"Remember, Remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I see no reason,
why gunpowder treason,
should ever be forgot." - Part of a Traditional English Nursery Rhyme
Guy Fawkes Night, also called Bonfire Night, is a public holiday observed in the UK to commemorate the foiling of a plot to assassinate King James VI of Scotland (known as King James I in England). Born to the Catholic Queen Mary of Scotland (or Mary Queen of Scots) but close to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth of England, James VI was a highly educated man, even by Royal standards, with a keen interest in religion.
Religion and Blood: the Background to the Gunpowder Plot
Known largely for his Demonologie and remarkably progressive politics in some areas, he was nonetheless unsupportive of religious tolerance for Catholics. Like his predecessor, Elizabeth I, he was highly restrictive towards Roman Catholics and denounced Catholic traditions as superstition, ordering Catholic priests to leave the country.
These actions were part of a long history of religious reformation and counter-reformation, spurring bloody conflicts, sectarianism, and political and diplomatic wrangling that left European countries divided.
Increasingly frustrated by their treatment at the hands of the Crown, British Catholics hatched more than one plot on the life of King James VI. The first, in 1603, was known as the Bye Plot and was hatched by some priests and a few dedicated laymen was foiled because the members were turned in by fellow Catholics. As was the next plan.
In 1604, however, a handful of Catholic dissidents determined to change the treatment of their fellows. Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Tom Wintour, Thomas Percy, and Jack Wright set a new plan into motion; they would blow up the Houses of Parliament.
The Gunpowder Plot: Its Formation and Failure
Thought Guy Fawkes would later become the most well known of the plotters after being caught with the gun powder, Catesby was the ringleader. According to some archival material, Fawkes and his co-conspirators believed that that James VI was a heretic and expressed anti-Scottish prejudices (considering James himself was a born Scot, these may have been linked).
As the planned action drew closer in 1605, Guy began to call himself Guido amongst other aliases such as John Johnson (which he used while working as a cellar caretaker in a space leased to hold the gunpowder).
The plan was risky; on November 5th 1605, Fawkes was to light the fuse attached to the gunpowder during the opening of the new session of parliament, blowing the House of Lords and House of Commons to smithereens. As Fawkes escaped. the others would spur uprisings in the midlands and kidnap the kings daughter. Elizabeth, and install her as a puppet queen so she could be married off to a Catholic lord.
Once again, a fellow Catholic turned on the conspirators, abhorring violence, and wrote a letter tipping off the government. To this day, we do not know who penned that letter, but a search party found Fawkes late on November 4th with thirty-six barrels of gun powder and matches. Soon after the majority of the co-conspirators, including the eight newer members, were captured and a further four (including Catesby) were killed in a shootout with the English army.
Fawkes and the surviving plotters were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death in January 1606 by the gruesome method of being hung, drawn, and quartered. Fawkes blamed the Devil, not God, for the failure of the plot. Catholics were not truly emancipated from the restrictive laws imposed by the goverment and crown until the 19th century.
New Rituals: How the Death of Fawkes Became a Holiday
The traditions now associated with Guy Fawkes night started when Londoners lit celebratory bonfires following his execution; the government later declared the original date of the foiled plot a holiday soon after. On this night, people would create effigies of Fawkes and burn them in bonfires and children would wheel effigies around in a fashion similar to Halloween 'guising' and ask for "a penny for the Guy".
The tradtion spread briefly to America with immigrants where it was called 'Pope Day'. At this time, people on both sides of the Atlantic would burn effigies of the Pope rather than guy Fawkes, but this tradition died out by the 19th century.
Today, Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night is still a tradition in Britain, but it has now become a time for communities to come together, light bonfires, socialize, and set off fireworks. While Guys' are still burned, the man himself has experienced a social re-evaluatio in recent years, and become somewhat of a revolutionary hero, standing a symbol for those who work against oppressive or corrupt regimes. This was partly spurred by the 'V for Vendetta' graphic novel from the '80s in which the protagonist wore a Guy Fawkes mask. This novel was, of course, later turned into a film that took the world by storm.
Today these masks have been seen in protests across the world, including the infamous 'Occupy Wall Street' protests, and are one of the symbols used by the Hacktivist collective Anonymous.
Guy Fawkes has always been a symbol, and he may be re-invented by future generations, but it is unlikely that this story, the story of a group of men who wanted to change their world by force, will die.