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Guy Fawkes Day: The British Festival of Fireworks

May 22, 2017

On a chilly night in late autumn, preparations are underway in Britain for a big celebration. Soon, bonfires would be lit, fireworks would be released, and an effigy of a “Guy” would be burnt. The air holds a hum of a song, a nursery rhyme familiar to every British citizen-

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,

Gunpowder treason and plot,

We see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!”

The air vibrating with the low hum of the song and fireworks lighting up the night sky, people gather around bonfires to witness “The Guy” burn and celebrate the Guy Fawkes Day, a day that marks the anniversary of a foiled plot no one in Britain can ever forget.

What is Guy Fawkes Day?

(Image: Fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night, Image Source: Royalty Free Image from Pixabay)

Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, is a festival celebrated annually in Britain on the 5th of November to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. The Gunpowder Plot was devised by catholic conspirators to blow up the British Parliament- Palace of Westminster in London, to avenge the persecution of Catholics in a fast-growing Protestant England.

The Gunpowder Plot was a massive one. It is believed that if it had been successful, the blast would have destroyed an approximate area of a quarter of a mile. The plot was also meticulously planned, but, was foiled thanks to an anonymous letter sent to one of the Lords of the Parliament. Following the discovery of the plot, all of the conspirators were tried and executed. Even after the execution of the conspirators, the Gunpowder Plot remained etched in the memory of England. It was a sombre reminder of a great peril England had escaped from.

On 5th November 1605, after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered, bonfires were lit across England to celebrate the safety of their monarch- King James I. Hence, 5th November is also known as Bonfire Night. Soon afterwards, to celebrate English nationalism, Parliamentary liberty, and Protestant survival, the day began to be observed as Guy Fawkes Day.

Who was Guy Fawkes?

(Image: Portrait of Guy Fawkes, Image Source: Free Image from Photobucket)

Although, the name of the popular festival is Guy Fawkes Day, Guy ‘Guido’ Fawkes wasn’t the mastermind behind the plot. Nor was he the leader of the group of Catholic conspirators. Guy Fawkes was one of the thirteen members involved in the conspiracy plot. But, he was no ordinary member and the role he played in the Gunpowder Plot was a vital one. He was the trigger man, the one assigned with the most important task of the plot- to set the fuse.

Fawkes was born in York and converted to Catholicism following the death of his father. In his adulthood, he became a mercenary and fought battles for the mighty Catholic country of those times- Spain. His skills in the battleground rendered him an expertise in explosives and hence, he was charged to set and light the fuse of the gunpowder.

Guy Fawkes had smuggled 36 barrels (some believe it was 20) of gunpowder beneath the Palace of Westminster. As per the plot, he was supposed to set alight the gunpowder and blow the palace once the King arrived at the Parliament to deliver an opening speech. However, after the plot was discovered, Fawkes was caught red-handed beneath the palace by the King’s guards. He was tortured mercilessly till he revealed the identity of his fellow conspirators and his name became synonymous with that of the biggest traitor of England.

The Gunpowder Plot

(Image: The Thirteen Members of the Gunpowder Plot, Image Source: Free image from Creative Commons)

Queen Elizabeth I was a protestant and during her regime several Catholics were persecuted. After her death, King James VI of Scotland, the heir of Mary Queen of Scots was crowned the King of England. King James I of England, unlike his mother, was a protestant. But, the Catholics in England had hoped that King James would be more tolerant of their faith, but, they were proved wrong. It was in protest to the persecution of the Catholics that the Gunpowder Plot was formed.

The initial plan of the Gunpowder Plot was formulated in 1603 by two Catholic men named Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy. The two planned to blow up the British Parliament and the King in a huge blast. Their exact goals are unclear; however, it is believed that the two men hoped that the destruction of the reigning King will enable a Catholic succession to the throne of England. Catesby and Percy then began to enlarge the circle of plotters by recruiting more devout Catholic men who were willing to participate in their cause. By 1605, the Gunpowder Plot consisted of thirteen members- Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Bates, Robert Winter, Thomas Winter, Christopher Wright, John Wright, Francis Tresham, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby, Robert Keyes, and John Grant. The conspirators had planned to smuggle 36 barrels (some believe it was 20) of gunpowder into the basement of the Westminster Palace. The attack was scheduled for 5th November 1605, as on this day the King traditionally came to the Parliament to make an opening speech in the presence of the Privy Council, the two Houses, and notable members of the judiciary.

