Catholicism in England was heavily repressed under Queen Elizabeth I, particularly after the pope excommunicated her in 1570. During her reign, dozens of priests were put to death, and Catholics could not even legally celebrate Mass or be married according to their own rites. When James I took the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, there were rumors, inspired by his diplomatic overtures to the pope, that James himself would become Catholic. It soon became clear, however, that James did not support religious tolerance for Catholics.
In 1604 he publicly condemned Catholicism as a superstition, ordered all Catholic priests to leave England and continued with the repressive policies of his predecessor, such as fines for those refusing to attend Protestant services.
In May of 1604, a handful of Catholic dissidents—Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Tom Wintour, Jack Wright and Thomas Percy—met at the Duck and Drake inn in London, where Catesby proposed a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder. Afterwards, all five men purportedly swore an oath of secrecy upon a prayer book. Eight other conspirators would later join what became known as the Gunpowder Plot.
Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido Fawkes, spent about a decade fighting for Spain against Protestant rebels in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands. He also personally petitioned the king of Spain for help in starting an English rebellion against James. According to writings in the Spanish archives, Fawkes believed the English king was a heretic who would drive out his Catholic subjects. Fawkes also apparently expressed strong anti-Scottish prejudices.
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”— Guy Fawkes
By 1605 Fawkes using the alias “John Johnson” rented rooms in the cellars of Westminster Abby and began to stockpile gunpowder. Under the plan, Fawkes would light a fuse on November 5, 1605, during the opening of a new session of Parliament. James, his eldest son, the House of Lords and the House of Commons would all be blown sky-high. In the meantime, as Fawkes escaped by boat across the River Thames, his fellow conspirators would start an uprising in the English Midlands, kidnap James’ daughter Elizabeth, install her as a puppet queen and eventually marry her off to a Catholic, thereby restoring the Catholic monarchy.
A search party found Fawkes skulking in his cellar around midnight on November 4, with matches in his pocket and 36 barrels of gunpowder stacked next to him. For Fawkes, the plot’s failure could be blamed on “the devil and not God.” He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured upon the special order of King James. Soon after, his co-conspirators were likewise arrested, except for four, who died in a shootout with English troops. Fawkes and his surviving co-conspirators were all found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death in January 1606 by hanging, drawing and quartering.
After the plot was revealed, Londoners began lighting celebratory bonfires, and in January 1606 an act of Parliament designated November 5 as a day of thanksgiving. Guy Fawkes Day festivities soon spread as far as the American colonies. British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic would burn an effigy of the pope and/or Guy Fawkes on November 5th. That tradition completely died out in the United States by the 19th century, whereas in Britain Guy Fawkes Day became a time to get together with friends and family, set off fireworks, light bonfires, attend parades and burn effigies of Fawkes. Children traditionally wheeled around their effigies demanding a “penny for the Guy” (a similar custom to Halloween trick-or-treating) and imploring crowds to “remember, remember the fifth of November.”
Come join us at Fort Mifflin on November 5th as we do the last Candlelight Tours of the season (advance reservations required), light a bonfire, and remember Mr. Fawkes failed attempt to overthrow the monarchy…
Print and bring your own Guy Fawkes Mask so you can remain anonymous.
Remember, remember, the 5th of November The Gunpowder Treason and plot ; I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'Twas his intent. To blow up the King and the Parliament. Three score barrels of powder below. Poor old England to 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!