November 5th is “Bonfire Night” in Britain. For weeks beforehand young children post themselves at busy points or junctions with a “guy” and importune passer-by with the ritual “A penny for the guy?” chant. The guy used to be a doll made of straw and sticks, much like a scare-crow, and was usually dressed in a high hat and cloak. Nowadays, it can be made of anything that will burn and the chant had better be answered with something worth considerably more than a penny! The event “celebrates” the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 which was meant to blow up the Protestant King James I and his parliament and The “guy” is meant to be an effigy of Guy Fawkes, the best known of the Catholic conspirators behind the plot. However, much of the truth about the plot was immediately suppressed and a lot more has been lost in the mists of time. Here we present of the things you are less likely to know about Fawkes and the Plot forever associated with his name.
Guy (real name Guido) Fawkes was born in York. A widely respected, “staunch and courageous” soldier he served in the Spanish, rather than the English, army so that he could be free to practice his religion.Guido Fawkes was not a convert to Catholicism as is sometimes maintained. Many English Catholics were outward Protestants in order to avoid persecution and hold official offices. His father, who died when Guido was eight, was a notary and may have been a secret Catholic. Guido was subsequently brought up in the household of his mother’s second husband and his family certainly were noted Catholics. The headmaster at his school was also a secret Catholic.Fawkes was not the ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot but he was one of the five original plotters. He was, however, chosen to light the fuse which would set off the explosion. He was then to escape to the continent.On May 20 1604 Robert Catesby, Tom Wintour, Jack Wright, Thomas Percy and Guido Fawkes met at the Duck and Drake in the strand to discuss the position of Catholics in England. They met at Catesby’s invitation and he remained the ringleader and most persistent conspirator throughout. At this meeting Catesby suggested that a scheme should be devised to “blow up the Parliament House with gunpowder” because “In that place have they done us all the mischief.”Before his succession to the English throne, James I, son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, had led English Catholics to believe that he was sympathetic to their plight and would introduce religious toleration. When this did not materialise English Catholics felt betrayed. It was against this deep sense of betrayal that the Powder Treason was hatched.At the time of the Gunpowder Plot, some English Catholics were exploring the option of “buying” toleration from the Government with large amounts of cash. They were encouraged by the persistent rumours that James I was about to convert to Catholicism. The rumours were encouraged by James himself.The priests, usually Jesuits from abroad, who secretly ministered to the Catholics were deliberately kept ignorant of the plot. They consistently argued against any action which might make the plight of their flock worse. This did not save those who were discovered in their hiding places by the authorities after the plot had been foiled.The Palace of Westminster at the time was a warren of meeting rooms, private homes, taverns and shops of every kind. The ramshackle layout was not replaced until 1840 when the modern Houses of Parliament were built.The gunpowder was not stored in a cellar. It was in a storehouse at ground level. It and, a nearby apartment, were leased to John Whynniard, Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe. The storehouse was used to store the needless amounts of firewood and coal which were required for normal cooking and heating. It was originally part of the great mediaeval kitchen of the ancient palace and had a stone vaulted ceiling.The House of Lords occupied the upper floor above the storehouse. Whynniard’s apartment was on the first floor with direct access to the Lord’s chamber. It was sometimes used as a robing or committee room.On March 25th 1605, Thomas Percy sub-let the apartment and the cellar from Whynniard for £4. Mrs Susan Whynniard, who had put up some resistance on behalf of a certain Skinner, the previous tenant, and a Mrs. Bright who kept her coal in the storehouse were paid off.Guido Fawkes, using the alias of John Johnson, moved into the apartment which was only large enough to accommodate one person. Percy lodged at his own property at Gray’s Inn Road. Catesby had property across the river in Lambeth. Between March 25 and July 20 thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were brought across the river from Catesby’s lodgings.In August, Fawkes and Wintour discovered that the original store of gunpowder had “decayed” and become useless. More gunpowder, and timber to conceal, it therefore had to be brought across the river.The plotters planned to abduct James’s nine year old daughter, the Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth of Bohemia) and proclaim her queen once James and his government had been killed.The plot was betrayed on October 26 but the government “let it ripen”. The king was not told about it until November 1. In fact, the evidence suggests that the warning letter was concocted, perhaps by Robert Cecil (Lord Salisbury and Chief Minister) himself.On November 2nd the Council decided that some action should be taken but decided to wait for another two days before even inspecting the storehouse. This relaxed approach has fuelled suspicion that the government, and the virulently anti-Catholic Robert Cecil in particular, used the plot to enable them to construct a case against leading Catholic families and the hated Jesuits who ministered to them. The first suggestions that Cecil had masterminded