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Posts Tagged ‘Fireworks Night’

Guy Fawkes – from Religious Terrorist to the Face of Anonymous Protest (Part Two)

Posted by Harbinger451 on April 24, 2016

Babble CategoryGuy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent – To blow up the King and Parli’ment.

Having dealt with the history of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot in Part One, I will now turn my attention to how this turn-of-the 17th century English fanatical religious terrorist, wannabe-assassin and potential mass-murderer become the 21st Century’s face of world-wide protest, anarchy and anonymity? There are numerous reasons of course but principle among them are an annual national bonfire night used for the burning of effigies of hated figures,  a 19th century historical romance, a late 20th century cult comic book, a 21st century super-hero movie and a loose collective of anonymous activists, hacktivists, anarchists and protest movements.

What is Guy Fawkes Day (or Night) – is it Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night?

In the immediate aftermath of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, King James I’s Council allowed the celebration of its thwarting and the saving of the King by the lighting of bonfires without any danger or  disorder. The Observance of 5th November Act 1605, also known as the Thanksgiving Act, was passed in Parliament on the 23rd of January 1606 and it made the celebrations a public annual thanksgiving for the plot’s failure. Needless to say Gunpowder Treason Day (as it was at first known) provided Protestant preachers an ideal occasion to deliver anti-Catholic sermons to their parishioners but also it was used as an excuse for sanctioned public festive drinking and processions as well as for the lighting of bonfires and small explosives. Another, more sensible, tradition was started because of the Gunpowder plot (and is still carried out today) – that of searching the cellars of Parliament by the Yeoman of the Guard before its ceremonial opening.

Bonfire Night at Windsor Castle in 1776

Bonfire Night at Windsor Castle in 1776

In 1626, at the age of 17 and while still an undergraduate at Christ’s College – Cambridge, John Milton wrote his epic poem In Quintum Novembris (On the Fifth of November) about the Gunpowder Plot and featuring Satan as a character – foreshadowing his later, and much more accomplished, Paradise Lost. The name Guy Fawkes does not appear in its verses and in fact, in this highly mytholigised version of the then recent historical events, it is Satan himself who calls a cabal of devils, including the Pope, to carry out the evil plot fated to end in failure and with the God of Protestantism laughing at the futility of the Catholic evildoers. Though essentially a school exercise in Latin the work was first published in a collection of his Latin verse printed in 1645.

By the time of the English Civil War (1642–1651), Gunpowder Treason Day was still being being celebrated but increasingly it was being referred to as simply Bonfire Night. Effigies of hated figures started appearing (usually of Guy Fawkes or the Pope), they were paraded around local areas in masked procession before being set on top of a large bonfire and ceremoniously burnt with the pyre. Not surprisingly, during the English Interregnum (1649-60, the years between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II) the now less formal annual day of thanks became more a celebration of the saving of parliamentary government and of Protestantism than of the saving of a monarch.

Three-score barrels of powder below – To prove old England’s overthrow;

After the Restoration, Charles II tried to return the celebrations of the 5th to a more formal monarchist purpose but the people of the land were inexorably drawn to the more diverse and anarchistic (but still very much anti-Catholic) elements of the fire festival. Bans on bonfires and fireworks tried to quell the often raucous festivities and on numerous occasions militias were called in to suppress the more boisterous of the commoners’ excesses. When James II (the last Catholic monarch of England) came to the throne in 1685 the attempts to suppress anti-Catholic sentiment moved to the fore-front – but still to little avail.

As the years (and centuries) rolled on Bonfire Night (always its common name) survived various bans of bonfires and fireworks – and many attempts to quell the mayhem caused by commoners, often relishing the anonymity provided by the wearing of a mask, who increasingly saw the event as a release valve for relieving tension and bringing a little chaotic freedom by railing against the often heavily imposed order of the day. By the 18th Century Gunpowder Treason Day had, officially at least,  become Guy Fawkes Day with the custom of burning masked effigies of Fawkes and other notorious personalities and perceived enemies of the people  (now all increasingly referred to as Guys) remaining a focus of the celebrations.

A masked Guy being paraded on Guy Fawkes Night, 1868.

A masked Guy being paraded on Guy Fawkes Night, 1868.

