I intensely dislike the fact that people omit the apostrophe in “Hallowe’en”. It suggest they have no idea at all about the meaning of the word and the origins of the festival (Maybe, more on that later). Mostly, I find it a little sad that today Hallowe’en eclipses the thoroughly British festival of Bonfire night on 5th November.
By the Victorian period, 5th November was known as “Guy Fawkes night” and in the early part of the 20th Century, it was rebranded “Fireworks night” to promote the sale of rockets and catherine wheels.
This week, I am in Cambridge and chanced upon a huge Guy Fawkes celebration on Jesus Green with an enormous bonfire and about 10 minutes of spectacular, if moderately repetitive, red and blue fireworks. Having taken credit for staging the event, and listing their sponsors, the event’s dj promptly boomed across the speaker system to praise the annual “free” event, and ask everyone for a minimum donation of £3 which rather suggested the event was not free after all, or that someone planned to make a sizeable profit out of it.
TIM IN CAMBRIDGE
Today, there is the ubiquitous mask from V for Vendatta (2006), itself based on a book by Alan Moore, but that is really a rebooting of the old myth. And myth is the appropriate word because Guy Fawkes transcends historical events. Indeed, he was not the central figure in the conspiracy at all. He was simply the most exotic and the one caught in the cellar with the gunpowder.
Guido, Guy Fawkes was born in Yorkshire in 1570, befriending some of his fellow conspirators at school, but by 1593 he had left England for Flanders and from there joined the Spanish Army to fight protestants in the Eighty Years’ War.
When the Queen was dying, he was part of a mission to The Spanish court to gather support for a second Spanish invasion and when Elizabeth was succeeded by James I, another Protestant, the die was cast and in 1604, Guy Fawkes met up with this fellow Gunpowder plotters to hatch a plan.
The Plotters were Thomas Percy, John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Bates, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Robert Wintour, Humphrey and Stephen Littleton, Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rockwood, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham, and Thomas Habington.
They were led by Robert Catesby and met in Ashby St Ledgers, just up the road from where I live. He devised the plan to blow up the Houses of Paliament during the reading of the “Gracious Speech” on 5th November 1605. This also involved kidnapping James’ daughter Elizabeth and marrying her off to a senior Catholic nobleman.
Percy rented a cellar under the Parliament which meant there was no need for the elaborate plan of tunnelling under the building. It was stacked with 36 barrels of gunpowder along with wood and sticks. Fawkes took on the role of looking after this cellar and its contents, under the assumed name of John Johnson.
The conspiracy was betrayed because on 26th October, Tresham, a person who was not part of the original conspiracy, wrote to his brother-in-law William Parker, Lord Monteagle, to warn him not to attend the State Opening. Monteagle passed the letter on to the spy chief, Robert Cecil and while this chain of events leaked back to the Conspirators, they, neverthless, decided to carry on with their plan.
The Lord Chamberlain along with Monteagle searched Parliament on 4th November and located the cellar. They reported back to the king who personally ordered Sir Thomas Knyvet to enter the cellar and seize Fawkes red-handed, which, indeed, he did early in the morning of 5th November. The conspiracy was exposed, Fawkes tortured for details and along with Thomas Wintour, Rockwood and Keyes, he was hanged, drawn and quartered. The day before, Digby, Robert Wintour, Grant and Bates were similarly executed.
There are stories emerging that suggest that the whole thing was an inside job and that Fawkes was really working under Cecil in a fledging MI6. This seems unlikely, but what is certain is that the king knew of the plot the day before and that Guy Fawkes’ arrest was delayed, for maximum political capital. The story certainly played well for the crown, rallying support for an unpopular successor to Elizabeth and acting as effective propaganda against a revival of Catholicism.
On the evening of 5th November 1605, people around England and Scotland apparently made bonfires to celebrate the king’s deliverance. Later, effigies, often of the Popes were added to what became an annual festival. Back in the late 70s, I recall Political figures being burnt on the sands of St Andrews. Rather more dramatic festivals continue in Lewis. This year, Theresa May was burnt on the bonfire after being paraded through the streets.
MRS MAY IN LEWES
Perhaps the most entertaining fact about the original Gunpowder plot, however, lies in general stupidity. Because the conspirators left their gunpowder in the barrels for so long, the gunpowder “decayed”; it separated back into its constituent elements and was, by 5th November, pretty well useless. Had Fawkes lit the stuff, nothing would have happened. The gunpowder might have still been more effective one month earlier when Parliament had originally been scheduled to meet, but an outbreak of plague in London had caused a delay.