The Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot!
(The Fifth of November, English Folk Verse, c.1870)
On the 5th November many people light fireworks, watch dazzling displays and warm themselves near bonfires. It is well known that on this day we are celebrating the anniversary of the failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament by Guy Fawkes. But who else was behind it and why did Guy Fawkes become the leading face of the notorious plot?
In 1603 James I became the new King of England, taking over from the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Catholics in England hoped that with James being the son of the late Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, he would be more sympathetic to Catholicism, but instead, he carried on with the persecutions against them. This is important because the Gunpowder Plot is said to have had a religious motivation with the conspirators being Catholic and wanting to murder King James I. The group of conspirators attempted to mount a terrorist attack on their own King and government because of the religious upheavals.
Robert Catesby was actually the leader of the Gunpowder Plot and first recruited his close friends and relatives. He was the son of a gentry Catholic family from the English midlands. In his early 30s he conceived the plot. A Victorian historian declared “he is said to have exercised a magical influence on all who mixed with him.” He began recruiting in 1604.
He first recruited Thomas Winter (his cousin), John Wright and Thomas Percy. Thomas Winter travelled to Flanders (which was under Spanish rule) to seek out Spanish assistance but Spain was not interested. However, Winter found Guy Fawkes, a former schoolmate of John Wright. Fawkes was fighting for the Spanish in Flanders. Born a Protestant, he later converted to Catholicism and his qualities were noted by English Catholics. In May 1604, at the Duck and Drake Inn in London, the 5 men met and swore an oath of loyalty and secrecy.
Thomas Percy began living in a house close to parliament, while Fawkes, by then using the name John Johnson, posed as his servant. The conspiracy grew to include new members; Robert Keyes, Robert Winter (brother of Thomas), John Grant, Christopher Wright (brother of John), and the servant Thomas Bates.
In March 1605, Percy rented a basement storeroom at the Palace of Westminster. The gunpowder was transported directly to there. 3 wealthy influential men, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham, and Sir Everard Digby, joined the conspiracy, bringing the total number to 13.
The plot to blow up the King and the Houses of Parliament during the Opening of Parliament stayed a secret until English nobleman Lord Monteagle received a letter in late October 1605. The unsigned letter got straight to the point: “My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation, therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this parliament … for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow.”
The mysterious sender then urged Monteagle to burn the letter. But, Monteagle who was a Catholic decided to save himself from the gruesome punishment that he would face and forwarded the letter to Robert Cecil, chief minister of King James I. The letter made its way to the King on 1st November, who at first doubted whether the threat was genuine. Despite the scepticism, on 4thNovember, the Earl of Suffolk conducted a search of the Palace of Westminster. The Earl reported that he found no substantial cause for concern but he did notice a privately rented ground-floor storeroom that contained an unusually large amount of firewood.
Later that day, Sir Thomas Knyvett, a minor but trustworthy royal official, oversaw a second search of the Parliament buildings. The same storeroom attracted his attention as did the man guarding it, Guy Fawkes. He was not dressed like a watchman, instead he was wearing a cloak, boots, and spurs – clothes more suited for making a quick getaway on horseback.
Knyvett’s men shifted the firewood and found 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden behind it. The man, who gave his name as John Johnson, was found to have “matches”. Fawkes claimed the firewood belonged to his master Thomas Percy. However, this only aroused further suspicion as Percy was already known to the authorities as a Catholic agitator. Kynvett uncovered the conspiracy with the aim being to set up a Roman Catholic regime in Protestant England with James I’s daughter Elizabeth as its puppet ruler.
Although it has never been proven who sent the letter, many believe it was Francis Tresham, the brother-in-law of Lord Monteagle.
On the other hand, historians now argue that the letter warning Lord Monteagle to stay away from Parliament was actually fabricated by the King’s officials. Historians suggest that the King’s officials already knew about the plot and that one of the plotters in fact revealed the key points of the plot to the authorities (suspect being Francis Tresham). The letter was a tool created by the King’s officials to explain how at the last minute the King found out and stopped it just before it wreaked havoc. The letter was unsigned and none of the conspirators confessed to having written it or having knowledge of the letter – something one would have confessed in order to reduce punishment. The letter was also very vague in its content, it said nothing about the details of the planned attack. Still, the King and his men knew exactly where and when to catch them, stopping the explosion just hours before it was to take place.
Fawkes managed to resist interrogation until King James issued an order on 6th November 1605 authorising the use of torture on Fawkes, who only then confessed his real name and the plot. By then many of the conspirators had fled but the King’s forces moved to hunt them down.
The leader Catesby, Percy and Christopher Wright were killed in a shoot-out in Staffordshire in northern England with James I’s soldiers. Catesby’s death denied historians his version of how the conspiracy unfolded – how the idea of blowing up Parliament came to him as well as the way in which he recruited his conspirators.
The rest were caught and taken back to London and convicted of treason, except for Francis Tresham who died in prison before the trial. All who were tried were sentenced to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered.”
Fawkes and the others were set for execution in January 1606. Fawkes was able to escape his full sentence by on the day of his execution jumping from the gallows, breaking his own neck in the fall. However, his corpse was still quartered and sent to “the four corners of the kingdom.”
The miraculous nature of the plot’s discovery proved an important propaganda tool. Even before the executions of the plotters, Parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act of 1606 requiring every parish church in England to deliver a sermon on 5thNovember thanking God for deliverance from a Catholic plot. It became known as Gunpowder Treason Day.
Effigies of the Pope were burnt on 5th November continuing the anti-Catholic sentiment of the time. Towards the end of the 18th century, children began walking the streets with homemade masked effigies of Guy Fawkes, begging for “a penny for the Guy”.
Guy Fawkes eventually replaced the Pope atop the burning bonfires and the day shifted from Gunpowder Treason Day to Guy Fawkes Day (also called Bonfire Night). The commemoration began to lose its religious and political undertones and in 1859 the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed.
Despite the leader Robert Catesby and the other conspirators, Fawkes became the face of the conspiracy with lasting fame.
The question is, in today’s age, are we celebrating Fawkes’ execution or perhaps honouring his attempt to bring an end to the government?