The 19th Century saw the overtly anti-Catholic aspect of the annual fire festival finally begin to wane, by 1826 British Catholics were allowed to vote again and had been awarded greater civil rights.  The focus of the 5th shifted more resolutely to a rebellious vilifying of unpopular celebrity or political figures of the day.  And, though organised civil celebrations continued in many villages, towns and cities throughout this period, people also started to have smaller family and friends type celebrations with their own small-scale bonfires (with or without Guys) and the celebratory firing of bought or home-made fireworks. In the run-up to the big night it became common for, often masked, groups of children to roam the streets with there own little effigies ready for the burning, collecting pennies to fund their personal bonfire and fireworks blow-outs. To this day, in the days between Halloween and Bonfire Night, you still get children hanging around outside pubs asking all comers (and usually asking again all leavers) “Penny for the Guy, Mister (or Missus)?” – while proudly displaying their own particular attempt at constructing a barely recognizable humanoid Guy.

As the national anti-Catholic sentiment declined so softened the popular attitudes to Gay Fawkes himself. Despite the fact he sought to overthrow one intolerant religious monarchy and replace it with a another, even more intolerant one, he was increasingly seen in a more sympathetic light. A romantacised rebel supporting the plight of the common people rather than a fanatical and religiously intolerant terrorist. This might largely be due to the publication of the 1840 historical romance Guy Fawkes by William Harrison Ainsworth which cast Fawkes as an adventurous, but tragic, hero who was honour bound to embark on a doomed course of events. Between 1840 and 1878 the hugely popular tale – mixing fictional and Gothic elements in with the historical – was published twice as a serial and seven times as a novel, one of which was a 3-volume set illustrated by George Cruikshank. Almost immediately, versions of Ainsworth’s novel were adapted as stage plays and the now more acceptable character of Guy Fawkes, with the more “commoner-friendly” elements of the Gunpowder plot, even started appearing in pantomimes with the likes of Harlequin and Pantaloon, and went on to numerous appearances in penny dreadfuls and children’s adventure books.

By God’s providence he was catch’d – With a dark lantern and burning match.

Guy Fawkes effigies and collectors, all masked, 1903, by John Benjamin Stone.

Guy Fawkes effigies and collectors, all masked, 1903, by John Benjamin Stone.

Into the 20th century pyrotechnic manufacturers cottoned on quickly to a growing mass market for their goods and their advertisements started to refer to the night of the 5th as Fireworks Night – marking yet another old and popular festival or holiday being co-opted (and sanitised) by the greed of modern commercialisation – even to the point of large numbers of cheap cardboard or paper Guy Fawkes masks being sold to children or “gifted for free” with children’s comics. The softened and more populist characterisation of Guy Fawkes also started appearing in a different kind of light show – the movies. He was depicted on film as early as 1913, played by Caleb Porter in the silent British movie Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot directed by Ernest G. Batley, and then again in 1923, played by Matheson Lang in another silent picture Guy Fawkes directed by Maurice Elvey. The latter an adaptation of Ainsworth’s influential 1840 novel. Guy Fawkes made regular appearances on British TV in dramas and dramatised scenes for historical documentaries as well as often turning up (in parody) on comedy sketch shows and children’s TV shows. Somewhat bizarrely, the only other movie depiction of Guy Fawkes in the 20th century (that I could find on the IMDB) was played by Bill Maynard in the historical comedy Carry on Henry directed by Gerald Thomas in 1971.

Although a well known and recognisable character in Britain for hundreds of years, Guy Fawkes – as an historical and then fictional figure – barely registered a blip on the cultural RADAR screens of even the ex-colonies let alone the rest of the world. Or at least that’s the way it was until a slow burning fuse was lit by writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd in 1982 when the British anthology comic Warrior started the troubled and protracted publication of the pair’s black-and-white cult comic strip V for Vendetta.  Unfortunately Warrior was cancelled in 1985, two episodes short of publishing the complete Moore and Lloyd strip. The mantle was taken up by DC Comics in 1988 with the publication of a ten-issue series that reprinted the Warrior stories in colour and continued the series to completion. Within two years the tale was reprinted in graphic-novel format, in the US by the DC Vertigo imprint and in the UK by Titan Books. In 1999 The Comics Journal ran a poll on “The Top 100 (English-Language) Comics of the 20th Century” and V for Vendetta reached 83rd place.

Buy the V for Vendetta graphic novel at Amazon.com

V wearing a stylised Guy Fawkes mask and costume in the comic book V for Vendetta.

