5th November in the UK is Fireworks’ Night or Guy Fawkes’ Night, the night when Brits remember the arrest of Guy Fawkes on the night of 4th/5th November 1605 as he guarded thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellars beneath Westminster. The idea had been to blow up the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament on the 5th November, and to assassinate King James I.
Guy Fawkes is the plotter we remember, the effigy (the “guy”) burned on bonfires, but it is thought that the ‘brains’ behind the plot was actually Robert Catesby. Robert Catesby was the son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton (of the Throckmortons of Coughton, Warwickshire). Catesby was a Catholic and he had been in trouble during the reign of Elizabeth I for being involved in the Essex Rebellion, a rebellion instigated by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. He was imprisoned and fined 4,000 marks as punishment. Catesby and other Catholics hoped that the accession of James I would bring an end to the oppression and persecution of Catholics, but they were disappointed. In her book, The Gunpowder Plot, historian and author Lady Antonia Fraser wrote of Catesby’s mentality as being “that of the crusader who does not hesitate to employ the sword in the cause of values which he considers are spiritual” and Catesby does not seem to have had any qualms in plotting to bring down James I and his government by blowing up the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament) on the opening session of Parliament, thus killing the King, the Royal family, members of Parliament (MPs), the Lords and the leading bishops. This would be the first step in their rebellion which sought to replace James I with his daughter, nine year-old Princess Elizabeth, as a Catholic queen.
One of the plotters, Thomas Percy, a member of the King’s Bodyguard, was able to lease lodgings that were situated adjacent to the House of Lords, and the idea was that the plotters would dig down underneath the foundations of the House of Lords and place gunpowder there. Guy Fawkes (also known as Guido Fawkes), a man who had been fighting for the Spanish in the Low Countries, was the man chosen to put the plan into operation by preparing the gunpowder and lighting the fuse, and he posed as Percy’s servant, calling himself John Johnson so that he could stay in the property.
The Black Plague of summer 1604 meant that the plan had to be changed due to the opening of Parliament being delayed. However, this delay worked in the mens’ favour because during this time, they learned of a vacant ground-floor undercroft directly under the House of Lords Chamber. Thomas Percy was able to secure the lease of this undercroft. Guy Fawkes and other members of the group set about filling this space with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, which had the potential to completely level the Palace of Westminster.
Everything seemed fine, and the plot looked as if it would be successful, until Lord Monteagle received an anonymous tip-off just over a week before the state opening of Parliament was due to take place. The letter, thought to be from Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law, Sir Francis Tresham, who had recently become a member of the plot, gave enough details for Lord Monteagle to go to Robert Cecil. Cecil took the news to the King, who ordered the cellars beneath Westminster to be searched. This search took place on the night of 4th/5th November and Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed with the barrels of gunpowder.
The plot had been foiled, Fawkes had been arrested and tortured, but Catesby did not give up. On the 6th November he and his friends raided Warwick Castle for supplies and he sent a message to Coughton Court asking Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit, and his priests to help him raise an army in Wales. Garnet did not want to be involved and so fled. Catesby made his way to Huddington Court in Worcestershire, the home of his cousin, Thomas Wintour, where, on the morning of the 7th November, he and his fellow conspirators went to confession and then took the sacrament. They travelled to Hewell Grange, Worcestershire, home of the absent Thomas Windsor, which they ransacked for arms and money, and then on to Holbeche House, Staffordshire, where they attempted to dry out some gunpowder by spreading it in front of the fire. Some of the gunpowder caught fire, injuring Catesby, Ambrose Rookwood and John Grant. Grant was so badly injured that his eyes were burnt out, but although some of the conspirators fled after the fire, he remained at Holbeche along with Catesby, Thomas Wintour, who had rejoined the group, John and Christopher Wright, Rookwood and Thomas Percy to await the arrival of James I’s men.
At 11am on the 8th November 1605, 200 of the King’s men, led by the Sheriff of Worcester, Richard Walsh, besieged the house. It is said that Catesby kissed his gold crucifix, which he wore around his neck, and vowed that he would not be taken prisoner but that he would defend himself with his sword. Catesby was shot but managed to crawl into the house, where he was later found dead but clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary.
Thomas Wintour survived a shot to the shoulder but was executed along with his fellow conspirators, Rookwood, Robert Keyes and Guy Fawkes, on the 31st January 1606 by being hanged, drawn and quartered. His brother, Robert, was executed in the same manner on the previous day, 30th January, along with John Grant, Thomas Bates and Sir Everard Digby. Thomas Percy was shot by the same musketball which killed Catesby and he, like Catesby, was exhumed and his head displayed outside Parliament. The Wright brothers were shot dead at Holbeche.
Robert Catesby had spoken of how he had given everything for “the honour of the cross” and he would have seen his death as that of a martyr for the Catholic faith. It is strange that many people have never heard of Catesby, the man who planned the Gunpowder Plot, but, instead, we remember Guy Fawkes, the man in charge of the gunpowder.
On 5th November 1605, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s narrow escape by lighting bonfires around the city, and it is that celebration that is remembered in the UK every year on 5th November, along with the fireworks which have their origins in Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder. In fact, this celebration to give thanks for the deliverance of the King was made compulsory in the United Kingdom until 1859.
The traditional rhyme which is said on Guy Fawkes Night is:-
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
As the UK has a Queen on the throne at present, the last part of the last line is changed to “God save the Queen”.
Places to Visit
There are various historical houses which have links to the Gunpowder Plot and you can read all about them in the article by BBC History Magazine – click here – but here they are with links to their websites:-
- Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire
- Banqueting House, London
- Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
- Guy Fawkes Inn, York
- The Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), London
- Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
- Hagley Hall, Worcestershire
- Coughton Court, Warwickshire
- The Tower of London, London
Also on this day in history…
- 1514 – Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, was crowned Queen of France. She had married King Louis XII at Abbeville on the 9th October 1514. The marriage was rather short-lived, as Louis died on the 1st January 1515, and Mary went on to marry Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. See Mary Tudor, Queen of France, for more information.