“Remember, remember the fifth of November gunpowder, treason and plot…”
You might not know what this means but this little rhyme is one that every student in the UK learns when they’re at school. It refers to 5th November 1605 – the day when Guy Fawkes planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Now every year on this date, popularly known as Bonfire Night, British people light fireworks and bonfires to commemorate the day of the failed plot.
What was the plot?
It all goes back to May 1604, when the Gunpowder Plot was born. The scheme was headed by a man named Robert Catesby. Catesby and a group of men, including Guy Fawkes, planned to use gunpowder to blow up both King James I and the Houses of Parliament.
The plot was born out of anger. The men believed King James I had gone back on his promise to put a stop to 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.
To carry out their plan, the men bought the house next to the parliament building, which had a cellar that went under the Houses of Parliament. They filled the cellar with barrels of gunpowder.
A total of 36 barrels, amounting to two tonnes of gunpowder, were hidden and Guy Fawkes had the important job of guarding the barrels and lighting the fuse. But the plan failed when Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter on 26th October 1605 urging him not to attend the opening of parliament.
The letter aroused suspicion and was shown to the King, which ultimately led to the discovery of the barrels of gunpowder. Guy Fawkes was arrested on the night of 4th November as he entered the cellar.
Though he would be classed as a ‘terrorist’ in today’s world, some people regard Guy Fawkes as a hero because he tried to fight wrongdoing in the only way he could.
What happened to Guy Fawkes?
Guy Fawkes was the first to be caught 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 (cut into four pieces) – how gruesome! Over time the other conspirators were also caught and executed except for one – Francis Tresham.
Who sent the letter?
It has never been proven but it is believed Monteagle’s brother-in-law, Francis Tresham, sent the letter. Recent historians argue Lord Monteagle and Robert Cecil (King James I’s chief minister) were working together with Francis Tresham to set up Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators as a way to further people’s hatred towards Catholics.
Why the bonfires?
In celebration of his survival, King James I ordered that people have a bonfire on 5th November, a tradition that continues to this day all around the UK, apart from Northern Ireland.
Did you know?
- Guy Fawkes’ name was actually Guido Fawkes – he adopted this name whilst fighting for the Spanish.
- He was actually born a Protestant but converted to Catholicism when he was 16 years old.
- There was enough gunpowder to blow up the entire building and cause considerable damage within a one-mile radius.
- Some people now 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 ‘the 30th Greatest Briton’ in a poll conducted by the BBC.
- Another reason Guy Fawkes wanted to kill King James I was because he was a Scotsman and many English people did not want a Scot to rule the country (back then Scotland and England were two separate nations).
- An empty island north of Santa Cruz Island is named Isla Guy Fawkes (which means Guy Fawkes Island) because it’s believed he intended to escape there.