Saturday, 7 November 2009

Guy Fawkes' Night - 05th November

Every year, on 05th November, here in the UK, and maybe a handful of other still-participating countries in the Commonwealth, we celebrate (if that's the right word) the gruesome execution of one Guy 'Guido' Fawkes, an Elizabethan nobleman, soldier, adventurer, and politician.

Mr Fawkes' crime was that he did, along with certain notable accomplices, get caught up in The Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

The Plot's central aim was to overthrow the government and assassinate the monarch by blowing up the Houses of Parliament, using a cache of gunpowder they'd manage to secrete in the labyrinthine cellars below the Palace of Westminster.

As events unfolded, the plot failed and, although he was by no means the biggest fish on the plotters' list by reputation, it was Fawkes who was to have lit the fuse, but was instead caught in the act. He therefore achieved notoriety and became, by association, the principal character of the Plot.

Fawkes was part of a Catholic uprising in England which, after Elizabeth I's death, had taken umbrage at the prospect of the Protestant King James I of Scotland ascending the English thrown (just for a change, by invitation of the English Parliament, not by force). James made no efforts whatsoever to ingratiate himself, or his court, to England's Catholics, and had a habit of imposing heavy fines on anyone who did not attend Protestant church services of a Sunday - thus Catholics saw any hope of their chief cause (that of 'toleration') slipping away with the arrival of the new monarch.

Duly pissed off, they chose the date of 05th November, 1605, for their Gunpowder Plot - the date the new King was to open Parliament, at Westminster (a role the British monarch still performs to this day, every year) - leaving the UK with the date, 05th November, forever tattooed on its collective psyche as one to remember for treason and retribution. Or at any rate, an excuse for a bonfire and knees-up.

Now it has to be said that the treatment Fawkes received at the hands of his gaolers - he was, after all, caught red-handed in the act of trying to light the bomb's fuse - was neither courteous nor subtle - John Webster would have definitely approved; indeed to suggest that it in any way took into account his considerations or comfort would be nothing short of gross exaggeration. Standard practice at the time for apprehended 'traitors' was to torture them mercilessly; thumbscrews and being stretched repeatedly on 'The Rack', until bones broke and tendons snapped, were merely an introductory aperitif to the main event of a traitor's death: to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Click HERE to see the picture of Fawkes' route to execution - this is The execution of Guy Fawkes' (Guy Fawkes) by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher.

However, even with the prospect of such a gruesome end in mind, there is still a slight and comically amateur-meets-Heath Robinson aspect to Fawkes' failure to complete his one task in this entire endeavour, viz, to light the bloody fuse and get gone. He had, after all, spent 10 years as a soldier fighting for the Spanish against the Dutch, and acquired a good deal of experience with explosives, by all accounts, and yet when it came to the one thing he was asked to complete - to whole point of the assault - he made an unmitigated balls of it, and got caught.

It is, then, little surprise that the nation as a whole was encouraged to mock and make little of Fawkes, for his failure to perform his one assigned task; hence the rhyme has been passed down from generation-to-generation of British children:

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

Fawkes did, though, have the last laugh (if you can call it that): he leapt from the scaffold before the executioners could perform even the first part of his sentence (the hanging) and broke his neck; thus it was that Fawkes denied the hangman, and obviated a procedure which would, by all accounts, have smarted just more than a tad.

And so, having cheated his punishment, instead his likeness has been burned in effigy from that day to this - on Guy Fawkes' Night, or Bonfire Night, as it's latterly become known.

Not that most people in today's insistently secular UK have a tu'penny clue as to why Fawkes was considered a traitor; or why he and his cohorts tried to commit regicide: but they do remember that every 05th November they have carte blanche to build a bonfire and burn Fawkes' effigy on it - but in place of gunpowder, they buy as many fireworks as they can, the louder and more brilliant the better, and neighbours try and out-do each other as they re-enact what sounds like the artillery bombardment and cannonade from Battle of the Somme in their back gardens.

Still, it keeps them off the streets and out of plotting's way...

Post Scriptum: Ironically, 400+ years later, Fawkes has become something of a folk hero and came 30th in a BBC public vote for 100 Greatest Britons in 2002.



  1. I understood the entire thing to be a "put up job" to justify putting down those "pesky catholics". A trendy past time in those days.

  2. I was on a Canadian web forum recently an was interested to see that Guy Fawkes' Night is still 'celebrated' in certain areas there, too - although the understanding of the original meaning behind it is now somewhat diluted.

  3. Apparently, they don't burn Fawkes' effigy in York, because he was a local lad. They certainly set off lots of fireworks though.

    'Ironically, 400+ years later, Fawkes has become something of a folk hero and came 30th in a BBC public vote for 100 Greatest Britons in 2002.'

    Hmmm, now there's a surprise, disillusioned with the current Parliamentary system much? If they held that vote today, Guido would be in the top five.


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