The British Invasion
Part I

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes & The Gunpowder Plot



Written by Rebecca Glover



Every year we celebrate the attempt by a group of English dissidents to blow up the English parliament over 400 years ago.

Every November the letting off of fireworks results in a flood of claims to ACC, sends horses through fences and terrorises cats and dogs, keeps fire brigades busy battling blazes and has insurance companies running for cover.

Why do we do it? Well, fireworks are fun, as the Chinese discovered about 2000 years ago. Many of us have fond, if scary, memories of backyard Guy Fawkes fireworks when we, or more likely our parents, gingerly balanced a sky rocket in an empty beer bottle, lit the blue touch paper and stood back, hoping the projectile would shoot up into the sky spraying ephemeral stars, rather than into the garden shed or someone's face.

Why do we commemorate a failed mass murderer so removed in time and place from our own green and pleasant land? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is he remembered over the host of other British malcontents condemned over the centuries to the terrible fate of being hung, drawn and quartered?

Late sixteenth century England bathes in the glow of the glorious reign of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, and certainly under her, England enjoyed comparative stability and prosperity following the religious turmoil of her father Henry VIII and his successors. However, Henry's version of the Christian faith was rigorously enforced, and religious resentment still seethed among Catholics, who included some powerful families.

When King James I succeeded Elizabeth, English Catholics hoped that the persecution would finally end. Though more tolerant than his predecessors, James was still faced with plots and schemes by priests and rebels trying to end the mistreatment of Catholics. To please the Protestants, distressed over the growing strength of Catholicism, James revived persecuton of English Catholics. Once again priests were expelled, fines were imposed, and Catholics had to conceal their faith.

Catholic discontent grew. In 1604 devout Catholic Robert Catesby conceived a plot to blow up the House of Lords in an attempt to re-establish Catholicism in England. Among his co-conspirators was Guy Fawkes.

Baptised into the Church of England in 1570, Fawkes came under Catholic influences through his stepfather and his schooling. In 1591 Fawkes left England to join the fight for Catholic Spain against the new Dutch Republic. Although a good soldier for the Spanish, Fawkes failed in his attempt to drum up support from Philip III of Spain against James I.

His ambition to remove the 'heretic' remained unfulfilled until a meeting with Catesby and other conspirators on May 20, 1604, at the Duck and Drake Inn, in London, where the explosive plot was hatched.

Originally planning to tunnel under the House of Lords, the plotters had a stroke of luck when a storeroom directly below their target became available, an ideal hiding place for the gunpowder the plotters planned to accumulate.

Luck was in short supply thereafter, however. Gunpowder was acquired and stored, but on July 28 the ever-present threat of plague delayed the opening of Parliament until Tuesday, November 5. By August the stored gunpowder had decayed in the damp conditions, so more had to be brought in.

Some conspirators were concerned for the safety of fellow Catholics who would be present at the parliamentary opening, and on October 26 an anonymous letter warned the Catholic Lord Monteagle to avoid the occasion, raising suspicions. In the early hours of November 5 the room beneath the House of Lords was searched by guards, discovering Guy Fawkes in possession of matches with gunpowder hidden under coal and firewood.

The defiant Fawkes admitted his intention to blow up the House of Lords, and expressed regret at his failure to do so. After days of intense torture in the Tower of London Fawkes was forced to disclose the identities of his fellow conspirators.

Following a brief trial, the men were found guilty of high treason and were executed on January 30 and 31 in a grisly ritual at the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, opposite the building they had attempted to destroy.

The Attorney General, Sir Edward Coke, told the court that each of the condemned would be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, his head near the ground. They were to be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both". Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed.

Fawkes was the last to stand on the scaffold. With his head in the noose, somehow he managed to avoid the agony of the latter part of his execution by breaking his neck. His lifeless body was nevertheless quartered and, as was the custom, his body parts were then distributed to "the four corners of the kingdom", to be displayed as a warning to other would-be traitors.

Once a spectacle attracting thousands, the enthusiasm of the masses for watching public executions waned over the centuries. Similarly, the public appetite for private fireworks has shrunk as the collateral damage caused by them has become more of a concern.

In New Zealand, fireworks sales are now restricted to the three days up to Guy Fawkes – November 2nd to 5th - and purchasers must be over 18 years old.

Truth to tell, backyard fireworks always were a bit disappointing. Mass displays such as Waiuku's Blast to the Past are both spectacular and safe, and we get a much better bang for our buck.

The day when controlled public displays are the only fireworks can't come soon enough for domestic pets and farm animals.


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