The Gunpowder Plot

 “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason why the Gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!”

Photo by: Rex, The Guardian

Guy Fawkes Day

Every November 5th we remember the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – a thwarted act of terror in which a group of Catholic conspirators planned to blow up the House of Lords (or Protestant controlled House of Parliament) to rid England of King James I. 

 

English Folk Verse (c. 1870)

            The Fifth of November

    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 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!

 

 

Perhaps most widely known in America from its use in the movie V for Vendetta, versions of this poem (“The Fifth of November”) have been wide spread in England for centuries. They celebrate the foiling of Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up (Protestant controlled) England's House of Parliament in 1605. Known variously as Guy Fawkes DayGunpowder Treason Day, and Fireworks Night, the November 5th celebrations in some time periods included the burning of the Pope or Guy Fawkes in effigy. The thwarted plot is commemorated every autumn with the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes, an oddly pagan act of gloating sanitized for family fun with the addition of fireworks, sparklers, and toffee apples.

Guy Fawkes attempts to plant gunpowder in the cellar of the Palace of Westminster in an engraving by George Cruikshank (Hulton Archive/Getty )

 

The Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot was a failed assassination attempt against King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby. The conspirators' aim was to blow up the House of Lords at the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605, while the king and many other important members of the aristocracy and nobility were inside. The conspirator who became most closely associated with the plot in the popular imagination was Guy Fawkes, who had been assigned the to light the fuse to the explosives. 

 

The plot was foiled due to a letter sent from an anonymous source to a Catholic sympathizer indicating there may be something to avoid at the State Opening of Parliament. And so on the night of November 4th, Guy Fawkes was found in the cellar of the Parliament building with some matches in his pocket and 36 barrels of gunpowder stacked next to him. He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured under special orders from King James. His co-conspirators were eventually captured, save for four, who died in a shootout with English troops. Fawkes and his surviving co-conspirators were all found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death in January 1606 by hanging, drawing and quartering. Ironically, Parliament found the day to be a day of thanksgiving. Thus, it has been celebrated as a national holiday in England for four centuries! 

Photo by Lázár Gerg – Corbis

 

The Masked Hero

Once known as a notorious traitor, the influence of the 1980s graphic novel “V for Vendetta” and 2005 movie of the same name has created a transformation for Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. The movie takes place during a time in which the fascist government was corrupt, dangerous and did not care for the people it served. The protagonist of the movie is “V”, a man who wears a Guy Fawkes mask while leading the battle against oppressive government officials. Due to its symbolism for freedom from oppression in the movie, Guy Fawkes masks have been increasingly used during protests against likewise oppressive groups running our government and social systems, such as protests on Wall Street in New York City. Forever remembered as a traitor to England, held with esteem to some, and praised as a hero in film, Guy Fawkes has made quite the infamous case for himself.