Remember, remember! The Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot!
So the poem starts that commemorates the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 and Guy Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot, was arrested while guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords.
November 5 commemorates the failure of the November 1605 Gunpowder Plot by a gang of Roman Catholic activists led by Warwickshire-born Robert Catesby.
When Protestant King James I acceded to the throne, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution they had felt for over 45 years under Queen Elizabeth I would finally end, and they would be granted the freedom to practice their religion.
When this didn’t transpire, a group of conspirators resolved to assassinate the King and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament.
Guy (Guido) Fawkes, from York, and his fellow conspirators, having rented out a house close to the Houses of Parliament, managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building.
(Physicists from the Institute of Physics later calculated that the 2,500kg of gunpowder beneath Parliament would have obliterated an area 500 metres from the centre of the explosion).
The scheme began to unravel when an anonymous letter was sent to William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him to avoid the House of Lords.
The letter (which could well have been sent by Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law Francis Tresham), was made public and this led to a search of Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5.
Explosive expert Fawkes, who had been left in the cellars to set off the fuse, was caught when a group of guards discovered him at the last moment.
Fawkes was arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave up the names of his fellow plotters.
Lord Monteagle was rewarded with £500 plus £200 worth of lands for his service in protecting the crown.
Guy Fawkes, Thomas Bates, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen, John Grant and the man who organised the whole plot – Robert Catesby.
The conspirators were all either killed resisting capture or – like Fawkes – tried, convicted, and executed.
The traditional death for traitors in 17th-century England was to be hanged, drawn
As he awaited his punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt off the platform to avoid having his testicles cut off, his stomach opened and his guts spilled out before his eyes.
Mercifully for him, he died from a broken neck but his body was subsequently quartered, and his remains were sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others.
Following the failed plot, Parliament declared November 5th a national day of thanksgiving, and the first celebration of it took place in 1606.
Following the plot, King James I sought to control non-conforming English Catholics in England. In May 1606, Parliament passed ‘The Popish Recusants Act’ which required any citizen to take an oath of allegiance denying the Pope’s authority over the king.
Observance of the 5th November Act, passed within months of the plot, made church attendance compulsory on that day and by the late 17th Century, the day had gained a reputation for riotousness and disorder and anti-Catholicism. William of Orange’s birthday (November 4th) was also conveniently close.
The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the state opening, which has been held in November since 1928. The idea is to ensure no modern-day Guy Fawkes is hiding in the cellars with a bomb, although it is more ceremonial than serious. And they do it with lanterns.
The cellar that Fawkes tried to blow up no longer exists. In 1834 it was destroyed in a fire which devastated the medieval Houses of Parliament. The lantern Guy Fawkes carried in 1605 is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
That night has been celebrated in England on November 5th as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night ever since with bonfires and masks inspired by Guy Fawkes’ image. Straw effigies of Fawkes and modern day political figures are tossed onto the fires. The only place in England where it is not celebrated is Fawkes alma mater, St. Peter’s in York. They refuse to burn a guy out of respect for one of their own.
The holiday, the poem and, especially, the mask was made popular again by the 2006 motion picture “V for Vendetta.” Set in the future, “V” is an anonymous masked revolutionary working to destroy the fascist, totalitarian government with elaborate, violent, and intentionally theatrical campaign that kills the leaders of the government and inspires the people to take back self-rule.
The mask was adopted by the group Anonymous whose members wore the mask during a 2008 protest of the Church of Scientology. The group has been called “freedom fighters,” “digital Robin Hoods,” “a cyber lynch-mob” and “cyber terrorists.” Whatever you call them they were named of Time‘s “100 most influential people in the world for 2012.
It also became a symbol of the Occupy Wall Street movement that raised the awareness of the world to social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government, especially Wall Street. Their slogan “We Are the 99%” became the probably the best known phrase of the protest and the mask one of the most recognized symbols of the movement next to the dancer on the Wall Street bull.