Monday, 5 November 2007

REMEMBER, REMEMBER...

As with all days of celebration these days, November 5th is no longer exclusively Firework/Bonfire night - the whizzes and bangs have been going on nightly now for the past two weeks and will doubtless continue for a while yet.

But there was a time when tonight would have been the most exciting night of autumn!

Guy Fawkes Night!

"Who-what Night?" you ask...

The night named after the treasonable activities of GUY FAWKES (1570 - 1606), a member of a group of English Roman Catholics who, in 1605, sought to carry out the Gunpowder Plot: a daring and dastardly attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament, kill King James I of England and end Protestant rule.


I remember a time when every child knew by heart the rhyme...


Click to enlarge

For anyone who has forgotten, doesn't know or who lives in a country where this day is not the subject of special commemoration, here is all you need to know about it, courtesy of Wikipedia and some of the artists who created so many memorable images for those gems of my '60s childhood, Look and Learn and Treasure (any excuse to mention them again!):
Guy Fawkes (right) was probably placed in charge of executing the Gunpowder Plot because of his military and explosives experience. The plot, masterminded by Robert Catesby, was an attempt by a group of English conspirators to kill King James I of England, his family, and most of the aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament.

The plot itself may have been occasioned by the realization by English Protestant authorities and Roman Catholic recusants that Spain was in far too much debt and was fighting too many wars to assist English Roman Catholics. Any possibility of toleration by the State was removed at the Hampton Court conference in 1604 when James I attacked both extreme Puritans and Catholics.

The plotters realized that no outside help would be forthcoming unless they took action themselves. Fawkes and the other conspirators rented a cellar beneath the House of Lords having first tried to dig a tunnel under the building. This would have proved difficult, because they would have had to dispose of the dirt and debris. By March 1605, they had hidden 1800 pounds (36 barrels, or 800kgs) of gunpowder in the cellar.

A few of the conspirators were concerned, however, about fellow Catholics who would have been present at Parliament during the opening. One of the conspirators wrote a warning letter to Lord Monteagle, who received it on 26 October. The conspirators became aware of the letter the following day, but they resolved to continue the plot after Fawkes had confirmed that nothing had been touched in the cellar.

Lord Monteagle had been made suspicious, however, and the letter was sent to the Secretary of State, who initiated a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords in the early morning of 5 November. Peter Heywood, a resident of Heywood, Lancashire, was reputedly the man who snatched the torch from Guy Fawkes’s hand as he was about to light the fuse to detonate the gunpowder.

Fawkes was tortured over the next few days, after the King granted special permission to do so. James directed that the torture should be gentle at first, and then more severe. Sir William Wade, Lieutenant of the Tower of London at this time, supervised the torture and obtained Fawkes's confession.

For three or four days Fawkes said nothing, let alone divulge the names of his co-conspirators. Only when he found out that they had proclaimed themselves by appearing in arms did he succumb. The torture only revealed the names of those conspirators who were already dead or whose names were known to the authorities. Some had fled to Dunchurch, Warwickshire, where they were killed or captured.

On 31 January, Fawkes and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were tried in Westminster Hall. After being found guilty, they were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster and St Paul's Yard, where they were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Fawkes, however, managed to avoid the worst of this execution by jumping from the scaffold where he was supposed to be hanged, breaking his neck before he could be drawn and quartered.
So, now you know (or know a bit of it: corrections and further background are provided by Boll Weavil in the Thoughts/Comments section, below); and that is why, when we were kids, we used to make a 'Guy' (a kind of scarecrow figure to top off our November 5th bonfires) and tout him around the streets begging - in a fashion not unlike today's Trick-or-Treaters!

"A penny for the guy..." we'd cry, any earnings ostensibly intended for the purchase of fireworks, but doubtless often diverted into the purchase of sweets -- or even ciggies!

Anyway, if you haven't already done so and tonight's the night for "Oooo-ing" and "Ahhh-ing" at the sparkle, dazzle, whiz and fizz of Roman Candles, Silver Fountains, Mines of Serpents and Retro-Sky-Rockets --- have fun and take care...


And keep those pets (particularly the elephants) safe indoors!

Images: Portrait of Guy Fawkes: artist not known; Look & Learn and Treasure artwork by Ron Embleton, Clive Uptton, Harold McCready © Look and Learn, 2007

8 comments:

Boll Weavil said...

It's interesting that the account says that Guy Fawkes was 'in charge' of the plot.As a peniless solider he was brought back from the fighting in Flanders because of his knowledge of explosives.He wouldn't have been in charge of the plot which was already underway when he was enlisted and, in any case,involved men far more senior in status than himself.There is no evidence that the Monteagle warning letter came from the conspirators.Some sources claim he sent it to himself having heard about the plot in order to be seen by the authorities as loyal to the crown and let his fellow catholics know their plan was already rumbled.Aside from these points though, the real guiding light is Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State. There is good evidence that he orchestrated the whole thing from beginning to end. Afterall, some of the plotters were involved in a previous attempt - the Essex Rebellion and although they were caught, they were not executed but released and even allowed to retain their status and estates.Then there is the gunpowder itself - rowed across the Thames without anyone seeing and stored in a damp cellar for months.Would it have been usuable after that time ? Then you have the date of parliament's opening delayed to allow it to be on Tuesday 5th November - the same date that James had survived an assasination attempt in Scotland and one which he held to be lucky.If you're still reading at this point, the whole plot was a set up to allow Robert Cecil to legitimately stem the rise of Catholicism in the country and to get rid of the Jesuit priests who were causing so much unrest in the kingdom. So there you go.Would make a good film !

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks, Boll - Yes, it really would make a ripping film!

A silent film entitled 'Guy Fawkes' (based on the novel by Harrison Ainsworth) was made in 1923, but just how ripping it was - or would be today - is open to conjecture.

Suzanne said...

Brian & Boll: thanks for the history lessons! I very rarely had the occasion to celebrate bonfire night, as I was at boarding school most of the time, but I was brought up on the notion of "penny for the guy" and fireworks, etc.
Over here in Belgium, nobody has the faintest idea about Guy Fawkes of course, which is probably just as well... heaven knows what they'd do with it!

Maxine said...

Hear, hear! Forget all that Hallowe'en rubbish, this is where it is all at. I remember those days, too, when Hallowe'en hadn't been invented (in the UK, at least)!
A lovely post, really enjoyed it.

Boll Weavil said...

As a post script, history should be glad that Guy Fawkes submitted to torture on the rack. He revealed his true name -Guido (or Guy) Fawkes. Previously he had insisted on using his alias and that wouldn't have made for much of a celebration and caused a little confusion....
A belated happy John Johnson day everybody !

Penny for the John mister ? Penny for the John.......

Brian Sibley said...

SUE of KALYMNOS e-mailed to say that she thought the unknown painting of Guy Fawkes looked "suspiciously like Robert Lindsay."

And, yes, Sue, you're right, he does!

Qenny said...

In my seminary days, I remember the rector being quite annoyed that we were burning a guy on our bonfire. He spluttered a few choice comments about celebrating the barbaric murder of a loyal Catholic. Like they do.

Boll Weavil said...

I would venture to suggest that somone who was prepared to murder hundreds of others including women, children and fellow devotees of the faith would probably not fit into anyone's description of a 'loyal catholic'