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England's Culture : Bonfire Night : Guy Fawkes Night

Every year from late October to early November English kids may be seen on street corners with dummies of men made from old clothes stuffed with newspaper. These kids beg money from passers by with chants of "penny for the guy".

As November 5th approaches the evening calm becomes increasingly punctuated with the sound of fireworks. On the night of the 5th itself the air is thick with smoke as bonfires blaze and fireworks are let off in private gardens and public displays alike.

Visitors to many of these events might be horrified to witness the burning of a human effigy (Guy) as childrfen squeal with delight.

November 5th is the anniversary of the "gunpoweder plot", a daring attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up King James I and all the members of both branches of the Parliament of England while they were assembled in the House of Lords building for the formal opening of the 1605 session of Parliament.

Guido (Guy) Fawkes (1570 - 1606) was born in Stonegate in York, where he was baptized in the church of St. Michael-le-Belfry, and attended St. Peter's School. He was the only son of Edward Fawkes of York and his wife Eve Blake. He served for many years as a soldier gaining considerable expertise with explosives. In 1593 he enlisted in the army of Archduke Albert of Austria in the Netherlands, fighting against the Protestant United Provinces in the Eighty Years' War.

The Gunpowder Plot was created in May 1604 with Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Wintour and Robert Wintour. Fawkes, who had considerable military experience and a good understanding of explosives, had been introduced to Catesby by a man named Hugh Owen. Some accounts indicate that Thomas Wintour was the prime mover in all of this, and that Fawkes was the tool towards the ultimate execution of the plot.

In March 1605, the conspirators rented a cellar beneath Parliament through Thomas Percy (also spelt Percye); Fawkes assisted in filling the room with gunpowder which was concealed beneath bric-a-brac in the cellars of the House of Lords building. The 36 barrels belonging to John Whynniard contained an estimated 2500 kg of gunpowder. The explosion could have reduced many of the buildings in the Old Palace of Westminster complex, including the Abbey, to rubble and would have blown out windows in the surrounding area for a distance up to almost a mile.

At around Easter 1605, Fawkes left Dover for Calais, travelling to St Omer and thence to Brussels. According to the confession made by Fawkes on November 5, 1605, he there met with Hugh Owen, and Sir William Stanley. After that he made a pilgrimage in Brabant. He returned to England at the end of August or early September, again by way of Calais.

There are suggestions that the original plan was to dig a tunnel from the cellar of an adjacent building by mining and then plant the explosives under the meeting chamber in the House of Lords.

At around midnight November 4 or in the very early hours of November 5th, Fawkes, posing as a Mr John Johnson, was arrested in the cellar by a party of armed men led by Sir Thomas Knevytt (or Knevett). In Fawkes' possession were a watch, slow matches and touchpaper. On arrest Fawkes did not deny his intentions, stating that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament. Prior to the arrest, some of the plotters were worried about fellow Catholics who would be present at Parliament on the appointed day. One such plotter was Mark Tresham, who wrote a letter to Lord Monteagle warning him. The recipient became suspicious, and the letter was sent to the secretary of state which initiated a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords.

Fawkes was brought into the king's bedchamber, where the ministers had hastily assembled, at one o'clock in the morning. He maintained an attitude of cool defiance, making no secret of his intentions. He replied to the king, who asked why he would kill him, that the pope had excommunicated him, that dangerous diseases require a desperate remedy, adding fiercely to the Scottish courtiers who surrounded him that one of his objects was to blow the Scots back into Scotland.

Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated. He was questioned on the nature of his accomplices, the involvement of Thomas Percy, what letters he had received from overseas, and whether he had spoken with Hugh Owen.

He was taken to the Tower of London and there interrogated under torture. Since torture was forbidden except by the express instruction of the monarch or the Privy Council, King James I in a letter of November 6 stated: "The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by increase to the worst], and so God speed your goode worke". Initially he resisted torture. On November 8, Fawkes verbally confessed, revealing the names of his co-conspirators, and recounted the full details of the plot on November 9. He made a signed confession on November 10; his signature after torture on the rack is strikingly shaky.

A nominal trial ensued on January 27, 1606, at which the sentences had already been predetermined. On January 31, Fawkes, Wintour, and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster, where they were hanged, drawn and quartered.

Guy Fawkes appears in the BBC's 2002 List of "100 Great Britons" (voted for by the public).

More information

Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night The truth about Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and why British people everywhere gather round bonfires once a year to burn effigies and watch fireworks.

Gunpoweder Plot Society Home page of the Gunpowder Plot Society, devoted to the study of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Guy Fawkes".

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