The Fifth of November
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
We See No Reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should Ever Be Forgot
In recent posts Michaeline and Kay have explored the history and customs of Halloween, with its ghost stories and supernaturally assisted techniques to identify one’s true love. We enjoy Halloween in the UK, but the tradition doesn’t run as deep here thanks to a scheduling clash with the Gunpowder Plot, a real-life political thriller from November 1605, such a brilliant piece of theatre that the story lives on more than four hundred years later.
On the face of it, Guy Fawkes had all the attributes of a hero – reports suggest that he was tall and powerfully built, intelligent, decisive, and pleasant-tempered. He was a soldier and a man of action, highly skilled in military matters, a strategic thinker and capable of great physical endurance. He was a principled man with strongly-held beliefs. He had a goal, he was most definitely in conflict, and oh boy, he had a plot.
If we were writing this from Guy’s perspective it would be the tragic tale of a freedom fighter betrayed to the occupying forces, but since the story gets told by the winner (in this case Robert Cecil, spymaster to King James I), Guy doesn’t even get the runner-up prize of charismatic antagonist, but goes straight to One-Dimensional Very Bad Man.
Guy was a committed Catholic, which was a dangerous thing to be in those times. Seventy years earlier, King Henry VIII had invented the Church of England and declared himself, not the Pope, to be its head in order to legitimize his marriage to the pregnant Anne Boleyn. After that, and especially when Henry and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I became Queen, every Catholic was potentially a threat to the state. Henry VIII’s legacy lasts even today, when the monarch cannot be a Catholic and as part of their coronation each new King or Queen must swear ‘to uphold the Protestant religion by law established.’
Guy wasn’t even the leader of what became known as the Gunpowder Plot, but he was the munitions expert. It was his job to source and ignite the explosives, so he was the man who was discovered nursing thirty-six barrels of gunpowder and a pile of kindling in a cellar directly under the spot in the House of Lords where the King was due to sit for the opening of Parliament the following day. Guy was arrested and withstood two days of excruciating torture before he betrayed his fellow conspirators and was sentenced to a traitor’s death.
Maybe it’s the writer in me that wonders how the conspiracy could have been 18 months in the making and only have been foiled by Guy’s arrest in the cellars at midnight, with a scant few hours to go. The timing would do any Hollywood movie-maker proud, and the dramatic discovery makes a better story than quietly intercepting the conspirators. Very quickly Guy Fawkes became the embodiment of Catholic extremism, and it became traditional to light a bonfire, burn an effigy called ‘the Guy,’ and set off fireworks on 5 November to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. It must have been extra satisfying for the authorities that Bonfire Night became to all intents a Protestant replacement for the Celtic festival of Samhain and its successor All Hallows Eve or Halloween.
So while the other Ladies have been trick-or-treating and scaring their families with ghost stories, this weekend I’ll be enjoying the firework show over the city of London and wondering about the four-hundred year old spin merchant who created a lasting legend that has transcended its origins.