by Dawn Denmar
“On the evening of 4th November 1605, Guy (or Guido) Fawkes was captured in a cellar under the Palace of Westminster, now the Houses of Parliament, for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot, a conspiracy to execute the King and most of the Royal Family, together with members of the British Government, at the State Opening of Parliament the next day.
Although commemorated widely through the popular British tradition of Bonfire Night, the Gunpowder Plot was just one of a number of conspiracies occurring across Europe at this time, due to the Reformation, growth of the Protestant faith and the perceived threat to existing rule and order. Spies and informants lurked everywhere as the religious changes threatened to unseat rulers and cause anarchy.
Origins of Gunpowder Plot: Contrary to popular opinion, Guy Fawkes was not the leader of the Gunpowder Plot but purely a mercenary soldier, fairly expert in the use of gunpowder. Fawkes converted to the Catholic faith at the age of 16 and was recruited to the Plot by former schoolfriends he had known as a child in York. The ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot was Robert Catesby, a Warwickshire gentleman from a wealthy Catholic family. He led a group of other wealthy, disaffected Catholics from across the Midlands and north of England, including Thomas Percy, cousin to the Earl of Northumberland, and married to Martha Wright. Martha Wright was the sister of fellow conspirators, Christopher and John Wright who recruited Guy Fawkes to the plot as they were former schoolmates from St Peters School in York. A further well known conspirator was Francis Tresham, cousin to Catesby.
Gunpowder Plot Discovered, Web of Espionage: In the first instance the plotters tried to dig a tunnel into the Palace of Westminster from a house they had rented next door to Parliament. The dropped this plan, when they had the opportunity to rent a business store room in the cellars under the Parliament building and managed to store 36 kegs of gunpowder in their rented cellar which was directly under the House of Lords.
In October 1605, the Catholic Lord Monteagle received an anonymous note warning him not to attend the Opening of Parliament on 5 November, this was immediately passed on to Government supremo, the Earl of Salisbury. It is widely believed that this note originated from the conspirator, Francis Tresham who was Monteagle's brother-in-law. Although the plotters became aware of the warning to Monteagle they decided to continue with their planned terrorism, as the Government did not seem to react at all to the message. However, on the evening of 4th November a thorough search of the Palace of Westminster discovered the hapless Guy Fawkes and his 36 barrels of gunpowder in the rented cellar.
Torture and Execution of Conspirators: King James I gave orders for the torture of Guy Fawkes to start immediately until he had revealed the names of his fellow conspirators. Sources have revealed how admirably Fawkes managed to keep his secrets, until finally the torture became too much, the signature on his final confession is indicative of the wreck he had become. In total, eight conspirators were condemned to death in January 1606 and executed within days. The severed heads of the ringleaders, Catesby and Percy were then displayed for public edification on Parliament House, as was tradition.
Why do We Still Celebrate 5th November? In January 1606, the British Parliament authorised the commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot in Britain as a regular feature to be held on 5th November by passing the Thanksgiving Act. The event was marked by the custom of ringing church bells throughout the day and the lighting of bonfires, with early records indicating that fireworks were also used at some occasions.Burning an effigy on the bonfire also became common, with historians stating that the burning of effigies representative of either the Pope, or the Devil began some time in the reign of King Charles I, around 1625-49. The Guy Fawkes effigy, or Guy replaced this when laws prohibiting Catholic worship were repealed.
In conclusion, the popularity of the tradition of Bonfire Night on 5th November has also been linked to the ancient Celt traditions of bonfires on 31st October , as it seems the habitual pagan bonfire celebration was simply moved to 5 November. There are also some historians who feel that the Gunpowder Plot and allegations against the conspirators were actually a propaganda move by the Government and the King of England to maintain the stigma against the Catholic faith.”