But there was a time in England when tonight would have been one of the most exciting nights of the year, because it was––––
Guy Fawkes Night!
"Who-what Night?" you ask...
The night named after the treasonable activities of Guido (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 recall a time when every English child knew by heart the rhyme...
- Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
- The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
- I know of no reason
- Why the Gunpowder Treason
- Should ever be forgot.
- Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
- To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
- Three-score barrels of powder below
- To prove old England's overthrow;
- By God's mercy he was catch'd
- With a dark lantern and burning match.
- Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring!
- Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
- And what should we do with him?
- Burn him!
Children would display their 'Guy' (dressed in old clothes and often sporting a mask) on street corners – or going house to house – begging "A penny for the Guy!", in order to raise funds with which to purchase fireworks for the Big Night!
Of course, the real Master Fawkes, having been identified, came to a nasty end, but, true to the code of the martyrs (and forgive me for making a traitor into a bit of a hero) he valiantly made his exit, managing to cheat the axeman of the pleasures of drawing and quartering his body – at least according to William Harrison Ainsworth's "historical romance" (how much of each being open to conjecture) Guy Fawkes or The Gunpowder Treason...
Guy Fawkes now alone remained, and he slowly mounted the scaffold. His foot slipped on the blood-stained boards, and he would have fallen if Topcliffe [the man responsible for torturing Fawkes], who stood near him, had not caught his hand.
A deep silence prevailed as he looked around, and uttered the following words in a clear and distinct voice: "I ask forgiveness of the King and the state for my criminal intention, and trust that my death will wash out my offence."
He then crossed himself and knelt down to pray, after which his cloak and doublet were removed by the executioner's assistant and placed with those of the other conspirators. He made an effort to mount the ladder, but his stiffened limbs refused their office. "Your courage fails you, sneered Topcliffe," laying his hand upon his shoulder. "My strength does," replied Fawkes, sternly regarding him. "Help me up the ladder, and you shall see whether I am afraid to die."
Seeing how matters stood, the executioner who stood by leaning upon his chopper, tendered him his blood stained hand, but Fawkes rejected it with disgust, and exerting all his strength, forced himself up the ladder.
On reflection, of course, it does seem rather regrettable that it took such a barbaric event to give the English an excuse to let off a few fireworks once a year!
As the hangman adjusted the rope, he observed a singular smile illuminate the features of his victim. "You seem happy," he said. "I am so," replied Fawkes, earnestly, "I see the form of her I loved beckoning me to unfading happiness."
With this, he stretched out his arms and sprang from the ladder. Before his frame was exposed to the executioner's knife life was totally extinct.
Images: Gunpowder Plot by Ron Embleton © Look & Learn, 2007; Execution of Guy Fawkes by George Cruickshank; Cartoon by © Simon Pearsall
Parts of this post first appeared on blogs from a few years ago.