British annually celebrate foiling of ‘Gunpowder Plot’

On Nov. 5, 1605, a Catholic bomb expert by the name of Guy Fawkes, was arrested in a vault full of gunpowder below London’s Houses of parliament. Four hundred and 12 years later, his name is still remembered by the English as they celebrate foiling the “Gunpowder Plot.”

“I lived in Britain for a couple of years and, to this day, most cities and towns on the fifth of November, they’ll have a big party and people get together around a bonfire with fireworks,” Brenden Gillis, LU assistant professor of history, said. “It used to be common to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes out of straw or wood, again to recognize that this was a patriotic victory. It is almost like the Fourth of July in Britain — it’s a real festive occasion.”

Fawkes, along with ringleader Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, John Wright and Thomas Percy, plotted to blow up Parliament during the official state opening, when all of the country’s Protestant noblemen and King James I would be in the building. They were later joined in the plan by Wintour’s brother Robert and John Grant, as well as wealthy Catholics Ambrose Rookwood and Francis Tresham, who would be key to foiling the plot.

“To understand why Guy Fawkes wanted to kill the king and blow up Parliament, you need to know a little bit about the history of Europe at the time,” Gillis said.

It all started in 1517, when Martin Luther famously put the 95 theses on the Wittenberg Castle church door, in Germany, Gillis said.

“That set off a couple of hundred years-worth of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe,” he said. “Famously, Henry VIII, as king of England, because he wanted a divorce, created the Church of England that split off from the Catholic church.

“When Queen Mary controlled the throne (after Henry’s death), she tried to bring Catholicism back as the state religion, but under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Protestant Church of England was the official religion of England.

“At that time England and Spain got into a war, so in 1588, Spain sent the Spanish Armada to try and conquer England in the hopes that they could make it Catholic again.”

Gillis said the fighting between the English and the Spanish was on the minds of the citizens during the early 1600s.Layout 1

“After Queen Elizabeth died, and James I came to the throne, people started to think that maybe James I would be a little bit more sympathetic to Catholics, because his mother was Mary Queen of Scots, and she was a Catholic,” he said. “When that didn’t turn out to be the case, a lot of Catholics in England thought that this was their last chance to try and take back control of the crown. Catholics, because of anti-Catholic laws that were passed in Parliament, put in place measures to try to overthrow the government, and Guy Fawkes got caught up in this.”

Fawkes and a few other Catholic conspirators decided that the best thing that they could do was blow up the king when he was addressing Parliament.

“Doing this would wipe out the political leadership of the government, that they would be able to step in and install a Catholic king or queen in place of James I,” Gillis said.

Tresham sent an unsigned letter to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament. Monteagle was sympathetic to the crown and alerted the authorities. As a result, Fawkes, who was in charge of lighting the gunpowder, was caught.

Most of the plotters fled to Staffordshire. Catesby, Percy and the Wright brothers died in a shootout with 200 sheriff’s men. The rest were captured and taken to London for trial, whereafter, they were hanged, drawn and quartered.

“The reason that we remember Guy Fawkes today, is that he was the one who was found with gunpowder in a storeroom in the basement on the ground floor of the Parliament building ready to blow it up the next day,” Gillis said.

Fawkes was arrested late at night on Nov. 4.

“This was seen as a crisis averted, the monarchy survived, and James I and his descendents would go on to rule Britain at least until 1688 when they were kicked out,” he said. “The year after the gunpowder plot was uncovered, Parliament declared that the fifth of November, going forward, should be a day of thanksgiving.”

“Bonfire Night” is celebrated all over England. Traditionally, children use old clothes stuffed with straw to make a “Guy,” and, yelling, “Penny for the Guy,” beg for money for fireworks on the streets. While street practice has died out, effigies of the traitorous Fawkes are still burned as Britons shoot fireworks and remember the fifth of November.

Story by Cade Smith, UP staff writer


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