Jilly: Guy Fawkes – Gunpowder, Treason and a Great Story


The Fall Guy

Remember, Remember
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.

11 thoughts on “Jilly: Guy Fawkes – Gunpowder, Treason and a Great Story

  1. A British friend of mine combines Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes Day) with Halloween, mostly because she teaches English conversation in Japan, and the Japanese people tend to expect a little Halloween with their tuition. So, I know a tiny bit about it. (-: The more celebrations, the better, I say.

    I read an article that suggested Guy Fawkes was actually the fall guy for a very complicated plot. It’s really hard for me tell who the good guys and the bad guys really are in this story.

    It looks like some people are very much in the “Yay, Guy Fawkes!” category — I found this article from last year: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/smartnews/2012/11/the-modern-way-to-honor-guy-fawkes-hack-a-website/

    Enjoy the fireworks, and have a lovely evening!

    • I’m not sure about the good guys and bad guys – there’s the state v the revolutionaries, Protestant v Catholic, or Scotland v England – King James was already King of Scotland and became King of England. Guy Fawkes supposedly said he wanted to ‘blow the Scots back over the border’.

      The Smithsonian article is interesting, and the adoption of Guy as an international symbol of anti-establishment protest is a new twist on his story.

        • There are a few theories (of course) but the favorite is that one of the conspirators warned his brother-in-law, who was due to be present at the House of Lords, and the brother-in-law blew the whistle.

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right, Justine. I believe the main character in “V for Vendetta” adopts the persona and mission of Guy Fawkes, and it’s also the origin of the stylised Guy Fawkes masks that have become a protest symbol.

  2. I used to work with an Anglophile, and every Nov. 5, my Silicon Valley crowd would all go out to a British-styled pub for fish and chips. So there’s the big ideas for you–state v the revolutionaries, Protestant v Catholic, Scotland v England–or fish and chips v hamburgers. Guy would probably roll over in his grave if he knew. Have a fun Nov. 5!

    • I don’t think Guy got a grave – he was a traitor, so he got hacked into pieces and distributed around the kingdom (he should have been hanged,drawn and quartered but he managed to skip the middle step).

      I like the idea of celebrating with fish and chips, California-style!

      • I dunno. Good men, driven to bad choices, in pursuit of ideals that seem good and honorable at least to the people who support them. The Anglican Church really weren’t good guys. But the Catholics weren’t good guys, either. It was a very political situation, where the “ideals” weren’t necessarily beneficial to the common people, no matter which you chose. I think that’s a common story all over the world. (-: And a very complex, thought-provoking one!

        And, for the common people who don’t really have a stake in which religion gets the most political power, a good reason to have a bonfire and express some frustrations!

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