Set in the late 1990s, V for Vendetta depicts a dystopian and post-apocalyptic near-future Britain ruled as a police state by a fascist regime (and is heavily indebted to George Orwell’s 1984). The titular protagonist, V, is a masked vigilante, anarchist and revolutionary dressed in a stylised Guy Fawkes costume. Starting on Bonfire Night, 1997, the story follows his elaborate, theatrical and explosive campaign to murder his former captors who experimented on him, bring down the fascist government that allowed it, and convince the people to take back the power and rule themselves… all while training a young protégé, Eve, and all by the Bonfire Night of 1998. Aswell as continuing the re-invention of the fictional Guy Fawkes character started by Ainsworth in 1840, it repackages and updates the whole story of the people’s revolutionary into a dark, politically and intellectually astute, Batman-like super-hero story fit for mass consumption and world wide appeal. All that was needed was a slick, glossy big-budget movie adaptation. It came in 2006.

Directed by James McTeigue, written and produced by The Wachowski siblings and starring Hugo Weaving as V, with Natalie Portman as Eve and Stephen Rea as Finch, the detective leading the investigation into V’s activities… oh, and Clive Ashborn as Guy Fawkes himself – seen in the (not exactly accurate) opening sequences looking back at the historical character. Although still set in Britain, Warner Brothers‘ movie of V for Vendetta transposes the timeline to the late 2020s and in many ways Americanises the political conflict by switching it from a very British narrative of anarchism against fascism to a more American style conflict of liberalism against right-wing neo-conservatism. The anarchistic and morally ambivalent aspects of V’s character are toned down to make him a more acceptable hero figure for American audiences. It was less a criticism of Thatcherite politics in early 80s Britain and more a criticism of the Bush-era politics of America in the early 2000s. That said, it is still a largely faithful adaptation of Moore and Lloyd’s comic book and although Moore disowned all connections with it (as he has done with all big screen adaptations of his work) Lloyd embraced it saying, “if you enjoyed the original and can accept an adaptation that is different to its source material but equally as powerful, then you’ll be as impressed as I was with it”. The film renewed interest in Moore and Lloyd’s original story, and sales of the graphic novel – now available in hardback – rose dramatically in the USA.

Buy the movie V for Vendetta (2006) Blu-Ray

A scene from the movie V for Vendetta (2006)

The movie, like the comic book before it, initially met with a very mixed critical reception and its controversial story line dealing with themes of anarchism, terrorism, totalitarianism, religious and racial intolerance and homophobia has proved problematic for many sociopolitical groups. right-wing groups complained of its apparent promotion of anarchism and terrorism while anarchist groups complained that it had watered down the original’s political message for the sake of commercial Hollywood violence and flashy special effects. But over time the movie, like the comic, has become a popular favourite and it too has achieved a certain level of cult status. In 2008 Empire magazine named the film the 418th greatest movie of all time.

Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring – Holla boys, Holla boys, BURN ‘im ‘n’ sing!

Members of the group Anonymous wearing Guy Fawkes masks at a protest against the Church of Scientology in London, 2008.

Members of the group Anonymous wearing Guy Fawkes masks at a protest against the Church of Scientology in London, 2008.

The movie V for Vendetta was released in the USA on the 17th of March, 2006. Merchandising and promotional items included replicas of the Guy Fawkes mask used in the movie. Within a month these stylised Guy Fawkes masks based on David Lloyd’s original design (or close approximations to it) started to be worn by protesters in demonstrations. On the 17th of April that year, outside the New York City offices of Warner Brothers and DC Comics, the odd spectacle arose of anarchist freegan demonstrators wearing Guy Fawkes masks – protesting the perceived misrepresentation of the Anarchist movement in the movie – being met with by a counter demonstration of libertarians wearing Guy Fawkes masks (possibly supplied by Warner Brothers themselves) – protesting the protesters.

Late in September of 2006 a minor Internet meme of a stick-figure known as “Epic Fail Guy” (or EFG) started appearing on the online message-board and image-board 4chan. Very soon EFG was wearing a V for Vendetta style Guy Fawkes mask – presumably because Guy Fawkes failed in carrying out the Gunpowder Plot (an epic fail indeed) – and the internet meme started to get more traction and spread out of its 4chan confines. Anonymous, the ad-hoc group of Internet users who are often associated with various hacktivist operations, also has its origins in 4chan, which launched in late 2003 as an anonymous online community that doesn’t require registration and where all users not choosing to use a nickname are displayed as “Anonymous” – and thus perpetuating the notion that users of the site are part of a group called Anonymous – not a single person but a collective (or hive) of users.

