Remember, remember the 5th of November
When I was a small child growing up in New Zealand, one thing I always looked forward to was Guy Fawkes Night. This was because I knew we had a substantial stash of fireworks that we would get to set off in the evening to celebrate the day. My sisters and I would huddle inside, hugging each other and giggling, and eagerly watching as our parents lit crackler after crackler. This combined with our neighbours, who were all doing the same, meant Guy Fawkes Night was always a blast. Our cat, understandably, never seemed to be impressed.
So who was this Guy Fawkes character? Well, when I was a kid it was explained to me that he had tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in England because he wanted to kill the King, but he’d gotten the day wrong, and no one was there that day. Now, this story is not entirely true, but I was intrigued. I loved the idea of disaster being averted by chance. I mean let’s face it, it’s often the reason why things go right or wrong in our favourite books and movies. But what about this man who got the day wrong?
Well for a start he wasn’t the originator of this explosive plan, and a member of the gentry named Robert Catesby was actually the mastermind behind what is known as The Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes was actually only one of 8 principal conspirators who planned to alight the several barrels of gun powder they had hidden in a storeroom under the Houses of Parliament. Yet it is Fawkes who we remember, and who for many years following this outrageous assignation attempt of the King was burned in effigy on Guy Fawkes Night. This is because he was the unlucky sod who just happened to be guarding the gunpowder after it was discovered during a search of the building. A tip off in the form of an anonymous letter had been sent to Lord Monteagle, and then eventually forwarded on to the King, asking him to postpone opening Parliament lest they receive a “terrible blow”. This sparked the search, which uncovered Fawkes sitting on this literal powder keg.
Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.
Under threat of torture, Fawkes gave up his co-conspirators, and together they were charged to suffer a treasoner’s death of being hung, drawn and quartered. This meant being hung by the neck until you were almost dead, then you were dragged by a horse along the ground and finally your body was cut into quarters and sent to the four corners of the Kingdom. Fawkes was able to avoid the more grisly aspects of his fate by jumping from the gallows and snapping his own neck. His plot-mates were not so lucky.
Following the discovery of the plot, and in the true English style of behaving awkwardly and somewhat inappropriately, the King’s “escape from death” was celebrated with the lighting of bonfires throughout the Kingdom. Fireworks also became a huge part of the holiday, making it a fun evening that brought the community together. Weird huh?
Since that fateful day on November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes Night has been celebrated in various forms and ways, and though he is still reviled as a traitor, he has also oddly become an unlikely symbol for anarchists (he is the symbolic face of the hacker group Anonymous) and rising up against injustice (such as being the vague inspiration for the DC Comics series V for Vendetta). I say oddly, because Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were fighting on religious grounds – not political. They were staunch Catholics, who were upset that King James I wasn’t doing enough to return the Catholic faith to power. It’s funny what time allows us forget and what we remember.