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Why does Britain celebrate Bonfire Night?

Every year on 5th November Britain is lit up with fireworks and bonfires with people partaking in the ceremonial effigy-burning of Guy Fawkes. It is a time for people to gather together to share in food, drink and merriment.

“Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!”

In the year 1605, a man named Guido ‘Guy’ Fawkes and some angry chaps gather few kegs of gunpowder, and set out to blow up Parliament with the hopes of killing King James I.

5th November was the date fixed for the opening of Parliament. The reason behind this dastardly plan was to cause unrest with the hopes the English Catholics would revolt. The Catholics at the time were upset with the ruthlessness of the severe laws for practising their religion.

The conspiracy would be known as “The Gunpowder Plot.”

Parliament: the site of the crime.

Parliament: the site of the crime.

In 1604, the collaborators began drawing out their plans. As the group of plotters grew, so did the chance of word getting out.

The ‘ringleader’ of the group was Robert Catesby. Catesby suggested the plan to blow up the House of Lords and House of Commons as well as assassinate King James I.

Thomas Percy rented a cellar that was beneath the House of Lords. Percy was a solid addition to this band of terrorists as he had connections in King James’ Court. The cellars were used to store 36 barrels of gunpowder and firewood.

Best laid plans although do not always come to fruition. A mysterious letter was sent to MP Lord Monteagle 10 days before the opening of Parliament. Monteagle was warned not to be present for the opening of Parliament.
Here is where it gets sketchy. Lord Monteagle was the brother in law of conspirator Francis Tresham. Now it has never been proved that Tresham wrote the letter to Monteagle, but it is certainly suspect that he was warned.

Word got out about the letter got out to the First Earl of Salisbury and other MP’s. The MP’s sought help to investigate the claims and upon their search discovered the concealed stockpile of explosives.
On 4th November Guy Fawkes, using the alias John Johnson entered the cellar. He was discovered by Sir Thomas Knyvett and Edward Doubleday.

The band of collaborators was arrested as they tried to run. Those able to escape then were captured not too long afterwards. Some were killed on the spot; the rest of the group were imprisoned and later executed.

On 6th November, King James ordered Fawkes to be taken to The Tower of London to be tortured. Fawkes refused to give up the names of those who assisted him.

On 8th November, Fawkes seemed to have signed a confession, but he did not detail everyone who participated in the plot. The next day, after more torture it seemed Fawkes alluded who participated.

As for the conspirators, Tresham died on 23rd December 1605 whilst at the Tower due to natural causes. The eight remaining collaborators were put on trial on 27th January 1606 at Westminster Hall. They were all convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

Robert Winter, Thomas Bates, Sir Everard Digby and John Grant were executed in St Paul’s Churchyard on 30th January 1606.

Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood and Thomas Winter were executed the following day at Old Palace Yard, outside of Westminster Hall.

Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were killed by a single shot on November. The duo was hiding out at Holbeach House in Staffordshire. Both of their heads were set up in front of Parliament House.

5 November was declared by King James I through an Act of Parliament, to be a day of thanks for “the joyful day of deliverance.”

To this day, a customary search of the basement of Parliament is conducted by the Yeoman of the Guard at the opening of Parliament.

The cellar that Fawkes and the gunpowder plotters used was damaged in 1834 by fire. When the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in the 19th Century, the infamous cellar was destroyed.


Photo credit:  David Izatt via photopin cc