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Sunday, November 5th 2006

The Fifth of November

Today is Guy Fawkes Day (it goes by several other names) in much of the Commonwealth.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guido (Guy) Fawkes was part of a Catholic conspiracy to blow up Parliament during its opening session in November of 1605, when King James I would be present. The hope was to incite a rebellion in the aftermath of the assassination and install a Catholic monarch to the throne.

Fawkes assisted in filling the room with gunpowder which was concealed beneath a wood store in the undercrofts of the House of Lords building in a cellar leased from John Whynniard. By March 1605 they had filled the undercroft underneath the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder concealed under a store of winter fuel. The barrels contained 1800 pounds of gunpowder. Had they been successfully ignited, the explosion could have reduced many of the buildings in the Old Palace of Westminster complex, including the Abbey, to rubble and would have blown out windows in the surrounding area of about a 1 kilometre radius.

The Conspirators left London in May and went to their homes or to different areas of the country so that being seen together would not arouse suspicion.

However, several of the conspirators were concerned about Catholics who would be attending the opening of Parliament and sent warning letters…which of course led to the discovery of the plot.

The tip-off led to a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords, including the undercroft, during the night of November 4th. At Midnight on November 5th Thomas Knyvet, a Justice of the Peace, and a party of armed men, discovered Fawkes posing as “Mr. John Johnson”. He was discovered possessing a watch, slow matches, and touchpaper. The barrels of gunpowder were discovered, and Fawkes was arrested. Far from denying his intentions during the arrest, Fawkes stated that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament.

Once captured there was of course no doubt about the conspirators futures,

On hearing of the failure of the plot, the conspirators fled towards Huddington Court. Heavy rain, however, slowed their travels. Many of them were caught by Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, when they arrived in Stourbridge.

The remaining men attempted a revolt in the Midlands. This failed, and came to an end at Holbeach House in Staffordshire, where there was a dramatic shoot-out ending with the death of Catesby and capture of several principal conspirators. Jesuits and others were then rounded up in other locations in Britain, with some being killed during interrogation.

The conspirators were tried on January 27, 1606 in Westminster Hall.

On January 31, Fawkes, Winter, and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster, in front of the scene of the intended crime, where they were hanged, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes, though weakened by torture, cheated the executioners. When he was to be hanged until almost dead, he jumped from the gallows, so his neck broke and he died and thus avoided the gruesome later part of this form of execution. A co-conspirator, Robert Keyes, had attempted the same trick, but unfortunately for him the rope broke, so he was drawn fully conscious.

Even though the Gunpowder Plot is associated with Fawkes, the conspiracy was no led by him but instead Robert Catseby (other conspirators are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

However, Fawkes had the military experience with explosives and so was to be the one to actually set off the detonation. His capture at the site of the crime led to his torture and his eventual revelation of the other conspirators.


The Mythology Of The Plot Is Complex…

On Guy Fawkes or Bonfire or Fireworks Night bonfires are constructed to burn effigies of Fawkes. However, despite the effigies and the chants…

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.
By God’s providence he was catch’d,
With a dark lantern and burning match

…the mythology of Fawkes is quite varied. For instance in the movie V for Vendetta (see the video above) the main character trying to overthrow a fascist future English government styles himself a modern day Guy Fawkes, and in 2002 the BBC’s poll of the 100 greatest Britons found Fawkes at #30. As well, there’s a little phrase that Guy Fawkes was the only man to go to Parliament with honourable intentions.

[BBC – History on the Gunpowder Plot]

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