Today we are going to talk to you about the famous Gunpowder Plot, otherwise known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night, or in a thousand other ways. We will discover together why this event, which is celebrated on November 5, has been of great importance in the Anglo-Saxon world since 1605.
Gunpowder Plot in brief
In 1605 Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, and his conspiratorial friends attempted to blow up Parliament (while King James I was inside) because they disagreed with the king’s policy regarding Protestants. They managed to store about thirty barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the Parliament, but before the Parliament opened on November 5, the plot was uncovered. Guy Fawkes and his friends were executed for treason.
Since then, November 5 has been celebrated in England by burning Guy Fawkes puppets, while often firing off fireworks. These parties can be large events, open to the public, or smaller private celebrations that bring family and friends together on private properties.
The Gunpowder Plot or “Guy Fawkes Night” is also known as “Bonfire Night” or “Fireworks Night.” In the days leading up to November 5, it is traditional for children to take their Guy Fawkes dolls to the streets and ask the passersby “a penny for the guy”. This money should be a contribution to the fireworks. A poem is also recited“remember, remember, the 5th of November”. It seems that originally the poem was written by John Milton.
How did the Gunpowder Plot come about?
It all began on the evening of November 4, 1605. In a cellar, under the English Parliament, the police of the time discovered a man near a pile of wood hiding 36 barrels of gunpowder, wicks and matches. He introduces himself as John Johnson, but investigators will soon discover his true identity: Guy Fawkes.
After his arrest on the morning of November 5th, all of his co-conspirators tried to escape. It is the failure of what historians call the “gunpowder plot”.
In England, James I succeeded Elizabeth I, thus uniting the crowns of Scotland and England (the latter including Ireland). England, we recall, has been Protestant since the split with Rome decided by Henry VIII, father of Elizabeth I, and the king (or queen) is the head of the Anglican church.
Under the reign of Elizabeth, and more particularly after the attempted invasion of England by Spain (episode of the “invincible Army”), Catholics were subjected to persecution.
When James I ascended the throne of England as Elizabeth I’s closest relative, he raised some hopes: if he was a Protestant, he was also the son of a Catholic, Mary Stuart. But James is no more flexible with Catholics than his predecessors.
The “gunpowder plot” would therefore be, according to the most widespread thesis, an attempt by Catholics to regain power in England. By blowing up Parliament during the king’s speech, they would behead the kingdom and then grant access to the throne to Elizabeth, daughter of James, hoping to marry her to a Catholic so that the country would return to the papacy.
But other theses have been advanced, such as that of the manipulation of conspirators by government agents to justify the repression against Catholics.
Who is Guy Fawkes?
Born in the city of York, Guy Fawkes is described as “tall, of powerful stature, with thick reddish-brown hair, a flowing mustache and a full beard”. A Catholic, he did not hesitate to join the Spanish army in its war in the (Protestant) Netherlands. He would even command troops during the Spanish capture of Calais in 1596.
It is also this military experience that he will be worth to be recruited within the “conspiracy of the powders”, where he was only a simple executor.
After his arrest, Fawkes was taken to the infamous Tower of London and tortured. He resisted for two days before revealing the names of his accomplices, which gave them time to escape (although many of them were later captured).
On January 31, 1606, with his surviving accomplices, he underwent the cruel tortures reserved for cases of high treason: they were dragged to the place of execution tied to a wooden frame; then they were hanged, but not enough to die; then they were emasculated, gutted and finally their heads were cut off, ending their existence. Their bodies were then dismembered, and the remains were exhibited in various places in the country, “for example”.
Fawkes, probably weakened by torture, was “lucky” not to survive the hanging … he was 35 years old.
The legacy of the Gunpowder Plot
After the failure of the plot, King James decreed a celebration of thanksgiving: for two centuries, on November 5, religious services would commemorate the event.
The people, for their part, began a tradition of festive nights, with bonfires where the pope’s effigies were cheerfully burned. Then, as greater religious tolerance prevailed, the effigies of Guy Fawkes began to be burned. This celebration, which has lost its political and religious significance, continues today every November 5th: it’s Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. Participants sometimes wear stylized masks believed to represent Fawkes.
Bonfire night isn’t the only important trace Guy Fawkes left behind. His name was in fact incorporated into the English language to become one of his most common words.
First of all, you should know that the name Guy, of Norman origin, was not at all common in England at the time. When the tradition of “bonfire nights” began, the mannequin with the effigy of Fawkes naturally took the name of “boy” in English.
The word “guy” later became a nickname given to grotesquely dressed people. Then, over the years, the name lost its descriptive side to designate only one person, generally male, but also gender neutral groups of people.
When English speakers say: “Hi, guys!” or “he’s a good guy”, often unknowingly refer to Guy Fawkes!
V for Vendetta: the mask Anonymous… and others
Guy Fawkes Night appears in Agatha Christie’s book Poirot Solves Three Enigmas.
A reference to Guy Fawkes Night is also present in the series Daria (episode 3 season 3), in the character of “Guy Fawkes Day”.
But that is not all. Not content with influencing British festivals and Shakespeare’s language, Guy Fawkes is now a symbol of an alternative political culture, thanks to a comic written by Alan Moore and released by DC Comics in the 1980s: V for Vendetta. In a post-apocalyptic future à la George Orwell orThe handmaid’s tale, an anarchist fights a fascist government. To hide, he wears a Guy Fawkes mask. The V for Vendetta movie, released in 2006, will make the character (and the mask!) Even more famous.
The Fawkes mask used in V for Vendetta will then be adopted, in 2008, by the famous hacker activist group Anonymous, particularly during anti-Scientology demonstrations: the participants hid their faces behind these masks. Then it was the turn of the anti-globalists of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, and today the effigy of Guy Fawkes tends to symbolize the cyber activists as much as the anti-capitalist movement.
These same Anonymous have chosen November 5, Guy Fawkes day, and his effigy for their protest parades around the world: the “march of millions of masks”, which is intended as a symbol of the fight against political corruption, mass surveillance and austerity.
A terrorist Catholic extremist has become the symbol of a libertarian and anti-capitalist movement. History certainly has a great sense of humor …