On this date in 1606, Guy Fawkes, “the only man to ever enter parliament with honorable intentions,” was hanged, drawn and quartered in London with three conspirators for attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament … and the government with it.
Fawkes, a soldier, was part of the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic attempt to assassinate the new king James I when it became clear the House of Stuart would continue its Tudor predecessors’ intolerance of the Roman church.
The conspiracy was crowded, so it was something of a miracle the secret kept for over a year while the plotters filled a rented room under the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder and waited for parliament to open. The explosion would have slain not only James, but numerous officials of the government; the conspirators’ “then what?” plan seems a little vague, but with a modern recreation confirming that the gunpowder packed under Westminster was sufficient to blow the place to smithereens, it’s safe to say something dramatic would have ensued. That “something” might easily have been a savage crackdown against Catholics.
All that remains safely in the domain of the speculative — because as the date approached, one of the conspirators felt moved to warn a Catholic Lord in writing not to attend the opening.
My lord out of the love i beare to some of youere frends i have a care of youer preseruasion therefor i would advise youe as youe tender youre life to devise some excuse to shift of youre attendance at this parliament for god and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this time and think not slightly of this advertisement but retire youre self into youre contri where youe may expect the event in safti for thoughe there be no appearance of any stir yet i saye they shall receive a terrible blowe this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them this councel is not to be condemned because it may do youe good and can do youe no harme for the dangere is passed as soon as youe have burnt the letter and i hope god will give youe the grace to maketh good use of it to whose holy protection i commend youe.
Fawkes was not the leader of the conspiracy, but his wartime siege experience made him an important participant in an operation similar to undermining a castle. The affair became remembered to history under his name because he was the one caught when, once the incriminating letter was turned over to the government, yeoman guards searched the cellars.
Fawkes was tortured by express permission of the king for his conspirators’ identities, but held his tongue; those conspirators, however, went ahead with the desperate uprising that was supposed to follow the explosion, and within days they had been apprehended or killed.
Four lesser conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered on January 30; the remainder suffered that dreadful fate today. Fawkes himself, however, managed to avoid the worst of it by leaping from the scaffold when he was strung up to be half-hung — so he was dead of a broken neck when disemboweled.
The fortuitous abortion of this stupendous act of terrorism (if we can call it “terrorism”) made November 5 Guy Fawkes Night on the English calendar, still a day of fireworks and bonfires in many of the Commonwealth countries.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up 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!
The opening lines of this 17th century poem celebrating the king’s miraculous deliverance introduce the 2006 film V for Vendetta …
… in which Fawkes’ subversive persona is pitted against a theocratic dictatorship in the dystopian near future. It’s notable for a forthright celebration, in a mass-market film, of the liberatory power of terrorism.
Today’s well-known victim also left a less obvious but more ubiquitous cultural artifact. The practice of marking Guy Fawkes Night with effigies of the traitor — “Guys” — caused the word to enter the general lexicon as slang for a strangely-dressed man, eventually coming to mean any man (or, arguably, any person regardless of gender) at all.
The House of Commons has a fact sheet (.pdf) on the affair.
Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.