Saturday, November 5, 2011

Remember...remember...the 5th of November

Remember, remember the fifth of November
the Gunpowder Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
should ever be forgot.

If you are a movie lover or history geek like me, I'm sure you've heard this phrase or seen the mask many times. It seems to have become the it thing to do for protesters to co-opt right now. But do you understand the history behind why we should remember the 5th of November?

In 1605, England was still reeling from the religious upheavals caused by King Henry VIII's Great Matter (where he converted the country from a Catholic nation to an Anglican one with the king himself as the head of the church. All so he could get under his mistress's skirts!), Bloody Mary's execution of Protestants and the great Elizabeth's idea that there was "One Jesus Christ, the rest is all a trifle." By this point, King James I was on the throne. Yep, the one who's name is associated with the Bible. James, a staunch Protestant, believed that God had put him on the throne and therefore the only person he answered to was the Almighty Himself. All the lesser peons had no right to question any of James' decisions.

James' highhandedness led to dissent amongst the English Catholics. Robert Catesby, a Catholic from the outlying areas of England, led a group of 12 people in an attempt to rectify the situation. They planned to put barrels of gunpowder under the House of Commons (the English equivalent to our House of Representatives) and blow up the building on November 5, 1605, when King James was due to be giving a speech there. The plotters planned to put James' daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne as a Catholic ruler.

OK, you know how something like this goes...somebody rats them out before the big boom can happen. An anonymous letter was sent to a high-ranking noble who called in the troops. When they searched the tunnels under the Commons, they found Guy Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to make a BIG boom! Fawkes was arrested and the rest of the Gunpowder conspirators hauled booty. Seven of the conspirators were captured but Catesby, the ringleader, was among a group killed by the king's guard. Fawkes and the captured compatriots were sentenced to death by hanging and drawing and quartering.

Beginning the next year, the English government officially recognized November 5 as a holiday. Bells were rung, special church sermons were given, all in praise of the king and his government swiftly putting down this horrendous action planned by Catesby, Fawkes and the others. All over England, common people would burn bonfires in remembrance. English colonists brought their November 5th celebrations to the New World, often getting so rowdy with their celebrations that many were afraid to participate.

This is where the story takes a twist though. By the late 19th century, what had been a celebration of the king's actions gradually became a remembrance of the conspirators' actions, having the guts to stand up against a government they believed was mistreating them. The bells were still rung and the bonfires were lit but the effigies burned of Guy Fawkes and the others began to be honored rather than reviled. The word "guy" suddenly represented a common man. In recent years, especially since the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta, people have begun wearing Guy Fawkes masks as a form of protesting the government. Even the tremendously popular Harry Potter series had a reference to the Gunpowder Plot- J.K. Rowling named Professor Dumbledore's phoenix "Fawkes" after Guy Fawkes.

Each year in Britain, bonfires dot the towns and countryside in honor of Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Day, as it's often called. People still stuff scarecrows to burn effigies, now typically representing a soccer player rather than Guy Fawkes himself. Last year's effigy was Wayne Rooney; this year it's going to be Mario Balotelli, an Italian who's playing for Manchester City.

So if you are like me, walking around the house today chanting the rhyme, you can remember why you are supposed to remember the 5th of November.


  1. I didn't know any of this; very fascinating!

    Sarah Choate

  2. I hadn't heard anything about it either until V for Vendetta came out. I think it's so cool because of how the reason for the celebrations changed over time.