Please to remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot.
We know no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
As today is November 5th and I have been reading Gunpowder Plots: a Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Night (various authors) this week, I'm going to make this seven quick Bonfire Night takes:
1. Bonfire Night commemorates the failure in 1605 of a plot by Catholic conspirators to blow up the House of Lords during the opening of parliament, when the King and Queen, their oldest son, and the entire membership of parliament (lords and commons) would have been present.
2. The conspirators hid 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar underneath the House of Lords. Estimates of the amount of gunpowder range from 2,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds, but as Antonia Fraser puts it: "no one has ever disputed that this was more than enough to blow the House of Lords and its wretched denizens sky-high". This was would-be terrorism on a grand scale, which would have killed hundreds (or thousands if the fire spread) and would have wiped out the entire English government in one stroke.
3. Guy Fawkes (or Guido, as he was known after living in Spain for many years) was caught in the act of laying a slow fuse which would have allowed him to time to escape between lighting the fuse and the subsequent explosion. His capture earned him a fame (or infamy?) that has lasted to the present day, and made him one of the best known names in English history. The custom of burning an effigy of "the Guy" on bonfires appeared in the eighteenth century and still continues.
4. The plot was discovered after Lord Monteagle, who had Catholic connections, showed the king's chief minister Robert Cecil a letter he had been sent warning him not to attend the opening of parliament. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that Cecil was aware of the plot from early on, but there is no good historical evidence for this. It is considered likely, however, that Lord Monteagle had been told about the plot, and actually wrote the letter himself as a way of winning favour at court.
5. Perhaps the most unfortunate figure of the whole sorry episode was Henry Garnet, a Catholic priest and leader of the Jesuits in England. Father Garnet became aware of the plot when he was consulted by a priest who heard the confession of one of the conspirators. Horrified by what he heard, he tried to make clear his disapproval of the treason that was being planned, but bound by the seal of confession he could not disclose the plot to the authorities. In the aftermath he was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering.
6. Dramatic as the events were at the time, it is odd on the face of it that "Gunpowder Treason Day" has survived so long as a public celebration, when other equally dramatic events did not (why no Armada Day celebrations, for instance?). In the book David Cressy argues that it has survived because it has adapted to changing political and cultural needs. At various times it has been a celebration of the survival of the Stuart monarchy, a justification of the Church of England, an outlet for anti-Catholicism, a worthy communal celebration, an opportunity to vent political feeling, an excuse for a riot, and an opportunity for boys to play with fireworks.
7. The Yeoman of the Guard (the Queen's ceremonial bodyguard) still carry out a search of the cellars of the Palace of Westminster before the State Opening of Parliament, a duty dating back to the late seventeenth century when there were rumours of a second gunpowder plot.