By the orders of the King

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.

By God’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?
Burn him!

With Hallowe’en over with, there’s another festival involving night-time pyrotechnics before we settle down to celebrating Divali, Hanukkah and Christmas. Guy Fawkes Day has been celebrated, on the orders of King James I, since 5 November 1605 but how many of us really know why?

Fireworks NightFirst, let’s have a look at our friend the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available outside Westminster Libraries by logging in with your card number.

Guy Fawkes was a professional soldier from York, who converted to Catholicism as a young man and enlisted as a mercenary in the Spanish army, fighting in the Low Countries where  he was recruited to the conspiracy, the original idea being that the Spanish monarchy might aid the English Catholic cause against the new (Protestant) King James I. When they realised a Spanish invasion to restore Catholicism was highly unlikely, (remember, this was fewer than 20 years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada) another scheme was hatched, this time to blow up Parliament and the Palace of Westminster.

It’s unclear what  they thought would happen next. Their somewhat hopeful assumption was that the king and his heir, Prince Henry, would be killed; the next heir, Prince Charles would be easy to kidnap and the king’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, would become queen – though how that would have helped the Catholic cause is anybody’s guess.

However by October 1605, the conspirators had grown in number and not all were as discreet as Guy Fawkes. Fawkes himself was captured in the tunnels under Parliament on 4 November, the day before the planned explosion, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder but, unlike his fellow-conspirators, stood firm under torture:

“According to tradition Fawkes wasted no time in telling the horrified king that he would have blown both James and his fellow countrymen at the court back to their northern mountains. Otherwise, he remained silent, muttering defiantly: ‘you would have me discover my frendes’…. Not until 7 November would he admit to his real name, and he did this only when the shaken interrogators, at last getting round to examining the contents of his pockets, found a letter addressed to a Mr Fawkes.”

The Gunpowder Plot, by Alan HaynesIn January 1606 he, along with several of his fellow-conspirators (more had been killed in a skirmish earlier) were executed by being hung, drawn and quartered, rather than by being burned at the stake.  You can find out more about the plot in Alan Haynes’  The Gunpowder Plot and Antonia Fraser’s book of the same name or Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s Gunpowder, Treason and Plot. The Gunpowder Plot, by Antonia FraserAnd if you’re wondering about what happened to  Prince Henry, James I’s eldest son, you can find out more at the National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition, The Lost Prince: the Life and Death of Henry Stuart, while his brother Charles I is currently being portrayed on stage by Mark Gatiss in Howard Brenton’s 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre.

In 1606 the Observance of 5th November Act was passed, calling for a public, annual thanksgiving for the failure of the Plot and we have been celebrating with bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies of poor old Guy Fawkes ever since. The VisitLondon site (accessible from the London section of the Gateway to Websites) has a handy list of public bonfires in London.

V for Vendetta, by Alan MooreThere have been many fictional accounts of the Gunpowder Plot, going back to Harrison Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes, written in 1841 and available from the Victoria Library store. The Victorians put him on the stage while more recently a modern day Fawkes was the hero of Alan Moore’s comic book V for Vendetta.

If you do go to a bonfire, remember you are part of a tradition you share with the villagers of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise:

“No such mystery surrounded the making of a bonfire on November 5th. Parents would tell inquiring children all about the Gunpowder Plot and ‘that unked ole Guy Fawkes in his black mask’, as though it had all happened recently; and, the night before, the boys and youths of the hamlet would go round knocking at all but the poorest doors and chanting:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
A stick or a stake, for King James’s sake
Will you please to give us a faggot?
If you won’t give us one, we’ll take two
The better for us and the worse for you.”

However you choose to spend Guy Fawkes, night, don’t forget to follow the firework code and keep pets indoors!



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