the entire affair were made as early as November 17 1605.There is some confusion about when, by whom and how many searches were made on November 4th. Salisbury only mentioned one but the version given by James himself has two. The first, sometime during the day, was led by the earl of Suffolk who noticed that there was an unusually large amount of timber in the storehouse. He also discovered from Whynniard that the storehouse had been leased to Percy. This caused some surprise and embarrassment for the Privy council. Percy was a kinsman and employee of the Earl of Northumberland “one of His Majesty’s greatest subjects and councillors” and the council were reluctant to cast any aspersion on such an august figure. James, according to his own account, was having none of this and suggested that a second search should be carried out. Thus, a second search party, under Sir Thomas Knevett, went back to Westminster around Midnight on Monday November 4th. There they found a “very tall and desperate fellow” booted and spurred as if for flight skulking in the shadows. He was immediately apprehended. Fawkes gave his name as John Johnson, servant to Thomas Percy, and maintained that alibi until he was broken by torture two days later.The question as to what Fawkes was doing “booted and spurred” at midnight and hours before he was due to light the fuse has never been properly addressed.The gunpowder found in the storehouse was brought to the Tower of London. When it was examined it was found that this batch of gunpowder had also decayed and would never have exploded. This did not stop the government from proclaiming that an appalling danger had been narrowly averted.To boost the sense of “danger averted” the government put it about that the plotters had dug a mine under the palace of Westminster between December 11th 1604 and March 25th 1605 in order to transport the gunpowder to a cavity under the House of Lords. It had to be abandoned, it was claimed, because some of the foundations were more than eleven feet thick. No evidence of this has ever been found.The political measures taken by the government were accompanied by an intense propaganda that “provided the correct climate for persecution”. The disabilities under which Catholics lived were now multiplied: they could no longer practise law, nor serve in the Army or Navy as officers. A Catholic could not act as executor of a will or as a guardian to a minor. A Catholic could not possess a weapon, could not receive a university degree, could not vote in local elections (repealed in 1897) nor in parliamentary elections (repealed in 1829.) They were ordered to marry in the Anglican Church, have their children baptised there and be buried in its churchyards. In 1613 a bill was introduced into the House of Commons to force Catholics to wear a red hat or parti-coloured stockings (like a clown’s) not only so that they could be easily distinguished, but also so that they could be “hooted at” whenever they appeared. The provisions, however, were not put into effect.During the alarms caused by a suppose Catholic massacre of Protestants in Ireland in 1641, orders were given to search “Rosebie’s house, the Tavern and such other Houses and Vaults as are near the Upper House of Parliament” for powder, arms and ammunitions. Similar alarms arose during the Titus Oates affair in 1678. Regular patrols were set up at this time.The custom of searching the vaults under Parliament had become ritualised by the 18th century. In 1760 a new feature was added. The vaults at that date were rented by a wine merchant known as Old Bellamy. The searchers ended their search by drinking the loyal toast in port which he supplied. By 1807 it had become the regular practice, supported by custom, for “The Lord Chamberlain of England” to make a search for “combustibles” under or near either House of Parliament before its Opening. After the fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster n 1834 Bellamy’s moved to Parliament Street but continued to supply the port.From the beginning of the twentieth century the search was carried out by the Yeomen of the Guard. Port is still drunk but, since 1976 when it was revived, without the loyal toast.The first Guido Fawkes bonfires were lit in London on November 5th 1605. The citizens knew little except that the King’s life had been saved. They proceeded to light bonfires in celebration. The authorities disapproved but bowed to the inevitable and declared that there could be bonfires so long as they were “without danger or disorder”.The first of what would become the annual Gunpowder sermon was preached shortly after the discovery of the plot in 1605. In 1606, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (who would go on to preach another nine Gunpowder sermons) made a solemn comparison to the day of resurrection. In 1618 he declared “Here we have the making of a new Holy-day.”In 1647, two years before it ordered the execution of James’s son, Charles I, the Puritan parliament banned all feasts except the 5th of November celebration on the ground that the day stood for the foiling of papists. The day continued to be celebrated during the Commonwealth, the only national feast to survive.The feast travelled across the Atlantic to New England where it became Pope Day on which effigies of the pope were burned. It became an occasion for mob revelry and mob rivalries. George Washington condemned it as “ridiculous and childish”.Further Reading:Faith and Treason : The Story of the Gunpowder Plot
A fascinating account of the Gunpowder Plot. Antonia Fraser delves into English religious history to show the harsh persecution of Roman Catholics under Jacobean rule and how James I disappointed those Catholics who hoped for a more liberal reign. A fresh appraisal of events which have become muddied and clouded by the malignant propaganda of the Puritan Age and its Protestant successors.