Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. In this week’s episode, we’ll take a look at an upcoming date that is traditionally a day of celebration in England – 5 November, known throughout the country as Guy Fawkes’ Day.
In 1605, King James I of England (IV of Scotland) had recently arrived from Scotland. His predecessor, Elizabeth I, had made the English Church’s break from Rome even more concrete than her father Henry after his power struggle with the pope in the Vatican, but many Catholics still remained in the country and obviously wanted to continue worshipping as they had for centuries. It became clear that James wasn’t going to offer any more toleration for Catholicism than his mother, and Roman Catholics throughout the land became understandably upset at this.
Enter the Gunpowder Plot. The Gunpowder plot refers to the conspiracy and failed attempt to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament on the State Opening of Parliament in 1605, when the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons would all be together. The primary minds behind the Plot were Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, John Wright, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, and (later) Robert Keyes, and these men began to formulate their assassination in 1604. The band intended to decapitate the English government in one fell swoop, destroying King and Parliament both at once. Furthermore, the conspirators wanted to capture the king’s children, Prince Charles and Princess Elizabeth, so that after the attack they could install one as monarch and force them to allow Catholics the rights they felt they deserved.
The Plot originally began by renting a house attached to Westminster below the Prince’s Chamber. A tunnel would then be dug underground to the massive foundations of the House of Lords, through which kegs of gunpowder that were in storage at Lambeth across the Thames from Westminster would be smuggled in. However, a better opportunity soon cropped up. A chamber under the House of Lords was being rented out for storage, and when the tenant left his lease on 25 March 1605, Thomas Percy took it up and found himself in possession of the perfect hiding spot for all the gunpowder. The tunnel plan was abandoned. Throughout the summer and fall of 1605, details were worked out, and the date for the act was set for November 5. Guy Fawkes, who would operate under the alias John Johnson, servant of Thomas Percy, was designated the man to light the slow fuses that would detonate the barrels of explosive powder. He was to set sail for the European Continent as soon as he had completed his task.
With the complexity of the Plot, it was impossible to keep the secret among just those few men listed earlier, and the network grew considerably. Some of the less prominent conspirators began to get worried about members of Parliament who were Catholic themselves would die should the Plot go through to completion at the State Opening. Lord Monteagle, Member of the House of Lords and a known Catholic, received a letter bearing the following text on Saturday, 26 October:
My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care for your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance of this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow, the Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them.. This counsel is not to be contemned, because it may do you good and can do you no harm, for the danger is past as soon as you have burnt the letter: and I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.
Obviously, the receipt of such a letter (which was shown to Lord Cecil, England’s Secretary of State) was cause for much concern, and so on 4 November Lord Monteagle and Lord Suffolk, the Lord Chamberlain, conducted a search of the cellars below the Lords Chamber and spotted Fawkes, along with coal and wood that Thomas Percy had supplied in order to hide the barrels of gunpowder. At midnight, Sir Thomas Knyvett, one of the Court’s retainers and Justice for Westminster made a more thorough search with a group of men and found Fawkes again. This time, he posed as a Mr. John Johnson, servant of Thomas Percy. The men found Fawkes to be in possession of a watch, slow matches, and touchpaper – all essential elements to setting off the massive explosion that would have leveled Westminster. While being arrested, Fawkes offered no denial of his intentions and made it clear he was there to blow up the King and Parliament. He was taken to the King’s bedchamber and presented to King James, where he maintained his defiant attitude, saying that the King had been excommunicated and that dangerous diseases required desperate remedies. Guy Fawkes soon found himself on the way to the Tower of London, where torture awaited him.
The Clerk of the House, Ralph Ewens, made a marginal note of the event as part of the day’s business, saying, “This last night, the Upper House of Parliament was searched by Sir Thomas Knyvett, and one Johnson, servant to Mr. Thomas Percy, was there apprehended, who had placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the vault under the House with a purpose to blow [up] it and the whole company when they should here assemble.” King James made an emotional speech at the State Opening, saying that it would have been an honor to die among his own Commons (as the House of Commons would have been in the Chamber for the opening ceremony). He claimed that kings were subject to perils that mere mortals would never face, and that only his own cleverness had saved them all from death. James was surely flabbergasted when Parliament responded to his speech by more or less ignoring his speech and turning to the business of the day, specifically to discuss one Member of Parliament’s petition to be relived of his duties due to an attack of gout. James’ relationship with his Parliament was clearly shaky at best, but those details will be saved for a future episode. 5 November was a day of great rejoicing in London, and the following Sunday (10 November) was set as a day of Thanksgiving.
