Monday, November 5, 2007

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

I'm posting a day early (I usually do Tuesdays) because today is an interesting date in British history, and one that somehow seemed to end up being celebrated mostly by teens for no very good reason except that it involves bonfires, fireworks, and similar fun stuff that most adults generally disapprove of. Here's why you should remember The Fifth of November.

Back in the early seventeenth century, in 1605 to be exact, King James I was king of England and Scotland. England at this time was (just like most of Europe) in the throes of religious conflict as Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other in various wars of religion and conquest. James was a Protestant, and the official church of England was Protestant, but there still remained a fair number of people with Catholic sympathies in the country, among them the family of a man named Guy Fawkes.

Guy spent a lot of his youth as a mercenary, a professional soldier who fought for whoever paid him. While fighting for Spain in the Netherlands he fell in with a crowd of English Catholics. Spain was a very Catholic country and a very military one, and it dreamed of some day conquering England and returning it to Catholicism. Whether or not it had anything directly to do with what follows isn't clear...but what happened was that this group of English Catholics decided it would blow up King James, his family, and the largely Protestant Parliament on Parliament's opening day at Westminster as a way to help restore Catholicism to England. Because of his experience with artillery (cannons and that sort of thing) as a soldier, Guy was made the leader of the plot, today known as The Gunpowder Plot.

So in the fall of 1605 he and his co-conspirators rented a cellar in the House of Lords at Westminster and managed to smuggle 36 barrels (about 1800 lbs.) of gunpowder into it. However, the lid got blown off the Gunpowder Plot when one of the conspirators, worried that Catholic members of Parliament might be harmed as well, sent a warning note to one who promptly alerted the Secretary of State. According to accounts, Guy was just about to light the fuse to detonate the powder when he was arrested. He and his co-conspirators were tortured and eventually executed, and the King and Parliament were saved.

In a way, the Gunpowder Plot was a godsend for James, who hadn't been terribly popular in England (he was Scottish) until someone threatened to blow him up. Spontaneous public celebrations in the form of bonfires sprang up everywhere, and straw-stuffed dummies meant to represent Guy Fawkes were tossed into them. And of course songs and poems were written about the Gunpowder Plot, including this one which begins,

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”

Guy Fawkes Night (also called Bonfire Night) is still celebrated today. Children and teens used to go house to house with their effigies of Guy Fawkes asking for pennies to buy fireworks (not done any more, as anyone under 18 is not allowed to possess fireworks. Most fireworks displays today are done by municipal authorities.) and between those and the bonfires, it's definitely a memorable night.


Barrie said...

That is a weird (and interesting!) bit of history. Thanks!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great minds think alike! I also posted this week on Guy Fawkes day.