory day. Popal effigies were burned.
Traditions commonly celebrated today for Guy Fawkes Day
Today, the holiday has morphed into a general celebration with little emphasis on the monarchy and revolution. Bonfires, Fireworks and Guy Fawkes effigies, called “Guys” are a huge part of the celebrations. Kids go around with the effigies and collect money. There are even foods that are specific to the holiday. Bonfire Toffee, Toffee Apples, and baked potatoes, cooked in the embers of bonfires are found throughout the United Kingdom celebrations.
What is often most recognizable to others about Guy Fawkes Day is the nursery rhyme
The rhyme was written and rewritten often. There are many variations of it, but the following is one of the most familiar.
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’
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King
And what should we do with him? Burn him!”
–The Fifth of November, n.d.
We hope this has helped answer some questions about Guy Fawkes Day that we received this year. It’s a fascinating glimpse into how a moment in history can be remembered for lifetimes.
at The Researcher’s Gateway