4 November 2017

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Gunpowder Conspirators - from a print published after the discovery
England has never really gone in for anarchy and revolution to the extent of some other countries, but it has had its near misses. The one still recalled, and celebrated as "Bonfire Night" or "Guy Fawkes Night", is the attempt in 1605.

The plan was to destroy the House of Lords during the state opening of Parliament, thus murdering the leading members of the English aristocracy and assassinating King James I and his family. This was to be expedited by exploding 36 barrels of gunpowder secreted in the building’s undercroft. Guy Fawkes, known at Guido Fawkes or by the alias John Johnson, was the man found waiting to light the fuse, though certainly he was not one of the ringleaders.

Revolution tends to brew for a long time. The Protestant Reformation had been gathering pace in Europe for nearly a 100 years. In England, in a long-running spat with the Catholic Church in Rome, in 1526 King Henry VIII declared the country would abide with the newly-created Protestant Church of England, himself at its head. After his death, his daughter Queen Mary I briefly returned the country to the sort of Catholicism that burnt 300 churchmen at the stake as heretics. Henry’s second daughter, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, had to cope with the fallout, both at home and abroad. These included several attempts on her life instigated by her excommunication by the Pope, and culminated in the infamous Armada sent by Spain in 1588 to invade, conquer, and return England to Catholicism. State sponsored terrorism is nothing new.

In this light, when the heir-less Elizabeth died in 1603, and the throne was passed to Protestant King James I of England and VI of Scotland, there is little wonder that the country’s burgeoning secret service was keeping an eye on dissenters at home and fomenters abroad. Mirroring today, it knew something was afoot, but it took a letter warning a Catholic member of the aristocracy not to attend the opening of Parliament to pull the threads together. Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed, and the murder-intent dissenters either died in the fight to apprehend them, or, like Fawkes, were taken prisoner, tried, found guilty of treason, and hanged, drawn and quartered on 31 January 1606. Subsequently, 5th November was proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving ‘for the joyful deliverance’ by an Act of Parliament which was not repealed until 1859.

Currently, the BBC is running a dramatisation mini-series, Gunpowder, which evokes well the period, the animosities and the obsessions. If you are reading in the USA, keep an eye on the schedules for BBC America.

The way the British, at least the English, celebrate Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, has changed in my lifetime. When I was a child it was taken very seriously by local children. Bonfire fuel was collected during the preceding week, a ‘guy’ was constructed from old trousers and a shirt stuffed with newspapers and given a hat, to be taken door to door on a bogey, a form of home-made go-cart, to elicit funds for fireworks: Penny for the Guy! 

4th November was Mischief Night, when the same youths would lift gates from hinges of households they deemed hadn’t coughed up sufficiently, doors would be knocked on and an escape made before the owners answered, and so on, though few would have equated such annoying pranks with the mischief the Gunpowder conspirators enacted four centuries before. 

The excitement of a sparkler

During the evening of 5th November most family gardens held a small bonfire party, with hand-held sparklers and a box of fireworks, and everyone watched the neighbours’ rockets light the sky as they munched on potatoes baked in the embers of their own fire, alongside treats such as Yorkshire parkin and gingerbread.

It is interesting to note - see my last blogpost - that the Celtic end-of-year festival, Samhain, would still be in evidence in the 17th century, when breeding cattle saved from the autumn slaughter were driven through the dark smoke of bone-fires to help cleanse them of parasites. Perhaps the government had more than one reason to create an Act of Parliament setting the 5th November celebration among the statutes.

The need for Health & Safety regulations!

5th November celebrations are now a faint echo of what they once were. Thanks to the rise of Health & Safety regulations, and the sheer cost of fireworks, most people attend organised firework displays where political correctness frowns on an effigy being burned on the bonfire – if there is a bonfire. And perhaps that is as it should be. 

Mischief Night, too, is a near-forgotten tradition, or more likely merged into the Americanised version of Halloween now so prominent, complete with that foreign fruit, the pumpkin. What would the Conspirators have made of that?

Remember! Remember!
The 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Note: The rhyme is part of a 19th century folk verse.
Photographs are courtesy of Creative Commons CC0 Licenses


  1. Thanks for this, Linda. An interesting summary of the incidents and attitudes that led up to a celebration we continue today, though I doubt many people are aware of the reality behind this tradition. Time it went, I think. Unless we can turn it into a demonstration of the evils to be found at the base of religious extremism!

  2. A sort of thumb-nail summary, indeed, though some might cosidering leaving out another short-lived king and an even shorter-lived queen was a little tardy - LOL!

    I don't know about "Time it went..." I do believe the Puritans which followed tried to ban all sorts, including Christmas, but that's what happens when the pendalum swings.

    We were travelling back from a weekend away on the evening of 5th, and from our vehicle's window it was surprising to see just how many back-garden firework displays were being enjoyed. Maybe there's a resurgence.

    1. Yes, banning is definitely for the Puritans and dictators. Prohibition has never worked in any field. So, perhaps what we really need to do is alter the event to actually celebrate something worthy of celebration? There's so much baggage applied indiscriminately to 'tradition' that most people forget what it's really all about.