Before the attack, one of the plotters, Francis Tresham became concerned that the blast would also kill several Catholics. This concern led him to warn his brother-in-law, Lord Mounteagle, via an anonymous letter. Lord Mounteagle, in turn, passed the contents of the letter to Sir Robert Cecil, the King’s principal advisor, who ordered a search of the Parliament. It was during this search that Guy Fawkes was found in the cellar with the gunpowder and firewood. The plot was foiled. Guy Fawkes was tortured and gave up the names of his fellow conspirators. The plotters were tried for high treason and all of them were sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered publicly. All the plotters except for Fawkes met a gruesome end. Fawkes, to avoid the grave punishment, tried to jump off the platform, but, in the process broke his neck and died.

The Gunpowder Plot had a profound effect on the English people. Prior to the plot, England felt a fear for Catholicism because of several unsuccessful plots directed towards Queen Elizabeth I. The Gunpowder Plot further strengthened the mounting fear of Catholicism in the hearts of people. It was a plot that had come alarmingly close to success and thus, had a significant impact on British politics throughout the 17th century. Even today to observe the day in the Parliament, every year on 5th of November, prior to the state opening of the parliament and the arrival of the reigning monarch, a Pro Forma search of the cellars is carried out by the Yeomen of the Guard.

How is Guy Fawkes Day Celebrated?

( Image: Bonfire Night Celebrations, Image Source: Freeimages.co.uk)

Though, some Catholics prefer not to celebrate the festival as Guy Fawkes was a Catholic, in most parts, the festival is celebrated with great zeal and frivolity. The festival is celebrated by lighting bonfires and setting off fireworks. Fireworks represent the gunpowder that was hidden in the basement of the Parliament. While, some prefer to light bonfires in their gardens, others like to light bonfires in communal areas. The municipality, in some towns and cities, organize professional display of fireworks. Effigies of Guy Fawkes made from old clothes filled with newspapers or straw are burnt on bonfires. People dress up in various costumes and enjoy some traditional bonfire night food. Hot baked potatoes dripping with butter and cheese are cooked on the bonfire. Toffee apples and marshmallows are also quite popular. In Northern England, a special cake called Parkin is traditionally prepared on this day. Till early 20th century, children would go out with their ‘Guys’ on the streets and ask for a penny to buy fireworks. This custom is no longer valid as only adults (18+) can buy firecrackers in Britain as safety on bonfire night is important.

Guy Fawkes Day & The Gunpowder Plot in Literature

The Gunpowder Plot has played a significant role in literary world. To begin with, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is believed to be greatly influenced by the plot. The Gunpowder Plot was discovered in 1605, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606. It is widely believed that Shakespeare and his family were well acquainted with some of the plotters. The inns and taverns that the plotters used to devise their plot were also frequently visited by Shakespeare. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Shakespeare had any hand in the plot. But, the plot and the high treason of the plotters did have an impact on Shakespeare’s writing and can be seen in his play Macbeth.

The theme of Macbeth resonates with that of the Gunpowder Plot. The play depicts treason, overthrow of a king, and the ruin of the perpetrators. Furthermore, King James is said to have been the descendent of Banquo, whose descendants were prophesied to be Kings of Scotland by the witches. In the play, Banquo’s son Fleance escapes the murderous plot. This echoes King James’s own escape from the Gunpowder Plot. The most important association between the play and the plot is in Act 2, Scene 3, where a funny porter pretends to be the gatekeeper of hell. The verse refers to an ‘equivocator’, which is a clear reference to a Jesuit priest Father Henry Garnet. Allegedly, Robert Catesby had confessed his intentions to the priest, but, the priest had kept the plot a secret to obey the Seal of the Confessional. Father Garnet’s equivocation was severely criticized and he was hung, drawn, and quartered. Shakespeare used equivocation as the central point for the interpretations of the prophesies of the Weird Sisters.

Over the centuries, The Gunpowder Plot & Guy Fawkes Day have weaved their way into various literary works. Guy Fawkes Day is used as a subepigraph in T. S. Elliot’s 1925 poem- Hollow Men. It also inspired Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Most famously, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore, is a ground-breaking story strongly associated with The Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes Night is also seen in the backdrop of Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Mews. The festival is also referenced in Children’s stories such The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton. Other notable works that discuss Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot are Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser, Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes by James Sharpe, Pity for the Guy: A Biography of Guy Fawkes by John Paul Davis, and Guy Fawkes: A Historical Romance by William Harrison Ainsworth.

 

References:

  1. Quinn, Edward. History in literature: A reader’s guide to 20th century history and the literature it inspired, 2004, Checkmark Books, ISBN- 0-8160-4693.
  2. Preston, Joseph. Plot, paranoia, and popular festivals, Grand Valley Review, 1986, Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 4.
  3. Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (05/23/2017) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography >.

 

 

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