400 Years of Celebration After Plotters Fail to Kill a King

Guy Fawkes by Charles Gogin, painted 1870. York Museums Trust.
Guy Fawkes by Charles Gogin, painted 1870. York Museums Trust.

by Ray Setterfield

November 5, 1605 — Seething after years of persecution over their religion, a group of 13 English Catholics decided on this day to take action. Extreme action. Under the leadership of Robert Catesby, an outspoken critic of the Crown, they planned to set off a massive explosion during the Opening of Parliament ceremony, killing King James I and as many members of the legislature as possible.

They collected together 36 barrels of gunpowder and over a period stored them in a cellar under the House of Lords. But as the day of the planned assassination drew near some of the plotters began to have second thoughts, concerned that innocent people, including fellow Catholics, would be hurt or killed. One of them sent a letter to his friend, Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from Parliament on November the 5th.

The letter was shown to King James who ordered a search of the building’s cellars and there, in the early hours of 5th November, one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, was discovered and arrested. Behind him, the barrels of gunpowder were found hidden under piles of firewood and coal.

Fawkes, whose job was to light the fuse, was tortured for two days before confessing and naming his fellow plotters. After they had been found guilty of high treason, the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke, announced that each of the condemned would be dragged towards his death by a horse. They were to be “put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both”. Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air".

It was a fate, however, that Fawkes managed to avoid. As he waited on the gallows for the grisly punishment to begin he managed to break loose and leapt to his death, dying of a broken neck. Nevertheless, his body was cut into quarters and his remains were sent to "the four corners of the kingdom" as a warning to others.

On the night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled bonfires were lit to celebrate the King’s escape. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night and is celebrated every year across the United Kingdom with effigies of Guy Fawkes being burned on a bonfire, accompanied by firework displays.

And before the annual State Opening of Parliament the Yeomen of the Guard still search the Houses of Parliament – even if it is a tradition rather than a serious anti-terrorist precaution.

Published: April 24, 2016

Related Articles and Photos

Related Famous People

Articles on Events in November