Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

Leave it to Len Goodman on last night's Dancing with the Stars to remind me that yesterday was Guy Fawke's Night in Britain. Who was Guy Fawkes you ask? Well, he's the dude to the left. in 1605, he and a group of English Catholic conspirators decided it would be a good idea to try and kill King James I of England and Scotland, his family and most of Parliament by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening. Oh, and they also planned on kidnapping the royal children as well.

Since we all know that James I lived on, we know the plot wasn't successful, but the Brits decided it would be a great idea to celebrate the foiling of the plot by having giant bonfires and fireworks around the country (although some groups celebrat the attempt instead) on November 5th.

The guy who came up with this diabolical plan was Robert Catesby, who came up with the idea when hopes of Catholic toleration evaporated under James I. There 11 conspirators in total. Guy Fawkes was the guy who actually prepared the explosives. It seems he was some kind of explosives expert with military experience, who met Catesby through a man named Hugh Owen. After the death of the King, the conspirators planned on putting James I's 9 year old daughter Elizabeth (the future Queen of Bohemia) on the throne of a newly Catholic England (cause it worked so well under Mary I).

The principal Jesuit priest at the time , Father Henry Garnet was also apprised of the plot by another Jesuit, who heard it when Robert Catesby discussed the plot with him. Of course, what is said in the confession, is supposed to stay in the confession, so Garnet couldn't tell anyone even if he wanted to. Of course, once the plot was exposed, Garnet was still executed along with the other conspirators.

In 1604, one of the conspirators Thomas Percy rented lodgings adjacent to the Houses of Parliament with the idea of tunneling through under the foundation to lay the gunpowder. Guy Fawkes pretended to be Percy's servant while Catesby's house was used to store the gunpowder. However, the an outbreak of the Plague foiled their plans, since it was so severe that the State Opening of Parliament was postponed from the fall of 1604 to 1605. Meanwhile, the tunneling wasn't going so well. By Christmas of 1604, they still hadn't made it underneath the Houses. By the time they started work again in early 1605, they discovered that the opening had been postponed once again to October of 1605.

By chance, the conspirators learned that a coal merchant had vacated a cellar underneath the House of Lords, so Percy jumped on the chance to take over the lease. Guy Fawkes filled the room with gunpowder, by March of 1605, they had filled the undercroft with 36 barrels of gunpowder. If they had successfully ignited it, it would have blown up not only the Houses of Parliament but also Westminster Abbey and many of the old buildings in the Westminster Palace complex as well as blowing out all the windows in a 1 kilometre radius.

Due to a lack of money, the conspirators involved a man named Francis Tresham who was probably the one who betrayed them by writing to his brother-in-law. An anonymous letter was sent which read "I advise you to devise some excuse not to attend this parliament, for they shall receive a terrible blow, and yet shall not see who hurts them.'

So Guy Fawkes was in charge of executing the plot, while the rest of them fled to the country to await the news. Nothing like establishing an alibi and leaving Guy Fawkes holding the bag, so to speak. But then Francis Tresham sends a note to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle to warn him not to be in the vicinity lest he get blown up and stuff. Monteagle passed the letter on to Robert Cecil, Secretary of State. When the conspirators learned that Cecil had read the letter, instead of oh, deciding that maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all, they decided to go through with it anyway.

An another anonymous tip lead to the search of the undercroft of the vaults beneath the House of Lords, but it was decided to wait and catch the culprit in action which they did the next night when Thomas Knyvet lead a group of armed men who then discovered Guy Fawkes about to light the match. Fawkes was arrested and promptly admitted that he was trying to kill the King and Parliament. He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured which could only be done on the express orders of the King.

The rest of the conspirators were eventually caught, although Catesby was killed trying to lead a revolt in the Midlands. The remaining conspirators were tried in January of 1606 where they pleaded not guilty except for Sir Everard Digby who tried to defend himself by claiming that it was really the King's fault for going back on his word on promises of Catholic toleration. The trial was a public spectacle with people paying up to 10 shillings to watch. There was even a rumor going around that the King and Queen attended in secret.

Four of the plotters were executed on January 30, where they were hanged, drawn and quartered, the usual punishment for traitors. It was a particularly gruesome punishment because the prisoner was cut down before he while he was still barely alive and then drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes, however, cheated his executioners by jumping from the gallows before he was cut down and breaking his neck.

Because of the Gunpowder Plot, the idea of Catholic Emancipation was set back over for 200 years (even today, if a member of the Royal Family marries a Catholic, they have to give up their place in the line of succession). And the Houses of Parliament are searched by a Yeoman of the Guard before every State Opening just in case. An act of Parliament was actually passed to make the 5th of November a day of thanksgiving for the 'joyful day of deliverance.' Even in the colonies, Guy Fawke's Night was celebrated until that little thing called The American Revolution. It is still the custom in the UK to have fireworks, and traditionally they burn Guy Fawkes in effigy, although not many people do it anymore.

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, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

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