Guy Fawkes and all That!

Posted on November 7, 2013

I know it is two days since the event but for some reason, this year I have been really intrigued by the origins of Guy Fawkes Night/Bonfire night/Fireworks night.

This stems from a friend of mine Neale, commenting on Facebook that you never see kids doing “Penny for the Guy” around the local area anymore. It is, it seems, a thing of the past.

Like everyone else, I have always known that November the 5th was associated with Guy Fawkes and a plot to blow up the House of Lords in the early 1600’s but I have to admit, that is about as far as my knowledge ever extended.

It was actually on 5 November 1605, when Guy Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot, was arrested while guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords.

To celebrate the survival of King James I, common people proceeded to light bonfires all around London and not long after that came the introduction of the ‘Observance of 5th November Act’ an annual public celebration of the failed plot.

Within a few decades it became known as ‘Gunpowder Treason Day’ and for a while it actually became the most popular annual English state commemoration. However, carrying strong religious overtones, it also started to become a flashpoint for often violent anti-Catholic sentiment.

Puritans took the opportunity to deliver sermons regarding the perceived dangers of Catholic beliefs often featuring derogatory and vicious propaganda against the Pope. increasingly, the celebrations became more raucous as commoners burnt effigies of popular hate-figures, with the Pope copping most of the stick.

In the mid 1850’s a moderating attitude resulted in of much of the day’s anti-Catholic rhetoric being toned down and the Observance of 5th November Act was finally repealed in 1859.

It was actually not until the end of the 18th century when children began begging for money with effigies of Guy Fawkes and as a consequence it was during this period that it gradually became more popularly known as Guy Fawkes Day.

Guy Fawkes himself, was found guilty of high treason with all of the other seven plotters. A seemingly angry and spiteful chap, Attorney General Sir Edward Coke told the court that each of the condemned should be drawn backwards to his death by a horse with his head near the ground.

They were then to be “put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both”. Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. Not a public show for those feint of heart one feels, still there was no football or X Factor then, so the masses needed entertainment.

Just for good measure they would then be decapitated and the dismembered parts of their bodies were to be displayed so that they might become “prey for the fowls of the air”. A bit draconian if you ask me but hey, you might as well make sure!

So, on the 31st January 1606, Fawkes a was dragged from the Tower on wattled hurdles to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster where he was escorted to stand on the scaffold for his very public butchering.

Despite being weakened by torture, Fawkes managed to jump from the gallows, breaking his neck in the fall and thus avoiding the agony of the latter part of his execution.

I like that bit, okay he was dead still but it was a victory of sorts for the underdog. I wonder if the disappointed baying public demanded their money back or started chanting “Boring’ boring, hanging.”

In a desperate bid to keep the show on the road, Fawkes was still quartered and and as was the custom, his body parts were then distributed to “the four corners of the kingdom”, to be displayed as a warning to other would-be traitors. A custom some think should still apply to rapists and England football players who miss penalties.

Somehow Guy Fawkes himself has taken most of the fame and legendary status from the Gunpowder Plot. After all there were another seven largely unknown members involved, with the little remembered Robert Catesby the leader.

Quite why it isn’t known as Robert Catesby day I don’t know, though it just doesn’t have the same ring to it as Guy Fawkes does it?

1 Reply to "Guy Fawkes and all That!"

  • Trevor
    November 8, 2013 (1:10 am)

    Nice work Bob. I do miss Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes night, which isn’t celebrated here in Oz (apparently it was up until the 1970s). I think now though the fact that everything is tinder-box dry and very likely to burst into flames kind of puts people off launching burning coloured sticks randomly into the air! Of course there’s public displays in New Year and the like but there’s nothing like the old backyard fire work show.

    I do miss the danger of throwing airbombs at each other and generally flaunting the ‘Firework code’ (can’t think I ever knew anyone who kept their fireworks in a tin or retired to 5 metres away) – bangers were for blowing up/cracking milk bottles, rockets were for launching out of your hand at next door’s cat. Such harmless fun!

    My Dad used to always tell me about Robert Catesby being captured in Wolverhampton (near Himley) and sure enough a bit of lazy googling reveals that they shot and killed him there. A couple of guys who hid him were hanged in Queen’s square in Wolverhampton.

    A public execution must have been an interesting sight – especially one as you describe where they do the whole drawing/quartering, chopping off of gonads etc. I’ve always wondered if they could reintroduce public executions at half time – to fill that unfortunate void left where they currently have the local DJ organising penalty competitions amongst 8 year olds or the jolly mascot shaking hands with the front row of seats, the occasional hanging (or perhaps something like the roman gladiator battles) would be far more interesting.

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