Guy Fawkes Day and Night
In the United Kingdom, Guy Fawkes day is a remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot, a failed assassination attempt against King James I by a group of English Catholics. The conspirators, led by Robert Catesby, were upset by James’ failure to end religious persecution of Catholics.
Persecution of Catholics in England came in the wake of several critical events including 1) Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church; 2) the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada to overthrow Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I and restore Catholicism and; 3) competing claims to the throne following the death of Elizabeth. Elizabeth was childless, and the English throne had passed to James, the son of Henry’s Catholic daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots (who had been beheaded for conspiring to overthrow Elizabeth and restore Catholicism). James was king of Scotland, and the great-great-grandson of Henry VII. His ascension was thought to unite the thrones of Britain, Scotland and Ireland. Many Catholics in England, however, had sought to have Philip II of Spain’s daughter, Isabella as the successor.
Still, given that James’ mother, Mary, was such a staunch Catholic, members of the church in England had high hopes. James was more moderate than Elizabeth, but ultimately disappointed them by not converting to his mother’s faith.
Mary, for what it’s worth, was an avid golfer.
Catesby and his fellow conspirators planned to use gunpowder to blow up the House of Lords on November 5th, 1605, during the Opening of Parliament. After figuratively decapitating the English leadership, the conspirators planned to install James’ nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, on the throne. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, a military veteran, was left in charge of setting the explosives.
The plot fell apart when an anonymous letter alerted authorities. A search of the House of Lords on the night of November 4th and 5th uncovered 36 barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes, who was guarding the powder, was at first thought to be a servant, but was later arrested. Investigators soon learned the names of other conspirators by torturing Fawkes and by raiding the homes of suspects.
The remaining conspirators were pursued and ultimately cornered by the forces of the Sheriff of Worcester. A pitched battle was fought and several of the would-be assassins, including Catesby, were killed. At a subsequent trial, Fawkes, along with eight others, was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.
Following the trials, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act, which required ministers to hold services thanking God for the King’s salvation from assassination on November 5th. The Act remained law until 1859. Sermons were accompanied by the ringing of church bells, bonfires and fireworks. Effigies of the Pope were burned. Naturally, that sort of revelry resulted in increasingly violent “celebrations.”
Eventually — as anti-Catholic fervor was tempered — “Gunpowder Treason Day” came to be known as Guy Fawkes Day or Guy Fawkes Night. Instead of burning effigies of the Pope, Englishmen burned effigies of Guy Fawkes. During the celebrations, children begged for money and treats for “The Guy” in a situation weirdly similar to US Halloween celebrations. And what was once an often violent anti-Catholic demonstration became a more genteel social event.
Modern audiences — particularly in the United States — are likely familiar with Guy Fawkes because of a Guy Fawkes mask worn by the protagonist in the comic and movie, V For Vendetta. The mask also has been adopted by numerous groups, such as the hacktivist collective, Anonymous.
In V for Vendetta, “V” quotes a line from a folk song about the plot:
The fifth of November …
The entirety of the folk song / poem follows:
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!