In January 2008 the online (or cyberspace) collective known as Anonymous, started using the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask in its first offline, or real world (meatspace), operation Project Chanology – a series of protests directed against the Church of Scientology. The use of these masks by Anonymous was ostensibly a reference to EFG, they were using it to suggest that Scientology was an epic fail, but it seems more likely that there was a much more practical purpose – preventing the famously litigious and snap-happy scam “Church” from photographing faces and identifying individuals. As the protests continued, more and more protesters started using the masks and it soon became a symbolic “face” for the anonymous group online as well as in the real world. Alan Moore, a self professed anarchist, said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2008, “I was also quite heartened the other day when watching the news to see that there were demonstrations outside the Scientology headquarters over here, and that they suddenly flashed to a clip showing all these demonstrators wearing V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks. That pleased me. That gave me a warm little glow.”

Buy a V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask on Amazon.com

A protestor wearing a V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask.

The V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask was adopted by many more protest groups in the following years. In Britain, on 23 May 2009, a group protesting the MPs’ expenses scandal exploded a fake barrel of gunpowder outside Parliament while wearing the masks. The mask became very popular internationally with the Occupy Movement that evolved from the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. It appeared in Poland in January 2012 during protests against the signing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a multinational treaty for the purpose of establishing international standards for intellectual property rights enforcement. In June 2012 demonstrators wore the mask in Mumbai, India, protesting against the Indian Government’s censorship of the Internet and in 2013 a number of Persian Gulf states were forced to impose (an ultimately futile) ban on the sale of the mask as it started appearing in demonstrations that were part of the ongoing “Arab Spring” movement. It has been used in numerous anti-government protests in countries as diverse as Thailand, Egypt or Turkey and Brazil or Venezuela.

I think we can best sum up this article with the words of the mask’s designer, David Lloyd:

“The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way. My feeling is the Anonymous group needed an all-purpose image to hide their identity and also symbolise that they stand for individualism – V for Vendetta is a story about one person against the system.”

Buy a Guy Fawkes Mask on Amazon.com

Buy William Harrison Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes novel at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk

Buy the V for Vendetta graphic novel at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk

Buy the V for Vendetta movie on DVD at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk

Buy the V for Vendetta movie on Blu-ray at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk

Buy the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk.

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Guy Fawkes – from Religious Terrorist to the Face of Anonymous Protest (Part One)

Posted by Harbinger451 on November 4, 2014

Babble from Harbinger451Remember, Remember the 5th of November

In the early hours of the 5th of November 1605 Guy Fawkes, who’d been using the names Guido Fawkes and John Johnson, was discovered in the cellars beneath the Palace of Westminster (specifically under Parliament House – only one part of a much larger complex of buildings) equipped with a handful of slow matches, a pocket watch and 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden under a pile of wood and iron bars. His aim was to blow-up the Palace and kill King James I (along with a significant portion of the ruling elite) at the ceremonial opening of Parliament that was to take place later that day. Fawkes – and his fellow conspirators – somewhat naively thought that the resulting  explosion would have resulted in the kind of chaos and anarchy that would allow them to establish an English Catholic monarchy in place of the existing Protestant Union of England and Scotland under a Scottish monarch who (as they saw it) had no right to the English throne.

So… how did this turn-of-the 17th century English religious fanatic, wannabe-assassin and potential mass-murderer become the 21st Century’s face of world-wide protest, anarchy and anonymity? There are numerous reasons – but principle among them are an annual national bonfire night used for the burning of effigies of hated figures,  a 19th century historical romance, a late 20th century cult comic book, a 21st century super-hero movie and a loose collective of online hacktivists, anonymous anarchists and protest movements. But more about them shortly, first…

Guy Fawkes - Contemporary Engraving by Crispijn van de Passe

Guy Fawkes – Contemporary Engraving by Crispijn van de Passe

Who was this Guy (Guido… or John)?

