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Guy Fawkes, The Gunpowder Plot and Bonfire Night
Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot
So goes the rhyme British children sing. To people new here (and to many who’ve always lived here) the celebration of the gunpowder plot seems very confused and strange. Well actually it IS confused and strange!
This is more or less the official version. The brilliant and pragmatic Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 having run her kingdom brilliantly and basically peacefully – except for a few small interruptions such as winning a war against Spain and beheading a sister. Elizabeth was a Protestant but not aggressively so. Mostly she believed in herself and England. Her successor, King James (James I of England, James VI of Scotland) was Catholic and thus the Catholics in the Kingdom felt, at last something would be done for them. The king was not, however, Catholic enough for some extremists and so a terrorist plot was planned.
41 sacks of gunpowder were placed in the cellars under the Houses of Parliament and were to be ignited as the King and his government arrived for the official opening of Parliament. Once killed, they were to be replaced by, as the plotters saw it, a more suitable administration. There is something vaguely familiar about this terrorist plot of 400 years ago! How no–one noticed the transport of all that gunpowder no–one explains, except to suggest it was taken down sack by sack, and of course there was no street lighting or after–dark transport.
The plotters (pictured here in the best known contemporary image of them, by Dutch artist Crispijn van de Passe the Elder) were from the north of England. The chief planner was a man called Robert Catesby who recruited Guido, or Guy, Fawkes, who had been born in Yorkshire as a Protestant but converted to Catholicism at 16. Fawkes had fought in the Spanish army and gained a great knowledge of gunpowder... just the man the conspirators needed. Poor Guy was caught guarding the gunpowder on the night of 4th November. The powers that be had left it until the last moment to think of such a plot and to search the cellars. This was very remiss of them because such small terrorist activities were very much part of everyday life.
In true British style, having been almost too late on that occasion, we now have the hang of things and the cellars are searched every year on the night before Parliament opens. Nothing has been found for 400 years, but you never know!....
Poor Guy, the one who was caught, was eventually sent to the Tower and hung, drawn and quartered, a rather unpleasant way of killing, but popular in those days. Celebrations then began led by the Protestants and joined quite honestly by anyone who liked a bit of fun. Bonfires were lit with an effigy on top and joyfully burned.
In one small southern town, Lewes, we are told the effigy is still the Pope, although with the greatest good will as today the churches respect and work well together. Sometimes today, the effigy, the Guy, is someone locally disliked. Margaret Thatcher had her enemies and was sometimes the Guy, likewise former Labour party leader Neil Kinnock. Some years ago, with great hilarity, my school friends and I hoisted the effigy of our headmistress on a local Fire. You can pretty much do what you like.
Bonfire night now is just innocent fun. In parks and gardens there are lovely fireworks displays and huge bonfires, fair grounds and food stalls, Children love it and grown ups pretend they go along just for the kids. And when our present much respected sovereign walks to her throne to give her Prime Minister’s speech we hope there are no thoughts of threat in her mind. Times do, sometimes, change for the better.