Guy Fawkes Day: A Brief History
Every year in the UK, Guy Fawkes Day, also called Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night, on November 5th, commemorates a failed assassination attempt over 400 years ago. On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes and a group of radical English Catholics attempted to assassinate King James I by blowing up the House of Lords in Parliament. the plot went awry and all the conspirators were executed. Soon after, the British began celebrating Fawkes’ death and the survival of their King by burning effigies, lighting bonfires, and setting off fireworks, a tradition that has continued to this day.
Listen to this week’s history podcast: Remember, Remember November 5th
background of the Gunpowder Plot
Catholicism in England was heavily suppressed under Queen Elizabeth I, particularly after she was excommunicated by the Pope in 1570. During her reign, dozens of priests were executed, and Catholics could not even legally celebrate Mass or marry according to their laws. As a result, many Catholics had high hopes when King James I ascended the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603. James’s wife, Anne, is believed to have previously converted to Catholicism, and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots , was Isabella’s Catholic arch-rival before she was executed. There were even rumors, inspired by his diplomatic overtures to the pope, that James himself would convert to Catholicism.
However, it soon became clear that James did not support religious tolerance of Catholics. in 1604 he publicly condemned catholicism as a superstition, ordered all catholic priests to leave england, and expressed concern about the increasing number of catholics. he also largely continued the repressive policies of his predecessor, such as fines for those who refused to attend Protestant services.
English Catholics had organized several unsuccessful conspiracies against Elizabeth, and these continued under James’s leadership. In 1603, some priests and laymen hatched a so-called plot to kidnap James, only to be turned in by her fellow Catholics. Another related conspiracy that year, known as the main plot, sought to kill James and install her cousin on the throne. Then, in May 1604, a handful of Catholic dissenters—Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Tom Wintour, Jack Wright, and Thomas Percy—met at London’s Duck and Drake Inn, where Catesby proposed a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament. with gunpowder. afterwards, the five men allegedly swore an oath of secrecy over a prayer book.
the gunpowder plot is hatched and then foiled
Eight other conspirators would later join what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. But while Catesby was the ringleader, Fawkes has gotten most of the publicity for the past 400+ years. Born in 1570 in York, England, Fawkes spent about a decade fighting for Spain against Protestant rebels in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands. He also personally requested the King of Spain to help him start an English rebellion against James. According to writings in the Spanish archives, Fawkes believed that the English king was a heretic who would expel his Catholic subjects. Fawkes apparently also expressed strong prejudice against the Scots.
around 1605 fawkes called himself guido instead of boy. He also used the alias John Johnson while serving as caretaker of a cellar, located just below the House of Lords, that the conspirators had leased to store gunpowder. According to the plan, Fawkes would light a match on November 5, 1605, during the opening of a new session of Parliament. James, his eldest son, the House of Lords and the House of Commons would be blown up. Meanwhile, as Fawkes escaped in a boat across the River Thames, his fellow conspirators would start an uprising in the English Midlands, kidnap James’s daughter Elizabeth, install her as a puppet queen, and eventually marry her off to a Catholic, restoring thus the Catholic monarchy.
On October 26, an anonymous letter advising a Catholic sympathizer to prevent the state opening of parliament alerted authorities to the existence of a plot. to this day, no one knows for sure who wrote the letter. some historians have even suggested that it was fabricated and that the authorities already knew about the Gunpowder Plot, and only let it go forward as an excuse to crack down on Catholicism. Either way, a search party found Fawkes lurking in his basement around midnight on November 4, with matches in his pocket and 36 barrels of gunpowder stacked beside him. For Fawkes, the failure of the plot could be attributed to “the devil and not God.” he was taken to the tower of london and tortured by special order of king james. soon after, his accomplices were also arrested, except for four, including Catesby, who was killed in a firefight with English troops.
Fawkes and his surviving accomplices were convicted of high treason and sentenced to death in January 1606 by hanging, drawing lots, and quartering. a Jesuit priest was also executed a few months later for his alleged involvement, even as new laws barred Catholics from voting in elections, practicing law or serving in the military. in fact, Catholics were not fully emancipated in England until the 19th century.
guy fawkes day becomes a holiday
After the plot was revealed, Londoners began lighting celebratory bonfires, and in January 1606, an Act of Parliament designated November 5 as Thanksgiving. Guy Fawkes Day festivities soon spread to the American colonies, where they became known as Pope’s Day. in keeping with the anti-catholic sentiment of the time, british subjects on both sides of the atlantic would burn an effigy of the pope. That tradition died out completely in the United States in the 19th century, while in Britain Guy Fawkes Day became a time to gather with friends and family, set off fireworks, build bonfires, attend parades, and burn effigies. de fawkes. Children traditionally circled their effigies demanding a “penny for the boy” (a custom similar to Halloween trick-or-treating) and imploring the crowds to “remember, remember November 5th.”
The guy’s kidding himself, meanwhile, he’s had something of a makeover. once known as a notorious traitor, he is now portrayed in some circles as a revolutionary hero, largely due to the influence of the 1980s graphic novel “v for vendetta” and the 2005 film of the same name, which It showed a protagonist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask as he fights against a future fascist government in Britain. Guy Fawkes masks even cropped up at Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City and elsewhere. “Each generation reinvents Guy Fawkes to suit their needs,” explained historian William B. Robison of Southeastern Louisiana University. but fawkes was just one of the lackeys. it really should be robert catesby by day.”