The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
— English Folk Verse (c.1870)
Today is Nov. 5. More than 400 years ago, Guy Fawkes, a religious extremist, was arrested as he prepared to blow up the King of England, the Prince of Wales, and most of England’s government. The explosion would in turn ignite a religious war that would return England to the ways of the Roman Catholicism. There’s no reason it should be forgotten, especially since it left a wide ranging legacy in public celebrations, the arts, and the American Revolution.
The trouble stemmed in large part from a decision made 73 years earlier, in 1532. Henry VIII, as part of convoluted scheme to divorce his wife, broke the Church of England away from the authority of the Pope. This was the latest crisis in the religious and social turmoil that swept Europe in the wake of the Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Church Door in Germany and kicking off the Protestant Reformation. Henry did not fully embrace the newfangled Protestantism and he tried to chart a middle path between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since this was the 16th century and religious freedom was not in vogue, he often had to decapitate opponents on both sides of the aisle.
Henry’s successors tried to steer England in the direction of their own religious philosophies. Edward VI, Henry’s only legitimate and surviving male child, wanted to take England in a Protestant direction, but he died of tuberculosis and despite a very creative attempt to pass the throne to his distant relative Jane Grey, he was succeeded by his older half-sister Mary. Mary took England back to Catholicism with extreme prejudice and earned the sobriquet “Bloody” in the process. But she died after 5 years in power and her half-sister Elizabeth took the throne.
By far the healthiest of Henry’s children, Elizabeth had 45 years to shape England to her vision. She tried to chart a moderate path between Protestantism and Catholicism, but nonetheless, factions on both sides were left wanting more. The Catholic extremists received support from Spain, the great power of the day who did not appreciate in the least Elizabeth’s support for English pirates like Francis Drake who were raiding Spanish towns and ships across the world. They attempted to assassinate Elizabeth on multiple occasions, including a failed coup attempt in 1586 that ended with the execution of Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin Mary, the exiled former Queen of Scotland (more on why she was living under house arrest in England in a second).
On the Protestant side, a faction arose who wanted to purge the Church of England of all remaining traces of Catholicism. Known as the Puritans, they followed a new strain of Protestant theology, known as Calvinism after Swiss theologian John Calvin (also the namesake of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes) that held that only those chosen by God would receive salvation, something very much opposed to the Catholic belief that you earned salvation by good works. These were differences that people went to war over.
Elizabeth kept both sides in check, but since she was mortal, she died in 1603. And because she had never married and birthed an heir, England looked north, to Scotland, to find her successor.
The King of Scotland, James Stuart, was the son of Elizabeth’s devotedly Catholic late first cousin Mary, but he had never known his mother. Eight months after he was born, Mary’s lover, the Earl of Bothwell, blew up his father, a powerful Scottish lord. Popular opinion held Mary responsible and by the middle of 1567, she was forced to abdicate the throne to her infant son and James was taken into the custody of his Protestant uncle. The Earl of Bothwell fled to Norway, where a vengeful ex-wife sent him to dungeons. This would have been an interesting reality show.
Anyway, English Catholics hoped that James would be more tolerant than his predecessors had been. However, after multiple Catholic plots against him with the first 2 years of his reign, James lost patience and ordered all Catholic clergy out of the country.
Fed up with the state of affairs, a small group of discontented Catholics gathered together in a London tavern to plan how the end of the Protestant monarchy in England. They were led by Robert Catesby, a member of the gentry who had barely escaped with his life from a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. Their plan was wildly ambitious: At the first session of Parliament in 1605, they would detonate a large quantity of gunpowder, killing King James, his heir Henry Frederick, and the House of Lords. The duty of lighting the fuse fell to Guy Fawkes, an Englishman who had served in the Spanish army. Once the king was dead, Catesby planned to start a rebellion in the English Midlands. He would then kidnap James’ young daughter Charlotte to force her into being the new Catholic Queen of England. This conspiracy is known to history as the Gunpowder Plot.
With their plan in place, the plotters rented a house next to Parliament with a basement that ran underneath it. Over the course of 1605, they slowly filled it with gunpowder and waited for Parliament to go into session. This took longer than expected due to outbreaks of bubonic plague in London. So they bided their time and recruited additional members to the conspiracy.
With extra time to contemplate, some began to feel uneasy, since there was no way to guarantee the massive explosion would not kill some Catholics. One of the conspirators broke under the strain and sent a Catholic member of The House of Lords, Baron Monteagle, an anonymous letter saying that it would be best for his health to avoid Parliament on Nov. 5. Many historians (and a few of the Plotters), believed that a new member of the conspiracy, Monteagle’s brother-in-law Francis Tresham, sent the note.
