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Guy Fawkes & the Gunpowder Plot

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In 1605, thirteen young men planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Among them was Guido (Guy) Fawkes, Britain’s most notorious traitor.

Gunpowder plot - Guy Fawkes & the Gunpowder Plot

After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. James I had, after all, had a Catholic mother. Remember this is James I, who authored the Daemonologie and supposedly made Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General, not the most tolerant of men.

A small group took shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby felt that violent action was warranted. Indeed, the thing to do was to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The conspirators’ principal aim was to kill King James, but many other important targets would also be present at the State Opening, including the monarch’s nearest relatives and members of the Privy Council. The senior judges of the English legal system, most of the Protestant aristocracy, and the bishops of the Church of England would all have attended in their capacity as members of the House of Lords, along with the members of the House of Commons.

Another important objective was the kidnapping of the King’s daughter, third in the line of succession, Princess Elizabeth. Housed at Coombe Abbey near Coventry, the Princess lived only ten miles north of Warwick which was convenient for the plotters as most of them lived in the Midlands. Once the King and his Parliament were dead, the plotters intended to install Elizabeth on the English throne as a titular Queen with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, as Elizabeth’s Protector.

Combe Abbey Brit Ill - Guy Fawkes & the Gunpowder Plot

To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder – and stored them in a cellar, just under the House of Lords.

But as the group worked on the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack, including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members even sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th. Was the letter real?

The warning letter reached the King, and the King’s forces made plans to stop the conspirators.

Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting in the Spanish Netherlands in the failed suppression of the Dutch Revolt, was given charge of the explosives. However, he was in the cellar of the parliament with the 36 barrels of gunpowder when the authorities stormed it in the early hours of November 5th and was caught, tortured and executed.

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It’s unclear if the conspirators would ever have been able to pull off their plan to blow up the Parliament even if they had not been betrayed. Some have suggested that the gunpowder itself was so old as to be useless. Since Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators got caught before trying to ignite the powder this will never be known for certain.

Even for the period which was notoriously unstable, the Gunpowder Plot struck a very profound chord for the people of England. Even today, the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year for the “State Opening of Parliament”. Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster.

Houses of Parliament London 1852 - Guy Fawkes & the Gunpowder Plot

On the very night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night. The event is commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Some wonder whether we are celebrating Fawkes’ execution or honouring his attempt to do away with the government. The extent of the celebrations and the size of the bonfire varies from one community to the next. Lewes, in the South East of England, is famous for its Bonfire Night festivities and consistently attracts thousands of people each year to participate.

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Bonfire Night is not only celebrated in Britain. The tradition crossed the oceans and established itself in the British colonies during the centuries. It was actively celebrated in New England as “Pope Day” as late as the 18th century. Today, November 5th bonfires still light up in places like New Zealand and Newfoundland in Canada.

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