Remember, remember…

Today is November 5. Tomorrow is an important day in the US: Election Day. However, across the Pond in the United Kingdom, today is a national holiday. Known as Guy Fawkes day, today is the day that many Britons get together to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes and to set off fireworks. So, who is Guy Fawkes and why does he get his own day? He tried to blow up the English Parliament building in a bid to kill the Protestant king, James, in hopes of restoring a Catholic monarch. Or rather, he was part of a conspiracy to do that. However, since he was the person actually caught with the gunpowder, his name is the one that everyone recalls.

This image of the English Parliament building taken from the Thames River is probably one of the most well-known and iconic images of England. The Elizabeth Tower where Big Ben knells the hour is one of the most recognizable features of the Parliament building. It was this building that Guy Fawkes and his associates planned to blow up. The conspiracy was actually the brainchild of Thomas Wintour who had sought help for his plans in Spain. His own associations eventually introduced him to Guy Fawkes who had been fighting in the Eighty Years War and was relatively unknown in Britain, having left the kingdom for the continent many years before. Some believe that the conspirators planned to dig a tunnel under the House of Lords starting from beneath John Whynniard’s, the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe, house. However, the reality is that the conspirators purchase the lease to an undercroft that was directly beneath the House of Lords and stored nearly fifty barrels of gunpowder in it. The plan was to ignite them during the opening of Parliament. The king and many of his ministers would be present for the opening which normally took place during the late summer. However, the threat of the plague delayed the opening of Parliament until November.

Though the conspirators had been reaching out to their various contacts on the continent and throughout England, they had, thus far, managed to elude capture. So, how was the Gunpowder Plot discovered? Probably by a case of guilty conscience. An anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic sympathizer who, nonetheless, had acquiesced to James’ Protestant rule. This letter warned Monteagle not to attend the opening of Parliament. Monteagle’s servants reported the receipt of the letter to the conspirators but the decision was made to go ahead with the plot regardless. The conspirators were betting that the letter would be taken for a hoax and would ignore it. However, Monteagle showed the letter to King James who ordered Sir Thomas Knyvet to conduct a thorough search beneath Parliament.

Guy Fawkes was guarding the gunpowder on the night of November 5. He had a watch and a slow match with him and was waiting for the opening of Parliament to begin later that day. His plan was to ignite the powder and then escape across the Thames and then make his way to the continent where he would confess his part in the plot to the Catholic powers there and hope that they would be swayed by his arguments of duty to the faith enough to overlook the regicide. However, while leaving the cellar that night, Fawkes was uncovered by the searchers. The undercroft and its explosive contents were found and Fawkes was arrested, interrogated and tortured. He broke and confessed the entire plot. He and seven other conspirators were tried shortly thereafter, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Afterwards, the King decided to proclaim November 5 to be a day of thanksgiving for having escaped being assassinated. Since Guy Fawkes was the most well-known of the conspirators and the first to be caught, his name has been given to the holiday.