Don't you Remember, The Fifth of November, 'Twas Gunpowder Treason Day, I let off my gun, And made'em all run. And Stole all their Bonfire away. (1742)
Although the ditty ‘remember, remember, the 5th of November’ did not enter the popular imagination until nearly one hundred and fifty years after the failed Gunpowder plot of 1605, the event and the rhyme has always exerted a strong pull over my imagination.
Perhaps this is because the de Passe engraving, at the top of this article, lists a Robert Winter among the thirteen conspirators. Perhaps it is because my parents had a love of history and Guy Fawkes Night was to be commemorated — much like the Queen’s Birthday or Christmas Day. Markers of the societal year and remembrances of our heritage. But what was this event that has accrued so much national attention?
To say that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of tremendous social and religious upheaval in Europe in general, and the British Isles in particular, would be an understatement. The Reformation was far more costly in the loss of human life in percentage terms than either of the World Wars. In Germany alone, the Thirty Years War — just one of the many European Wars of Religion — is estimated to have resulted in the death of between 25% and 40% of the entire population (compare that with ~7% of the German population who died in WWII). In such a backdrop of death, what value the lives of a monarch and His Government? Particularly a monarch whose predecessors had earned nicknames such as ‘Bloody Mary‘.
The first Elizabethan era is rightly remembered as a time of increasing stability in England, with Elizabeth I striking an uneasy balance at home between Protestants and Catholics, while strengthening England’s position abroad through a combination of military victory and intelligence gathering. Yet for all her political triumph, she suffered one key defeat, and in this failure to produce an heir, England gained in James VI and I a successor who would issue a series of tough laws designed to crack down on his perceived threat of Catholic terrorism.
Public sentiment was the dry grass, and dissidents such as Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, and Robert and Thomas Winter — considered by some to be the finest swordsmen in England — were matches willing to start the fire of rebellion.
The plot was a simple one, stock the basement of parliament with enough gunpowder to blow the place sky high then install the King’s daughter, Elizabeth, who it was felt had been strongly influenced by her Danish Catholic mother, thereby restoring England as a Catholic nation.
After Fawkes had obtained gunpowder on the black market, the plot was set in motion with surprising ease. Even when one of the letters documenting the attempt was shown to the King, and a search of parliament made, Guy Fawkes managed to explain away his presence next to a large pile of kindling by saying he was looking after the wood for his master Lord Percy.
Despite such lapses in security, the palace guards eventually stopped the plot when a second search was made around midnight. This time, Fawkes’ dissimulation was unable to explain why he was setting touchwood and matches to barrels of gunpowder situated under the kindling — it seems ‘I’m just looking after it’ did not work twice. Hauled away to the Tower of London, for what today would be described as ‘enhanced interrogation’, he revealed the entirety of the plot.
All the conspirators would eventually be rounded up and executed in the January of the following year. James I’s rule abided and England has remained a firmly protestant nation ever since. To the extent that as late as 2015, members of the Royal Family who married Catholics were removed from the line of succession, and although Prime Ministers would admit to all kinds of scandalous behaviour, their Catholicism was never disclosed while in office. As was the case with Tony Blair who left office in 2007.
Good night and good luck.