Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Gunpowder Plot


Remember, remember,

The Fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

For I see no reason

Why Gunpowder Treason,

Should ever be forgot.


Do you remember this nursery rhyme? In our house, we used to change ‘treason’ on the fifth line to ‘season’ because we just loved Fireworks Night!

Most people will be familiar with the story of the Gunpowder Plot, but where did the celebration come from? At the first sitting of Parliament following the discovery of the plot, in January 1606, an act was passed to commemorate this historic event. The Observance of 5th November Act 1605 ensured that sermons and services would be held annually to remind the general public of the consequences of such a heinous crime (or perhaps to emphasize the power of the establishment.) The torching of bonfires and the ringing of church bells to mark the day each year became tradition soon after Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were discovered and fireworks were an obvious inclusion to replicate the gunpowder from very early on.

Perhaps the most correct name for the celebration is Guy Fawkes Night, but it is also known as Bonfire Night and, as said above, Fireworks Night.

The origins seem to be lost in history, but it was once the custom for children to make a scarecrow-type figure by stuffing old clothes with straw or paper, either with a hand-drawn face or a mask, to represent Guy Fawkes. The ‘guy’ was then wheeled about in a cart or wheelbarrow with the object of collecting money from generous folk to buy fireworks, toffee and parkin or gingerbread. On 5th November, the guy was ceremoniously burned atop the bonfire.

Perhaps modern children, in these days of organized events, do not know of bonfire toffee and sticky gingerbread, nor yet have held a sparkler, but in this author’s youth, these things, along with sausages and jacket (baked) potatoes eaten around the fire were all part of the fun. A Catherine Wheel, a Roman Candle or two, a snow pyramid and perhaps a single rocket would be the sum total of our fireworks, but they have stayed in the memory. I wonder if today’s indulged youngsters will remember the noisy pyrotechnic displays and mass-produced burgers with the same affection.


There was a great deal of civil and religious unrest during the seventeenth century. James I brought back and enforced the Act of Uniformity that required Roman Catholics to attend Protestant churches or be fined. Catholics were not allowed to celebrate Mass; going to church on Sunday was compulsory. During a conference at Hampton Court in 1604, an ‘authorized version’ of the Bible was ordered to be drawn up by eminent scholars and divines.

Under the leadership of Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy, a small group of Catholics got together to plan an outrageous counter-attack. If successful, it would blow up the King at the State Opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605. The plotters rented a cellar which lay beneath the House of Lords (it seems incredible now, doesn’t it?) and began storing firewood and barrels of gunpowder there. Guido (Guy) Fawkes had served with the Spanish army in the Netherlands and was both experienced and knowledgeable in the use of explosives.

Plan of Old Palace of Westminster 1793-1823

The original conspirators were Guido Fawkes, Robert Catesby, John Wright, Thomas Wintour (Winter?) and Thomas Percy. Later recruits were Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Robert Wintour (Winter?), Ambrose Rokewood, Everard Digby and Francis Tresham.

The Discovery of The Gunpowder Plot and the Taking of Guy Fawkes, Henry Perronet Briggs, c1823

One of the conspirators (possibly Francis Tresham), concerned that fellow Catholics present in the Lords would perish alongside those who were guilty. He sent a letter to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle: Retire yourself into the country… they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them.’ The letter was passed to the authorities and thus, late on the night of 4th November the cellars were searched. Guy Fawkes was arrested while standing guard over his stash of gunpowder and then tortured. He endured hours on the rack, refusing to incriminate his friends. Nevertheless he and his accomplices eventually confessed. On 31st January 1606, having been tried and convicted of treason, Robert Wintour, Thomas Bates, John Grant and Everard Digby were dragged on litters to St. Paul’s Churchyard, where they were hung, drawn and quartered. Since that date, a ritual search of the cellars is conducted annually before the opening of Parliament.
Guy Fawkes, along with Thomas Wintour, Robert Keyes and Ambrose Rookwood were executed in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, where Richard I, Coeur de Lion (by Marochetti, 1860) sits his rearing horse and where Sir Walter Raleigh also met, in elegant black velvet and with urbane courage, his own end.

Thomas Wintour (Winter)

Although Catesby and Percy escaped and thus avoided execution, their bodies were exhumed, thence to be decapitated. Their heads were then displayed on spikes before the Houses of Parliament. When Guy Fawkes was captured, the other conspirators fled. Many either had family connections with the present West Midlands or found succour among the Catholics residing in the area.
Robert Wintour had been an obvious addition to the plot, since he had inherited Huddington Court, near Worcester, a place known to have hidden priests. Robert Catesby sent a letter via Thomas Bates to Father Henry Garnet and other Jesuit priests hidden by the Throckmorton family at Coughton Court. Stephen Littleton and Robert Wintour were captured at Hagley Hall, home of Humphrey Littleton, the brother of M.P. John Littleton, after a cook became suspicious at the quantity of food supposedly being eaten by his master. Although Humphrey denied the allegations, another servant betrayed the hiding place of the fugitives. Hindlip Hall near Worcester, home of Thomas Habingdon (Addington?), was ransacked by the authorities for four days; two starving Jesuit priests finally gave themselves up.

Hindlip Hall, destroyed by fire 1820

So, however you plan to celebrate Bonfire Night, stay safe and have fun – and spare a moment to remember those persecuted men driven to such desperate measures and, ultimately, such gruesome, cruel deaths.

All images public domain

© Heather King


  1. My grandfather was Scottish, moved to Yorkshire as a child, and then emigrated to the US in his early teens. He brought with him, among many wonderful traditions and sayings, a love for parkin and treacle toffee. I made this year's parkin two days ago because it gets denser and stickier the longer you leave it; I hate to call it bread. But I do call it breakfast :)

    1. Parkin and gingerbread definitely are better for a little 'maturing', Renee. My grandfather would assert sternly that parkin and gingerbread were very different! Today, mention gingerbread and biscuit men spring to mind, but it was also a thick, moist cake - wonderful on its' own or with butter, cream or custard. Definitely not bread!