There’s an old gag that the only man ever to enter the Houses of Parliament with honourable intentions was… Guy Fawkes!
Tonight is Bonfire Night, celebrating and commemorating the events of November 5th, 1605, when Fawkes (pictured) was discovered and arrested while guarding a cache of explosives which he and his co-conspirators had piled in cellars beneath the House of Lords.
The 13 members of the Gunpowder Plot intended to detonate the explosives later that same day, during the State Opening of Parliament, killing the Protestant King James I. It would, according to their plan, be the spark to light a popular revolt culminating in the installation of a new Roman Catholic head of state.
But the plot was betrayed and Fawkes was discovered in the early hours of November 5th guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder – enough to reduce the House of Lords to rubble. Fawkes was seized and tortured to obtain the names of his fellow plotters, who were swiftly arrested or killed as they attempted to flee. The eight survivors, including Fawkes, were tried and convicted of high treason and sentenced to the most brutal form of execution – being hanged, drawn and quartered.
When news of the failed plot broke, supporters of King James celebrated by lighting a series of bonfires around London. The following January, just days before the plotters were executed, Parliament passed the “Observance of 5th November Act”, more commonly known as the “Thanksgiving Act”. As well as making it compulsory for people to attend church that day and give thanks for their king’s safe deliverance, it permitted them to hold their own celebrations.
Some took the form of feasts, parades and the ringing of church bells, but in most places bonfires were also built and lit – a traditional form of celebration since pagan times. Within a few decades “Gunpowder Treason Day”, as it was known, became a widespread state-sponsored celebration, often with strong anti-Catholic overtones.
Sermons were delivered by Puritan clerics on the evils of “popery” and effigies of hate figures were burnt on public bonfires. These effigies were usually of the Pope, but could also be of the prominent members of the Gunpowder Plot, especially Guy Fawkes. By the end of the 18th century there were reports of children begging with effigies of Fawkes in the run-up to November 5th, the tradition of asking for a “penny for the Guy” still surviving today.
Some towns, notably Lewes in East Sussex, still celebrate each year by holding big parades and burning large and impressive effigies of topical and usually controversial public figures on their bonfires. Last year’s Lewes effigies included North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shamed Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, American President Donald Trump and, of course, Prime Minister Theresa May. Always among the Lewes effigies are Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, who was pope at the time of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.
By the mid-1800s changing attitudes resulted in toning down much of the annual celebration’s anti-Catholic sentiment and in 1859 the Observance of November 5th Act was repealed, after only 254 years! But the tradition of commemorating the Gunpowder Plot on or around November 5th has survived and thrived, bolstered by the addition of fireworks. Now more often known as simply Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night, it is usually celebrated at large organised events, often with extravagant pyrotechnic displays.
Guy Fawkes usually still plays his part, perched on top of the bonfire, though in truth he was actually one of the less prominent members of the plot. He just had the misfortune of being chosen to guard the explosives (and possibly light the fuse) because of his military experience and familiarity with gunpowder.
Many historians argue I that if anyone is to be burnt on a bonfire each year it should be the originator and leader of the Gunpowder Plot, Robert Catesby… although “penny for the Robert” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
As for poor Fawkes, he had one small victory left in him. As the executioner prepared to hang him to the point of unconsciousness – prior to being publicly disembowelled alive then beheaded and chopped into four pieces – Fawkes climbed as high as he could on the ladder and leapt from the scaffold with the noose in place. His neck was broken and death was instantaneous, at least sparing him the terrible indignities to follow!