Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November

As I used Meryton’s Bonfire Night for a scene in Mistaken Premise, and as the history of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators tie directly into the history of King James I of England, VI of Scotland, I thought I would share the history of the Gunpowder Plot in honour of Guy Fawkes’ Day on Sunday.

Following King Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformation swept through England, pitting devout Catholics against equally devout Protestants. Even the Crown switched back and forth – King Henry never renounced his Catholic faith, but his son, King Edward VI was staunchly Protestant. The latter’s eldest sister was even more staunchly Catholic, earning the epithet, Bloody Mary. Queen Elizabeth I followed her modus operandi on difficult issues and kicked the can down the road with the Elizabethan Settlement (a policy of quasi-Catholic tolerance as long as they attended services at their local Church of England parish). QE1 executed more martyrs than her half-sister; however, she labelled them ‘traitors’. Following a 1570 decree by Pope Pius V absolving any of Regicide should they kill Queen Elizabeth and install the Catholic, Mary, Queen of Scots on England’s throne, there were a number of Catholic uprisings and assassination attempts. (These failed plots, aided by Spain, ultimately led to Mary’s beheading.)

portrait of a woman and a teenage boy in tudor dress
Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots and her son, King James VI of Scotland, by Cornelius Peter Urban, 1583 (This picture is impossible, for King James never saw his mother past his first birthday.)

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, some thought her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, would be more sympathetic to Catholics, as the son of the martyred Mary. Whilst the new King James opposed killing Catholics and sought his entire reign to avoid religious wars – even making peace with Spain in 1604 – he was unrepentantly Protestant, having been removed from his mother’s care before his first birthday by the ultra-Calvinist faction in Scotland founded by John Knox.

woodblock drawing of thirteen men in Jacobean dress
The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605

Into this, ‘Double, double toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble’[i] mess, comes our Gunpowder Plot, masterminded by a veteran of past plots, Robert Catesby. In all, the plotters numbered thirteen, though the most famous is Guy Fawkes, a Catholic mercenary soldier fresh from the religious wars on the continent. The co-conspirators’ aim was to topple the English government by blowing up the House of Lords on opening day – when both King James I/VI and the Prince of Wales were to be in attendance – on the fifth of November 1604. The larger plot included simultaneous Catholic uprisings in the Midlands (Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, and Worcestershire). During the unrest, they intended to capture King James’ daughter, Princess Elizabeth, forcing her marriage to a Catholic nobleman and installing this pair onto the English throne.

full length portrait of a young girl in Elizabethean fashion
Princess Elizabeth,
daughter of King James I,

by Robert Peake, 1603

The conspirators amassed 36 barrels of the eponymous gunpowder, ultimately moving them to the most fortuitously leased storage room under the House of Lords itself. This notion is mind-boggling to our modern understanding. How could the very government of England lease out entire swaths of the Palace of Westminster – the seat of Parliament – to random strangers like John Johnson (Guy Fawkes posing as a servant)? They also saw nothing amiss when Mr Johnson rolling in dozens of barrels and innumerable armloads of firewood into the basement directly under where the King himself would open Parliament. Anyone else screaming, ‘What were they thinking!’, at the screen?

greyscale drawing of a wide basement with many side arches
The undercroft at the Palace of Westminster, by William Capon, 1799

Since Guy Fawkes has been burned in effigy for more than a century, we deduce that the Gunpowder Plot was unsuccessful. It is believed that Sir Francis Tresham, concerned about collateral damage, sent a note to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, warning him to avoid Parliament ‘…for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time…they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament’. Instead of burning the note, Lord Monteagle, a Catholic sympathiser, took it to Lord Salisbury, Robert Cecil, the chief advisor of both Queen Elizabeth and King James.

romantic era portrait of a soldier in red coat and armour, arresting a defiant man in all black
The Arrest of Guy Fawkes, by Henry Perronet Briggs, 1823

The Palace of Westminster was searched on the afternoon of November fourth, but they found nothing amiss with Johnson/Fawkes’ stacks of firewood in the basement. Later that evening, after learning the undercroft had been leased by a known critic of the king’s Catholic policies, a second search revealed enough gunpowder beneath the firewood to reduce the House of Lords to rubble. Fawkes was immediately arrested with the fuses and a conspirator’s watch in his pockets.

photograph of a violent explosion
A recreation of the planned explosion at the House of Lords for a 2005 ITV special on the Gunpowder Plot

After questioning which is illegal today, Fawkes revealed all, and his fellow conspirators, who had fled to Staffordshire, were captured, tried, and sentenced to the mediaeval punishment for traitors to the Crown: hanging, castration, dismemberment, and beheading. (A kinder, gentler time this was NOT!)

greyscale drawing of genteel revelers around a bonfire in a wide town square
Festivities at Windsor Castle on Guy Fawkes’ Night, by Paul Sandby, 1776

Word of the foiled plot spread immediately, another sign – like the defeat of the Spanish Armada – that God favoured Protestant England. By January 1606 Parliament passed ‘An Act for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God every Year on the Fifth Day of November’, mandating special services on November 5th for every church in England. Bonfires, revelry, and fireworks quickly joined the church services, and it seems that burning Guy Fawkes in effigy – taking the place of the pope – dates to about 1800. In some places, during the Georgian era, Guy Fawkes Night could get quite unruly, especially in London and some northern cities, but in other locales it was more a more genteel diversion – the option I chose for Meryton’s celebration in Mistaken Premise.

I hope you enjoyed this abridged version of the history behind Guy Fawkes’ Night. Enjoy your bonfires, my dear British readers; and may all those not in the UK have a blessed and happy weekend.


book cover of Mistaken Premise: a cameo of a girl on a blue and green tartan background

[i] Macbeth, Act IV, Scene i, lines 10-11

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2 responses to “Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November”

  1. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Intetesting. It was a brutal period I would say if you committed a crime you only did it once!

  2. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar
    Author Cherith Boardman

    There was undeniable brutality, Ms Cindie Synder. In truth, King James the VI/I was the most pacifistic king in Europe at the time.

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