Thursday, 5 November 2015


These days, November 5th is no longer exclusively what we used to call 'Firework Night' or 'Bonfire Night' since the crackles, bangs and whizzes have been going on nightly now for at least the past two weeks and will doubtless continue for a while to come.

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.
There was actually more to the rhyme that would have been known to children of an earlier age:
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!
A somewhat gruesome tradition grew up of building bonfires on the top of which an effigy of the traitorous Fawkes would be burned on the night of 5 November.

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.

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.
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!

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.

1 comment:

boll weavil said...

It's always been a fascination of mine has this plot not least because it raises more questions than recent years it has become more common to believe that Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury allowed this plot to come to fruition in order to have excuse to hunt down the Catholics. Interestingly some have accused George Bush of taking an identical role in 9/11 for his own purposes.there's nothing new under the sun....