Most of Fawkes’ co-conspirators were caught within a week, tortured, and killed (if they weren’t shot on sight when they were found). All were set to be hanged, drawn, and quartered – they would be hung by their necks until almost dead (hanged), and then they would be disemboweled (drawn). Their genitalia would be cut off and burned before their eyes, along with the entrails recently removed from their bodies. They would then be cut into pieces (quartered). The chunks of their bodies would then be posted at prominent and visible locations around the city. The men were given a trial, which took place on 27 January 1606 in Westminster Hall. All but 1 pleaded not guilty. The executions were set for four days later. The lesser conspirators were to be executed at St. Paul’s Churchyard, while the so-called “leaders” of the Plot were to be killed at Old Palace Yard at Westminster, in front of the place they had planned to destroy. Although he had already been subjected to excruciating pain in order to extract a confession, Guy Fawkes managed to escape further suffering on his execution day. Immediately prior to being hanged until almost dead, Fawkes simply jumped off the scaffold – doing so would guarantee enough force on the noose that his neck would snap as soon as the rope fell as far as its length allowed. Fawkes died instantly. One of his co-conspirators, Robert Keyes, tried to same tactic, but to no avail – when he jumped, the rope simply broke, and he went straight to the drawing portion of execution.
A few months later, in May 1606, another person was executed in connection to the Gunpowder Plot – Father Henry Garnett, a Jesuit priest who acted as confessor to the conspirators. Father Garnett claimed that what he was told during the Sacrament of Reconciliation was protected by the Seal of the Confessional, and that he had tried to talk the men out of the act. He was killed anyway for protecting treasonous information.
5 November immediately became a national day of commemoration. An Act of Parliament was passed to make 5 November a day of thanksgiving for the “joyful day of deliverance”, and the Act remained in effect until 1859. People began to celebrate the event with bonfires, and soon the fiery festivities became tradition. Children began making effigies of Guy Fawkes, stuffing old clothes with newspapers or any other appropriate filling, and burning them – in essence, “burning the Guy.” In modern times, some places such as Lewes and Battle in Sussex hold large processions and public bonfires to celebrate. Bonfires in back gardens and fireworks can be found in most towns on the night of 5 November, and children show off their homemade “guys” for weeks before the event, raising money to buy fireworks. Many children have committed to memory a chant to remember why they are celebrating:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
We see no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow:
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!
Every year, the Yeoman of the Guard search the Houses of Parliament before the State Opening, a traditional ritual performed not for security’s sake but to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. It would be difficult for the Yeoman to find anyone in the original cellar, anyway – it was damaged by fire in 1834 and destroyed when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in the 19th century.
To this day, there is confusion as to the actual origins of the Plot. Most believe that it was an earnest attempt by the conspirators to overthrow the English government and install one friendly to Catholics. However, some think that Secretary of State Lord Cecil set the plot into motion, making the conspirators believe they were working of their own accord. The Secretary could then use the Plot to discredit Catholics within the country. Some even go so far as to think that Guy Fawkes was one of Cecil’s men, paid to plan the Plot but eventually taking the fall for Cecil. This leads to further mystery as the letter written to Lord Monteagle warning him away from the Opening of Parliament – was it actually written by one of the conspirators, or did Cecil send it to him to expose the alleged Plot? We may, and most likely will, not ever know. What we can be certain of is that 5 November will continue to be celebrated for many years to come.
A bit before James’ time, the Tudor family ruled Britain, and my fellow podcaster and British history enthusiast Lara Eakins has the perfect resource for all things Tudor:
Thanks, Lara. That’s it for this episode. Check out my blog at britishhistory101.com for a transcript of this and past episodes. Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com. I’m borrowing a page from Matt’s Today in History’s playbook and making myself available, should I happen to be at my computer, via Skype by the name britishhistory101, all in lowercase letters. Our music tonight is “Sir Watkins’ Delight,” performed by Cheryl Ann Fulton and available on Magnatune.com. Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit magnatune.com for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Until next week, my best to you all, and thanks again for learning with me. Now that we’re done here, go out and make some history!