The Fifth of November

(This page is the cumulative result of posts from my blog about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot on November 5th.)

Remember, remember,
The fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

In November of 1605 there was a plot against the British government. The plan was to blow up King James the First as he opened the House of Lords on the fifth of November, and get as many of the Lords as possible. The House of Lords is one of the two British Houses of Parliament, the other is the House of Commons. The plotters were Catholics, frustrated by the strict laws made against them by a Protestant nation. They found a cellar within the House, filled it with 36 barrels of gunpowder, and left one of their number the task of lighting the fuse and running like hell. His name was Guy Fawkes.

Between getting the cellar ready and the opening of Parliament, one of the plotters apparently had an attack of scruples. He sent an anonymous letter to a Catholic Member of Parliament on October 26th. The letter warned William Parker, Lord Monteagle and eleventh Baron of Morley, to stay away from Parliament on opening day. When Parker received the letter he took it straight to the King. No one knows for sure who sent it.

On the night of November fourth, the King's men broke in and caught Fawkes checking the gunpowder. Parliament and King were saved, and Fawkes was sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he revealed the names of his co-conspirators, who had already fled. Four were fatally wounded when the Sheriff of Worcester tried to capture them at Holbeche House on the Staffordshire border. One plotter died in the Tower of London, though there is still a question of whether he was poisoned, or allowed to escape, or died of natural causes. The eight surviving plotters were hanged, drawn, and quartered in two batches. Four died in St. Paul's Churchyard on 30th January 1606, four the next day in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. The heads of the four who died at Holbeche were recovered and stuck on pikes as a warning to others.

November fifth is celebrated in the UK as Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night. There is always a floppy scarecrow made from old clothes, called the Guy, which gets burnt on top of a big bonfire while the fireworks go off around it. Towns usually organise a fireworks display at a local park, and the crowds huddle up around the fire, trying to avoid the November chill.

The Gunpowder

Guy Fawkes plot 'was devastating'. I never knew the man had been in the army before.

Guy Fawkes could have changed the face of London if his 1605 plot had not been foiled, explosion experts have said. His 2,500 kg of gunpowder could have caused chaos and devastation over a 490-metre radius, they have calculated. Fawkes' planned blast was powerful enough to destroy Westminster Hall and the Abbey, with streets as far as Whitehall suffering damage, they say.

Early in the morning of 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar under the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder and a 'slowmatch' to ignite the explosive. The plan never came to fruition, and Fawkes, like the annual population of straw-stuffed effigies, faced a painful execution.

According to explosives expert Dr Sidney Alford, Catholic Fawkes used substantially more gunpowder than he needed to destroy Parliament. In a report published in the New Civil Engineer, Dr Alford calculated that Fawkes and his fellow conspirators went for an overkill, filling the cellar beneath the House of Lords with 25 times the explosive necessary to bring the building down. Guy Fawkes was no amateur in explosives. Before he became a professional plotter, he worked in the army, where his job was to pack gunpowder. Therefore if he used 25 times too much gunpowder, maybe it was no accident. David Reid, spokesman for the Institute of Physics, said: "This throws into question exactly how much damage Guy Fawkes intended to cause."

The University of Wales people assumed the explosion took place above ground and that gunpowder was equivalent to TNT for their calculations, so the damage estimate is a rough guide.

Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night links

If Guy Fawkes had succeeded

If Guy Fawkes had succeeded.

Four hundred years ago the gunpowder plotters hoped to change the world by blowing up parliament and killing the king. Had they succeeded, what effect would this have had - and would today's UK be any different? With 36 barrels of gunpowder stacked directly beneath the King's throne, a group of young, disaffected Catholics planned to attack during the State Opening of Parliament in 1605. But Guy Fawkes, the explosives expert charged with lighting the slow match "therewith... to give fire", was caught just hours beforehand. Had he succeeded and Westminster been blown sky-high, the country would have been in chaos. The whole of the establishment, including King James I and the aristocracy, would have died in the blast, leaving the conspirators ready to seize the kingdom.

"There would have been a complete power vacuum at the centre of English government; the blast would have killed the king, his direct heir [eldest son Henry], the Privy Council, the law lords, the bishops," says historian Alice Hogge, the presenter of a BBC Timewatch documentary on the plot. The conspirators planned to kidnap the king's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, from her Warwickshire residence and start an armed rebellion there which would sweep the country. With Elizabeth as puppet queen, a new government would be formed - of whom is not known, as the plotters left no definitive blueprint.

It probably wouldn't have gone the way they hoped. There was enough gunpowder to turn the heart of London into something looking like Ground Zero in New York, many more than just the lords would have died, and that's not a good start to anyone's reign. So gather round the bonfires, enjoy the fireworks, and celebrate the plotters failure! And wave at the Houses of Parliament next time you go past.

Injustice in 1605?

BBC News: Free the Gunpowder Plot One.

Was one of the Gunpowder Plotters an innocent victim of circumstance? As effigies of Guy Fawkes again go up in flames, is it time to rectify a 400-year-old miscarriage of justice? After the failed attempt to blow up Parliament in November 1605, Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his parboiled head displayed on London Bridge.

A 17th Century book describing the execution of this "barbarous traitor" sold at auction last year, with the unique selling point that its cover was allegedly made from the executed man's skin. But was the subject of this text really guilty? On the day when the UK marks the anniversary of its most famous attempted coup, a historian is asking some awkward questions about one of those executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot.

We will never truly know whether Garnet was innocent or not. The Gunpowder Plot Society isn't convinced. They say that Garnet knew of the plot and did nothing to prevent it, making him culpable. Garnet was not one of the thirteen plotters but the Gunpower Plot Society has a profile of him, along with everyone else involved or touched by the plot and an excellent overview of the plot itself.

I'm not convinced Garnet was innocent either.