It has been more than 400 years since Guy Fawkes was arrested for trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but he was not alone and not even the leader of the conspiracy. So why does the 5 November bonfire celebrations focus on him?
In 1605 religious freedom in Britain was severely restricted and, to all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Since Henry VIII created the Church of England, the country had endured 70 years of wavering religious enforcement. Henry VIII was surprisingly accepting of Catholicism, but his son Edward VI (1547-1553) was a passionate Protestant and enforced his religion in law. This was overturned by Edward’s Catholic sister, Mary I (1553-1558). So many Protestants were executed under her reign that she became known as Bloody Mary in the years after her death.
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Why we celebrate Guy Fawkes Night
Fawkes is a surname of Norman-French origin, first appearing in the British Isles after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The name ultimately derives from the pre-6th century Germanic given name of Falco (later Faulques) meaning “falcon”. The first recorded spelling of the surname in England is that of one Geoffrey Faukes in 1221.It is also, less frequently, a given name.
When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 Protestantism returned. It became illegal to miss church on a Sunday, with hefty fines for being absent. Worse, in 1581 being a Catholic was made a treasonable offence. The punishment for treason was execution.
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Why we celebrate Guy Fawkes Night
James I, who was Protestant, became King of England and Scotland in 1603 and he was more moderate, preferring to punish Catholics through exile rather than execution, but there was no hope of Catholicism returning as the national religion.
It was into this repressive atmosphere that a group of Catholics plotted to kill the king and all his senior ministers during the state opening of Parliament using 36 barrels of gunpowder (enough to destroy the building) placed in a rented cellar below the House of Lords.
Their aim was to install a new Catholic monarch on the throne. There were 13 plotters, including leader Robert Catesby.
So why is Guy Fawkes the one we remember?
Fawkes was in charge of the gunpowder and lighting the fuse. He was also the first to be caught. An anonymous letter warning Catholic sympathisers not to attend Parliament led to an investigation. The morning before the state opening on 5 November 1605, Fawkes was arrested.
“Royal guards searched The House of Lords at midnight and in the early hours of 5 November Fawkes was discovered in the cellars, with a fuse, a small lamp, a box of matches and 36 poorly-hidden barrels of gunpowder,” says the Tower of London website.
The site says it was “highly likely” that he was racked in the Tower of London, where he eventualy named his co-conspirators and signed a confession after holding out “bravely” for several days.
“Their fate was grisly: on 31 January 1606, they were dragged behind a horse along the streets of London to Westminster Yard where, one by one, they were hanged, drawn and quartered,” says the website. The body parts were then displayed throughout the capital as a warning to others.
Who was Guy Fawkes?
Born in York in 1570, Fawkes was one of three sons born to a Protestant church lawyer. When his father died, his mother married a Catholic, and Fawkes later converted to the religion. At 21, he set off to Spain (where he was known as Guido) to help the Catholic country fight Protestant Dutch reformers.
It was there that he met Englishman Thomas Wintour, a Catholic conspirator and cousin of Catesby. They returned to England in 1604 and a year later Fawkes was chosen to set the fuse underneath the Houses of Parliament because of his gunpowder knowledge from his military days.
Why do we celebrate a terror plot?
After the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, King James I passed “An Act for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God every Year on the Fifth Day of November”, also known as the Thanksgiving Act. Under the provisions of the act, special church services were held and people were encouraged to light bonfires each year on 5 November to commemorate Fawkes’s failure to blow up the king.
By the time the law changed two centuries later it had become an ingrained part of national culture: Bonfire Night. If the original anti-Catholic terrorist meaning of the celebration had disappeared, an excuse for a party was not easily forgotten.
The image of Fawkes also persists as a symbol of rebellion with his stylised face emblazoned on masks worn by protesters around the world.