Guy Fawkes was christened into the Church of England at the church of St Michael le Belfrey in York (England) during the reign of Elizabeth I on the 16th of April, 1570 – he was probably born on the 13th for the custom was to wait three days before christening a child. His parents, Edward (proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and advocate of the consistory court of the Archbishop of York) and Edith Fawkes, were both practicing Anglican protestants (the official religion of England) though his mother’s family (descended from the Harrington family who were eminent merchants and Aldermen of York) were recusant Catholics refusing to conform to the official religion (and therefore subject to varying penalties and fines). He had two younger sisters, Anne (b. 1572), and Elizabeth (b. 1575). Guy Fawkes attended St Peter’s School (a governor of this school had spent twenty years in prison for recusancy and its headmaster, John Pulleyn, was from a family of noted recusants) and two of his fellow students, brothers John and Christopher Wright, would later be involved with Fawkes in the Gunpowder Plot. In 1578 Guy’s father died and approximately ten years later his mother moved the family to Scotton and remarried – this time to a Catholic, Dionysius (or Dennis) Bainbridge. It is probably fair to assume (though it’s not known) that this was when Guy aligned himself with Catholicism.

In 1585 an intermittent and undeclared war broke out between Protestant England and Catholic Spain when the English launched a military expedition to the Netherlands in support of the Protestant conflict against Catholic Hapsburg rule. In February 1587 the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots was executed by the English for plotting against Elizabeth I – this outraged Catholics in Europe, and her disputed claim on the English throne passed (by her own deed of will) to Philip II of Spain – confounding Anglo-Spanish relations even further. England then went on to enjoy major successes against the Spanish at Cadiz in April 1587 and against the Spanish Armada in 1588 but their own English Armada of 1589 was defeated off the Iberian Coast and the conflict became somewhat deadlocked.

When Guy reached the age of majority at 21 in 1591 he leased out some land he had inherited from his father for twenty one years – thus giving himself an income. In 1593 or 94 Guy, after a couple of brief periods of service to notable Catholic families, went to Flanders (in Belgium) with one of his maternal cousins, Richard Cowling (who was later to become a Jesuit priest). There he enlisted in the Spanish army, joining veteran English Catholic commander Sir William Stanley (an outspoken opposer of Elizabeth I) under the Archduke Albert of Austria to fight against the new Dutch Republic. By 1596 Fawkes had attained a position of command (an Alférez or junior officer) and he fought in the Siege of Calais in April as part of the Franco-Spanish war (1595-1598). He achieved some renown as a devout and intelligent soldier during this period and it was said that, in his maturity, he had gained quite an impressive appearance – being tall and powerfully built, with thick reddish-brown hair, flowing moustache, and a bushy reddish-brown beard. In 1600, under Colonel Bostock he was wounded fighting the Dutch at the Battle of Nieuport in Belgium.

Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank (1841)

Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank (1841)

Sir William Stanley, Father William Baldwin (the Jesuit Superior of Flanders) and Hugh Owen (an exiled Welsh spy) persuaded Guy (who had been recommended for a captaincy by this point) to take leave from the Archduke’s forces in February of 1603 and visit Spain in order to enlighten King Philip III (Philip II having died in 1598) concerning the “true position” of the Roman Catholics in England. While in Spain, Guy – now using the name Guido (the Italian version of Guy) – is reunited with his old school friend Christopher Wright (who had been sent, for the same purpose as Fawkes, but by English Catholic Robert Catesby – a very charismatic zealot). After the death of Elizabeth I in March, they try to enlist the Spanish King’s support for an invasion of England to support a Catholic rebellion there. Within hours of Elizabeth’s death Sir Robert Cecil (leader of the English Parliament) had set his plans for the smooth succession of the English Crown in motion and proclaimed the Protestant James VI of Scotland (the son of Mary, Queen of Scots) as King James I of England. Guy thought James nothing less than a heretic and was convinced that the staunchly Protestant King would drive all Catholics out of England. Though Fawkes and Wright were politely received by the court of Philip III (and despite the fact that England and Spain were technically still at war) their mission for support was ultimately a failure.

Back in England King James I (whose wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, was herself a Catholic) in fact tried to engender tolerance of Catholics by ending recusancy fines and awarding important posts to notable Catholics like Thomas Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, and Henry Howard. This relaxation led to considerable growth in the number of visible Catholics in England. The new King also made it his first order of business to try and negotiate peace with Philip III of Spain. However, two minor Catholic plots against the King were uncovered in the first year of his reign – the Bye Plot and the Main Plot, both discovered in July of 1603. Although most Catholics in England were horrified by the plots they were all tainted by them, certainly in the eyes of James I and Parliament. In February 1604 James I publicly announced his ‘utter detestation’ of Catholicism; within days all priests and Jesuits had been expelled and heavy recusancy fines were re-introduced.

