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The Gunpowder Plot

Richard Jinman

Why do Brits light fires and let off fireworks on 5 November? It's all because of Guy Fawkes


GB Mag explains: The Gunpowder Plot
The gunpowder plotter ... Guy Fawkes masks and (inset) a portrait of the real Guy Fawkes.

KIDS who go to school in the UK learn a little rhyme that goes like this: "Remember, remember the fifth of November gunpowder treason and plot..." 

OK, you probably have no idea what we’re talking about, but this little rhyme explains why us Brits spend the evening of November 5 lighting bonfires and letting off fireworks. The rhyme refers to November 5th 1605 - the date when a man called Guy Fawkes planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Nowadays it’s known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night.

The Gunpowder Plot, as it came to be knownwas hatched in May 1604 by a group of men that included Guy Fawkes. They planned to blow up both King James I and The Houses of Parliament on 5 November, 1605 - the day Parliament opened.

The plot was born out of anger. The men believed King James I had gone back on his promise to stop the mistreatment of Catholics who were forced to practice their religion in secrecy. Rather than putting a stop to the mistreatment, King James I passed more laws against them.

The plotters bought a house with a cellar (basement) that extended under the Houses of Parliament. They filled it with barrels of gunpowder.

A total of 36 barrels (nearly two tons) of gunpowder were hidden and Guy Fawkes had the job of lighting the fuse. But the plan failed when Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter on 26 October,1605 urging him not to attend the opening of Parliament. The letter was shown to the King, which led to the discovery of the gunpowder. Guy Fawkes was arrested on the night of November 4th as he entered the cellar.

Though he would be classed as a ‘terrorist’ in today’s world, many people regard Fawkes as a hero because he tried to fight wrongdoing in the only way he could.

What happened to Guy Fawkes?

Fawkes was the first to be caught (which is why he’s so famous) and taken to the Tower of London to be questioned and tortured. He eventually told the truth and his punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered (chopped into four pieces.) – how gruesome! Over time the other conspirators were also caught and executed except for one – Francis Tresham.

Who sent the letter that foiled the plot?

It’s believed Monteagle’s brother in law, Francis Tresham (who was part of the group, and the only one who was not executed) sent the letter, though this was never proven. Recent historians argue Lord Monteagle and Robert Cecil (King James I’s chief minister) were working together with Francis Tresham to set up Fawkes and the other conspirators as a way to further people’s hatred towards Catholics.

GB Mag explains: The Gunpowder PlotWhy the bonfires and fireworks?

In celebration of his survival, King James I ordered that people have a bonfire on the night of November 5th. The tradition has continued and now people around the UK (except in Northern Ireland) do the same every November 5th.

Did you know?

• Guy Fawkes’ name was actually ‘Guido’ – he adopted this name whilst fighting for the Spanish.

• He was actually born a protestant but converted to Catholicism when he was he was 16.

• Though Guy Fawkes had one of the most important roles in The Gunpowder Plot, he wasn’t the main person behind the plot.

• There was enough gunpowder to blow up the entire building and cause considerable damage to buildings (not to mention people) within a one mile radius.

• Some believe that even if Guy Fawkes wasn’t caught the plot would still have been unsuccessful because the gunpowder was too old to be of any use.

• In 2002 Guy Fawkes was named as the 30th Greatest Britain in a poll conducted by the BBC!

• Another reason Guy Fawkes wanted to kill King James I was because he was Scottish and many English people did not want a Scot to rule the country (back then Scotland and England were separate countries).

• An empty island north of Santa Cruz Island is named Isla Guy Fawkes (Guy Fawkes Island) it’s questioned whether he planned to escape there.

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