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What Is Guy Fawkes Night?

Remember, remember, the fifth of November...

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  • Guy Fawkes (third from right) and his co-conspirators.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In 1605, a plan was hatched to blow up British Parliament's House of Lords with the goal of assassinating King James I. Guy Fawkes was a part of a group of radical Catholics that conspired to restore Catholic power on the British throne. This plan became known as the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes has gone down in history as the most notorious figure involved.

Catholicism was all but illegal in England under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, King James I’s predecessor. When he came into power, Catholics regained hope that they could freely practice their religion once again, but he too condemned Catholicism. There were many failed conspiracies to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I during her reign, and King James I after her, but none have become as famous as the Gunpowder Plot.

Guy Fawkes was born in England in 1570 to a Protestant family, but converted to Catholicism as a child when his mother remarried. He went by the name Guido Fawkes in Spain, where he volunteered to fight in the religiously motivated Eighty Years' War. Although not the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot, he was recruited by Thomas Wintour and entrusted with one of the most important tasks: actually setting the explosives ablaze when the signal came.

Guy Fawkes met with four other English Catholics in a pub, where the plot was conceived. The plan was to blow up Parliament using gunpowder that the group had been compiling in rented apartments in London. They worked on this plan for over a year and enlisted overseas help, even attempting to persuade the King of Spain to pitch in. Fawkes had spent 10 years fighting for Catholic Spain against Dutch Protestants, and later traveled back in hopes of gaining support for a Catholic rebellion in England, but Philip III and his court declined to intervene.

The plotters leased a room in a cellar below the House of Lords, a meeting place of the British Parliament. There they began stockpiling their hoards of gunpowder and Guy Fawkes, under the pseudonym John Johnson, became the caretaker of the cellar. The plan was for Fawkes to light the gunpowder on November 5th, 1605, when a new session of Parliament began. He would then flee by boat on the River Thames to meet up with his co-conspirators, who were to begin an uprising in the English Midlands. Their ultimate goal was to install King James’ daughter Elizabeth on the throne and marry her to a Catholic.

guy fawkes night
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  • 1866 illustration of Guy Fawkes.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A week before the Gunpowder Plot was to be set in motion, the British government received an anonymous letter warning them of some type of plot. A task force was created to investigate the matter and on November 4th, Guy Fawkes was found guarding barrels upon barrels of gunpowder in the cellar beneath the House of Lords. He was captured and tortured until he revealed the full plan. After a trial found him guilty of high treason, Fawkes was hanged, drawn, and quartered, along with his co-conspirators.

The Gunpowder Plot and the failed assassination of King James I has become a British holiday, now known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, and is still celebrated today. Guy Fawkes was catapulted into fame and became known as a symbol of government rebellion: in the iconic graphic novel V for Vendetta and its movie adaptation, the character V wears a Guy Fawkes mask to conceal his identity as he plots to end fascist rule in a dsytopian British society.

In its early years, Guy Fawkes Night was marked by anti-Catholic sentiment and celebrating the king's survival. Today's celebrations have lost the religious element but maintain many of the social traditions, like hosting backyard bonfires, lighting fireworks, hosting parades featuring historical figures, and eating all kinds of treats and sweets from hot dogs to s’mores. Some participants even dress up in costumes to commemorate the legacy of the failed assassination attempt that occurred over 400 years ago.

Sources: History.com