Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Up until 1859, when the law was repealed, King James I made it compulsory for everyone to celebrate the saving of the King on 5 November. But what is Bonfire Night really about? Is it genuinely to mark the preservation of the sovereign or is it a smoke screen for something more sinister?
Guy Fawkes Night should perhaps be known as Robert Catesby Night, given he planned the whole thing. But then it doesn't have quite the same ring to it does it? And was it a plot that went wrong, or a plan the King knew about and used to justify his prosecution of the Roman Catholics?
And what made Guy Fawkes do it? Was he a product of a neglected childhood or was he simply a terrorist and extremist, a Bin Laden of the 17th Century?
In 1570 when Guy was born, Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Then when Guy was just 8 years old, his father died. By the time he was 16, Guy was a convert to Catholicism and in 1593, at 23 years old, he left England to fight for Spain.
In 1603, Elizabeth I died without an heir. James I (son of Mary Queen of Scots) enforced heavy fines on Catholics who failed to attend Protestant church services.
Guy asked King Phillip II of Spain to invade England in support of the Catholics, but he was too busy fighting his own wars, so by 1604, Robert Catesby had planned the Gunpowder Plot enlisting Guy, Thomas Percy, John Wright and Thomas Wintour. Their plan was to assassinate the King and his government, make James' daughter, Elizabeth, queen and then marry her to a Catholic nobleman.
During the weeks leading up to the 5 November, 36 barrels of gunpowder were put in place. The assassination was planned for the day of the State Opening of Parliament.
Guy was put in charge due to his military background and explosives knowledge. It was a simple plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament, taking out royalty, nobles and government. But one of the plotters, Francis Tresham warned his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, to stay away. This letter was unsigned, vague and held no identifying marks. It was received by Monteagle on 26 October.
The plotters found out about the letter the next day, but continued with their plan, in the belief that the details of their plot had not been disclosed. Guy Fawkes himself checked the cellars and confirmed nothing had been disturbed and so they were sure their secret was safe. All except Guy left London and waited for news of success.
But on the morning of 5 November 1605 the Secretary of State instructed that the cellars should be searched. Guy was found ready to light the gunpowder.
But how did the Secretary of State know to look in the cellars on that particular day? Had one of the plotters, the turncoat Francis Tresham, betrayed his fellow conspirators in the hope that he would be pardoned?
But what if the plan had been known about all along by the King and the letter was merely a hoax made up by the King's men? How could they have known precisely where to find Guy Fawkes? Did King James and his government allow the plan to go so far with the intention of exposing the intended atrocity, to show just how far the Catholics were prepared to go to get what they wanted?
Guy was arrested, and King James instructed the torture should be minimal to begin with and only increased if Guy refused to confess. But Guy was war hardened and it took nearly four days of increasingly brutal torture before he would disclose the names of his six conspirators.
On 31 January 1606, the plotters were executed in the gardens of St Paul’s Cathedral in the most gruesome way possible, hung drawn and quartered. Although it is said that even in his mutilated state, Guy refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing his execution and he jumped from the scaffold, breaking his neck.