Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot


On Tuesday 5th November 1605 Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars below the Houses of Parliament with a watch, a slow match, touch paper and a dark lantern. It became known as the Gunpowder plot and was part of a Catholic revolutionary plan to overthrow King James I of England and VI of Scotland. 2005 was the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, one of the most notorious plots in history.

Essentially the Gunpowder Plot was a desperate but failed attempt by a group of provincial English Catholic extremists to kill King James, his family, and most of the Protestant aristocracy in one go. The conspirators had then planned to abduct the royal children, who were not present in parliament, and then incite a revolt in the Midlands.

There were 13 men involved in the Gunpowder plot of 1605. Robert Catesby was the ringleader. Among the rest were brothers Thomas and Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Ambrose Rokewood, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and of course Guy Fawkes.

Born in York on 13th April 1570 to a Protestant family Guy Fawkes converted to Catholicism when he was 16. If the Gunpowder plot had succeeded then the resulting explosion would have destroyed many of the buildings around the Old Palace of Westminster. However a thorough search revealed the barrels of gunpowder and Fawkes was arrested for stating that it had been his "purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament".

Guy Fawkes was later questioned again, this time under torture, forcing him to "confess".

Modern research suggests that the gunpowder would be taken to the Tower of London and put in the magazine. If it was in good condition it would then have been sold; but it was discovered to be "decayed". When gunpowder is left to sit for too long it separates into its component parts and becomes useless. If Guy Fawkes had managed to ignite the gunpowder, during the State opening there would have been a splutter not a serious explosion.

People in general knew very little of the circumstances surrounding the Gunpowder plot. On the night of 5th November 1605 bonfires were set alight to celebrate the King’s safety. Later effigies of Guy Fawkes were added to the bonfires until the traditional events that we now know as Bonfire Night appeared.

For almost 400 years, bonfires have burned on November 5th to mark the failed Gunpowder Plot.

The tradition of Guy Fawkes-related bonfires actually began the very same year as the failed coup. The Plot was foiled in the night between the 4th and 5th of November 1605. Soon, people began placing effigies onto bonfires, and fireworks were added to the celebrations. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, and sometimes those of the Pope, graced the pyres. Preparations for Bonfire Night celebrations include making a dummy of Guy Fawkes, which is called "the Guy". Bonfire Night is not only celebrated in Britain.


Even for the period which was notoriously unstable, the Gunpowder Plot struck a very profound chord for the people of England. In fact, even today, the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called "the State Opening of Parliament". Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard, also known as Beefeaters, search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. Nowadays, the Queen and Parliament still observe this tradition.

On the very night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night. The event is commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire. In Ottery St Mary the excitement is increased by carrying burning tar barrels through the crowded streets.

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