Remembering the gunpowder plot and why it should never be forgot

Guy Fawkes, caught in the act of preparing the Gunpowder Plot at the House of Parliament, 1605. Pict

Guy Fawkes, caught in the act of preparing the Gunpowder Plot at the House of Parliament, 1605 - Credit: Getty Images

“Remember, remember the 5th of November: gunpowder, treason and plot.”

Most of us know this familiar line, but how many of us know the full history of the events of November 5, 1605, a date which traditionally inspires a wave off fireworks and bonfires across England and which in Ottery St Mary has led to the annual ritual of the rolling of the flaming tar barrels?

In truth, I suspect most of us have some idea of what the Gunpowder Plot involved. It was essentially a Roman Catholic plot to blow up the House of Lords and kill the King, James I, and replace him with his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. It was hoped Elizabeth could be easily manipulated and made to lead England in a Catholic direction.

James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and had ruled Scotland as James VI since he was a baby. Since 1603, following the death of the childless Elizabeth, he had been King of England as James I too. He was the first Stuart king and an odd man in many ways. On the one hand, he was genuinely well-read and scholarly, but had an over-inflated sense of how clever he was leading him to be dubbed “the wisest fool in Christendom.” He was decisive but could be crude and vulgar. His appearance was strange and his table manners seem to have left something to be desired. According to one courtier:

“(His tongue) was too large for his mouth, which ever made him speak full of mouth, and made him drink very uncomely, as if eating his drink, which came out into the cup of each side of his mouth.”

James also firmly believed in the Divine Right of Kings feeling he was answerable only to God and that no one else should be able to influence him. This attitude would later cause major problems when it was adopted by his son, Charles I, paving the way for the English Civil War.

The conspiracy began in early 1604. An undercroft (crypt) was rented beneath the Houses of Parliament and filled with several dozen barrels of gunpowder. Then an outbreak of plague threw a spanner in the works: the opening of parliament was delayed until November 5.

On November 4, a search was carried out in response to concerns expressed by the brother-in-law of one of the conspirators who had mysteriously warned him not to attend the opening of parliament. The soldiers found Guy Fawkes himself inside the undercroft. Fawkes claimed he was a servant guarding his master’s firewood. This explanation seemed to work: the soldiers went away.

However, in the early hours of November 5, the king’s men returned and this time found Fawkes again now clad in a cloak and hat and claiming to be called ‘John Johnson.’ He had matches and a lantern on his person and was surrounded by at least thirty barrels of gunpowder. When asked what he was doing, Fawkes clearly sensed the game was up. “Blow you Scotch beggars back to native mountains,” he replied defiantly. Fawkes had been planning to light the fuse using the lantern a few hours later when parliament had opened.

Fawkes resisted naming his co-conspirators for as long as he could but eventually caved in under extensive torture. Everyone involved suffered a grim fate: even those who were killed trying to escape such as the conspiracy’s leader, Robert Catesby, were beheaded after they had died. Guy Fawkes himself who had been greatly weakened by his long period of torture nevertheless managed to jump from the gallows and successfully break his own neck, thus escaping the grisly process of being hanged and then ‘quartered’ (basically being disembowelled, castrated and beheaded) as some of his comrades were.

James I had always feared a violent death. The discovery of the plot greatly boosted his rule. He died of natural causes just over 20 years later. The first Bonfire Night commemorating his narrow escape occurred on November 5, 1606.