Monteagle did what any sensible person would do when they received a vague warning about an impending terrorist attack: took it to the authorities. The authorities, in this case the royal spymaster Robert Cecil, did what any sensible person would do when receiving a vague warning about an impending terrorist attack: take it very seriously. Because it was such a vague warning, though, the decision was made to wait until the night of Nov. 4 to search for the terrorists. This also gave the plotters a false sense of security (they had their own sources in the government), as they believed the lack of search meant the note had been disregarded.
Catesby and company left for the Midlands and Guy Fawkes remained at the rented basement, waiting for the morning of Nov. 5 to light the long fuse that would send his King and Court to what he surely considered a special place in Hell reserved for heretics. He stepped out shortly after midnight and ran into Cecil’s men, who were searching the area in earnest. He was sent to the dungeons of the Tower of London and the gunpowder was safely removed.
Under increasingly brutal torture, Fawkes gave up the identities of his co-conspirators and the manhunt was on. Like the many fugitives to follow, including the Boston Marathon bombers, Catesby and the plotters veered about the countryside looking for a way to escape. After stealing horses, guns, gun powder, they decided to hole up in a local manor, Holbeche House. After nearly blowing themselves up while trying to dry out their gunpowder, they grimly decided to make a final stand whenever the authorities arrived.
On Nov. 8, the local sheriff and his posse showed up looking for the stolen horses and soon put the building under siege. A gunfight broke out and the sheriff’s men lit the house on fire to smoke them out. Catesby and the others tried to shoot their way out and were killed. There was some controversy at the time as to whether they could have survived if provided with prompt medical attention.
Guy Fawkes would die in Jan. 1606 at his execution site, though he went out on something resembling his own terms. He chose to jump of the gallows to break his neck and die instantly rather than suffer the grisly death of traitors, which involved castration and disembowelment.
James would spend his reign trying to impose his theories of royal absolutism onto his English subjects with various degrees of failure. Charlotte Stuart was married off to the King of Bohemia, a leading Protestant, and would be present in Prague for the start of the Thirty Years’ War, the epochal struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism on the European Continent. Ultimately, her grandchildren, the rulers of the German state of Hanover, would be brought in to rule England after the unstable House of Stuart, in later iterations, proved to be far too Catholic for any Protestant’s liking.
The memory of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot would have a curious impact on a part of the world that was more or less off the English radar in 1605: Boston, Mass. Massachusetts was settled by Puritans who had no love for the Catholic Church (not entirely without reason either. Jesuit priests in Canada were known to lead Indian war parties down upon New England settlements). Nov. 5 celebrations of the date, known locally as Pope Day, had a long and raucous history in Boston, and gangs from the North and South ends of town to take part in annual brawling celebrations that occasionally cost lives.
After the Seven Years War ended, authorities in England tried to impose greater control and taxation on the colonists. The Pope’s Day gangs proved to be reliable muscle for anti-taxation organizations to use against their enemies, the tax collectors. In 1765, South End gang leader Ebenezer Mackintosh led the united gangs of Boston against tax collector Andrew Oliver and loyalist politician Thomas Hutchinson, ransacking their homes.
A few years later in 1773, Boston was waiting for the arrival of tea ships from England in what was sure to be a test of wills between colonial anti tax advocates and the pro-imperial faction. At the annual Pope Day celebration, Samuel Adams took the stage at Faneuil Hall and proclaimed that anyone “unloading receiving or vending the tea is an enemy to America!” Less than a month and a half later, the Boston mob was unleashed on the tea ships, where they would dump a small fortune of tea leaves into Boston Harbor, yet leave the rest of the ships’ property unharmed.
Two years later, the Revolutionary War had begun and George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, took a dim view to their strident anti-Catholicism. He had recently sent a military expedition to try to capture the province of Quebec, where the inhabitants were mainly Catholic. He wrote on Nov. 5, 1775, “At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused.” Washington was concerned with winning Canadian hearts and minds. While the expedition to capture Canada was ultimately unsuccessful, this was the beginning of the end of Guy Fawkes Day in America.
Nov. 5 has been celebrated to this day with bonfires and fireworks across England and the former British Empire. As part of the celebration, effigies of Fawkes were burned in bonfires, hence the nickname Bonfire Day. Children would run about, asking for “A penny for the Old Guy,” a precursor to “trick or treat.” T.S. Eliot would reference this tradition in his poem “The Wasteland.” The famous ending of that poem — “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” — reflected Eliot’s feelings about the world after World War I and was an allusion to the end of the Gunpowder Plot.
Paper masks depicting a likeness of Fawkes have taken on a whole new meaning thanks to graphic novelist Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, in which uses Fawkes as a symbol of anarchy fighting against fascism. Modern protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous have in turn adopted this symbol as their own.
photo credit: Shan’s Photostream, Creative Commons/flickr