We all know Bonfire Night commemorates the successful foiling of a plot to blow up Parliament and King James I by Catholic subversives in 1605, but what are the events that actually unfolded that night and how did Guy Fawkes become the villain to this tale?
On the night of the 5th November 1605, 36 barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden behind a pile of firewood in a storeroom beneath the Palace of Westminster.
Also discovered was a man calling himself John Johnson, who had fuses in his pockets and was subsequently arrested. After days of intense torture, he finally confessed his real name was Guy Fawkes and that he, along with his fellow plotters, were intending to create a Catholic uprising by blowing up parliament and everyone in it, including King James I.
Although Guy Fawkes has become one of the most infamous figures in English history, he wasn’t actually the plot’s mastermind – just the first of the plotters to be caught.
Before the 16th century, England was a Roman Catholic country. Almost everyone looked to the pope as Christ’s ultimate representative on earth, but this came under attack during the 16th century in a movement now known as the Reformation. Protestantism – a form of Christianity that rejected various Roman Catholic doctrines – rapidly became popular across northern Europe.
In the 1520s when the pope refused to grant Henry VIII an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he declared himself Supreme Head of the Church in England and officially broke from Rome in 1534. There were still devoted Catholics, but these quickly became viewed as the enemy. Many worshipped in their own homes and kept their belief as a private matter. King James signed a peace treaty with Catholic Spain in 1604 which, for some Catholics, completely shattered their hopes that Spain might invade England and re-impose Catholicism.
On Sunday 20th May 1604, a group of devout Catholics met at the Dog and Duck pub near the Strand in London. This group was made up of Robert Catesby, John Wright, Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes.
Robert Catesby was actually the mastermind behind the plot, and he told the men that they were to blow up the King and his parliament. Despite some reservations, all five swore an oath on a prayer book and began to plan. Guy Fawkes was given the responsibility of lighting the fuse, the role that would later see him caught and tortured. By October 1605 a handful of other plotters has been brought into the conspiracy taking the number up to a rather fitting 13.
With the King dead and the country in chaos, it seems their plan was to lead a pro-Catholic uprising in the Midlands. They just had to wait for their chance… the opening of Parliament on 5th November.
The plan started to unravel when Lord Monteagle, a Catholic sympathiser and former Catholic himself, received an anonymous letter which read ‘My Lord out of the love I bear to some of your friends I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift off your attendance at this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time…they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.’
Monteagle took the letter to King James’s right hand man, and although Catesby received word that the plot had been betrayed, he convinced his fellow plotters to continue. On the night of the 4th November, King James ordered a search of the Palace of Westminster which resulted in the discovery of the gunpowder and the arrest of Fawkes. All plotters were found guilty and sentenced to a traitor’s death of hanging, drawing and quartering.
In January 1606 Parliament passed ‘An Act for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God Every Year on the Fifth Day of November’, making it mandatory for every church in England to hold a special service. In the decades after the plot, the celebration evolved into including bonfires and bellringing, sometimes accompanied by official artillery salutes and fireworks.
So, where does the connection to Guy Fawkes come in, and why is he now a central character in this tale? Up until the 19th century some crowds strung up an effigy of the Pope above a bonfire, symbolising the continuing prejudice towards Catholics. This all changed however during the French Revolution – English and Irish Catholics fought for Britain, which found itself on the same side as the pope. It is suggested because of this, in around 1800, Guy Fawkes seemed to have donned the role of villain on bonfire night. In the 20th century the event turned into a family friendly affair, and it was common to see children wearing Guy Fawkes masks or creating his effigy for the bonfire. In modern times, attention seems to have slipped away from Guy Fawkes, and it is now the fireworks themselves which form the main focus of the celebrations.