During April 1604, in Brussels, William Stanley and Henry Owen introduced Guy Fawkes to Thomas Wintour who was there – on behalf of his cousin Robert Catesby – seeking support for a (yet to be fully conceived) plot against James I. Fawkes accompanied Wintour to Bergen in order to meet with the Constable of Castile, Juan De Velasco – who was on his way to the English Court to discuss a treaty between England and Spain – in the hope of persuading him to entreat the King to lift the penalties against recusants. Not encouraged by their interview with the Constable, Wintour returned to England – now with Guy Fawkes in tow.

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

On the 20th of May, 1604, Thomas Wintour and Guy Fawkes met with Robert Catesby, John Wright (brother of Christopher Wright) and Thomas Percy (a very well connected Catholic convert and brother-in-law of John and Christopher Wright) at an inn called the Duck and Drake, just off the Strand in London. The five men, under the leadership of Catesby, conspired and agreed under an oath of secrecy to kill King James I (along with his nearest relatives, members of the Privy Council, a majority of the lands Lords and Aristocrats, its senior Judges, Protestant Bishops and countless commons) by blowing up Parliament House during the ceremonial opening of Parliament; and to then bring about a Catholic monarchy in England by kidnapping the King’s daughter Elizabeth and then “protect” her as the heir to the throne until she could be married to a prominent Catholic and enthroned as “titular” Queen. Though the broad aims of the Gunpowder Plot were relatively well established the actual details would slowly take form over the course of the following year as events and circumstance would dictate exactly how it could be accomplished.

Thomas Percy was appointed to the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, the King’s mounted bodyguard, in June – and he started to rent a small tenement close to Parliament House in-which Fawkes (using the name John Johnson) was installed as Percy’s servant and caretaker of the building. Catesby’s London lodgings, a house across the Thames in Lambeth, was being used to store supplies and gunpowder so they slowly transported these across the river at night by row-boat to Percy’s tenement.

Parliament was adjourned on the 7th of July and was not due to open for business again until February 1605. On the 18th of August 1604 the undeclared war between England and Spain came to an end with the Treaty of London – Spain recognised the Protestant monarchy in England and renounced its intentions to restore Catholicism there – while England stopped its support for the Dutch rebels and both countries agreed to allow each others ships the use of their ports.

Robert Keyes, a trusted friend of Catesby, was added to the group of plotters in October 1604 and was given charge of Catesby’s house in Lambeth in order to guard to gunpowder store there. In December it was announced that the opening of Parliament would be delayed, due to concern over the plague, till the 3rd of October 1605. That same month – Catesby’s retainer, Thomas Bates, was recruited into the conspiracy after it became obvious that he was growing increasingly suspicious of Catesby and his fellows’ activities.

Guy Fawkes from Peeps into the Past c1900

Guy Fawkes from Peeps into the Past c1900

The conspirator’s initial plan apparently involved tunneling under Parliament House from Percy’s tenement in time for the ceremonial opening – though no evidence of such a tunnel was ever found – but the process of mining the tunnel proved much more difficult than they first envisioned. In March 1605 the plotters, through Thomas Percy, managed to lease a ground level undercroft beneath the first-floor Parliament House; the former royal palace of Westminster was a warren of very busy buildings that included the medieval chambers, chapels, and halls – that housed both Parliament and various royal law courts – as well as lodgings, shops, and taverns. Three more conspirators had been added to their number – Christopher Wright, Robert Wintour (brother of Thomas) and John Grant (the Wintours’ brother in-law).

Fawkes had seen to it that by the 20th of July they had in place within the undercroft 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath iron bars and faggots (fire-wood). Shortly after this he was dispatched to Flanders to seek support for their conspiracy, and the resulting rebellion, among influential Catholics on the continent – including William Stanley, William Baldwin and Henry Owen.

Around this time Catesby divulged details of the plot to Father Oswald Tesimond (a Jesuit priest with whom Fawkes had gone to school) during confession – and on the 23rd of July, Tesimond would pass on the details to his Jesuit superior, Henry Garnet, again under the seal of confession. Garnet had already been approached by Catesby regarding the moral dilemma of taking action that may result in the death of innocents as well as that of the guilty – so he approached Catesby on the 24th to try and dissuade him from pursuing this course of action, but without success. In late July it was announced that the opening of Parliament would be put back, again due to threat of plague, to the 5th of November.

Fawkes was back in London by late August and he discovered that the gunpowder in the undercroft had decayed. More gunpowder was obtained and brought into that store, again hidden beneath a large pile of iron bars and wooden faggots. Over the next two months three more Catholics were added, mainly for financial and logistic reasons, to the growing list of rebellious conspirators – Ambrose Rookwood, Everard Digby and finally, on the 14th of October, Francis Tresham.

I See No Reason, Why Gunpowder Treason – Should Ever be Forgot.

The details of the plot were finalised in October 1605 – Fawkes would be the only one of their number in London on the 5th of November, he would light the fuse, escape across the river and immediately depart for the continent. The others would simultaneously start a revolt in the Midlands and kidnap Princess Elizabeth who was housed close by. The fate of the Princess’s brothers (closer in line to the throne than her) would have to be improvised, for the plotters weren’t sure if they would be present at the opening of Parliament with their father the King. It has been suggested that if the Princes had survived the explosion it would have been Thomas Percy’s job, taking advantage of his position within the King’s bodyguard, to track them down and, presumably, kill them. The group debated amongst themselves whether they should warn certain high-ranking Catholics within the government not to attend the opening of Parliament but in the end they decided that they would not.

However… on Saturday the 26th of October, Lord Monteagle (a Catholic Peer and the brother in-law of Francis Tresham) received an anonymous letter cryptically warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament and stating that “… they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament“. Not entirely sure what to make of it, Monteagle rode immediately to Whitehall in London and handed it to Sir Robert Cecil; meanwhile one of Monteagle’s servants – sympathetic to the plotters’ cause – tipped off Robert Catesby. Suspicion, of course, fell on Francis Tresham but he successfully persuaded Catesby and Thomas Wintour when they confronted him that he had nothing to do with it. Catesby decided that because the letter was so vague that they would still go ahead with their plan.

Guy Fawkes, probably unaware of the letter’s existence, checked the gunpowder in the undercroft on the 30th of October to find that nothing had been disturbed. On the 1st of November, Robert Cecil showed the anonymous letter to the King who became convinced (correctly) that it hinted at “some strategem of fire and powder“- they decided to have Parliament House searched both above and below. On the afternoon of the 4th, Fawkes was discovered in the undercroft by the Lord Chamberlain Thomas Howard, John Whynniard (the owner of the undercroft) and Lord Monteagle – they questioned what he was doing there and he told them that he was acting on behalf of his master Thomas Percy and he confirmed that the large pile of firewood belonged to Percy. The men left without searching the pile, apparently satisfied – once they were gone Fawkes left too.

The arrest of Guy Fawkes (by Unknown)

The arrest of Guy Fawkes (by Unknown)

Later that night Fawkes (somewhat foolhardily) returned and took up his position in the undercroft and settled himself to wait for the appointed time. Shortly after midnight Thomas Knyvet (Master at Arms) turned up with a body of men – arrested Fawkes as he tried to leave – and discovered the gunpowder (apparently for the first time – though I suspect the powers-that-be had probably known of its presence for at least some days). News of the arrest, and of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, quickly spread through London and the few plotters that were still there speedily fled north. Though Fawkes – still using the name John Johnson – claimed he was acting alone an arrest warrant was issued for Thomas Percy. Within three days, but only after extensive torture, Fawkes had finally confessed all and named his fellow plotters. By the 12th of November all the plotters were either captured or dead.

Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were shot dead on the 8th – reportedly killed by the same bullet – at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. The rest of the plotters were executed (hung, drawn and quartered) on the 30th and 31st of January 1606. Guy Fawkes was the last of those killed on the 31st, he managed to cheat the baying crowd though by jumping early from the scaffold once the noose was on him – breaking his own neck and dying before the agony of the latter part of the execution, which they of course carried out anyway.

So that, my friends, is the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. There can be little debate that the plot was an audacious one – but would it have resulted in a Catholic Monarchy for England – I, for one, very much doubt it. I think they grossly overestimated their ability to orchestrate the resulting chaos that would have ensued and the idea that they would be able to manipulate the situation sufficiently enough to install a Catholic Queen Elizabeth II is frankly ludicrous.

Part Two (CLICK HERE) will examine the legacy of Guy Fawkes and the plot – which is still remembered to this day, especially in Britain every November the 5th after nightfall as a fire festival variously called Guy Fawkes Night, Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night commemorates its failure. I’ll also be examining Fawkes’ impact on popular culture and how a stylised mask based on his face became the 21st century Face of Anonymous Protest.

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