To understand Guy Fawkes night, or Bonfire Night as it has been called, you have to go back a bit to understand why it happened. King James I had inherited the throne and England had changed dramatically since the Tudors.
From the very beginning, Parliament was determined to make it perfectly clear to James that he would be crowned the King of England with the usual pomp and ceremony, but the practice of total obedience to their monarchs had died with Elizabeth. What they didn’t know, but were going to find out very soon, was that James firmly believed in his Divine Right to rule and he was going to enforce that belief. There had never been a time in his life when he hadn’t been regarded as the rightful King of Scotland, always to be obeyed, and he wasn’t about to let that submission cease now. With his cloistered upbringing sprang arrogance and he fully expected England to conform to his way of ruling. Even before the coronation, this sensitive issue had already reached a crisis. It wasn’t a good start for James and it was definitely the wrong attitude to bring to his first Parliament.
The House of Commons had already drawn up a document in firm but definite language reminding James that their liberties included free speech, free elections and freedom from arrest at Parliamentary discussions should their opinion differ from his. Everyone was very aware of Henry VIII’s fondness for lopping off the heads of anyone who disagreed with him and that particular clause was a safeguard that everyone eagerly agreed upon, especially with this relatively unknown ruler from the barbaric north.
It’s pretty safe to say that all James was interested in was how much money was in the treasury. So when he read through the documents handed to him, he brushed them aside with contempt as if they were personal insults. Then, to add insult to their injury, when James, a devout Presbyterian by the way, proceeded to say he hoped to secure peace by ‘profession of his true religion’ and his divine right to rule, brown stuff instantly hit the fan. If first impressions are vital, then James had failed miserably.
The understanding in Scotland was that England was a wealthy country. Fanciful stories had morphed into something more like fairy tales as they drifted around the Scottish court. Reports of Elizabeth’s fabulous jewels, of her plentiful visits to her nobles with over 2,000 men and women in attendance, of her bounteous feasts, her incredible navy and as the stories grew in splendour from person to person, James waited eagerly for his turn to take full advantage of it all. He was in for a bit of a shock. All too soon, he found himself hard pressed for money with the country in debt for the massive sum of £400,000. Elizabeth had certainly been a penny pincher, taking her extensive court on routine visits to wealthy landowners on a regular basis to lessen her expenses, but the war with Spain and Ireland had been costly and every year, the country’s revenue was worth less and less due to inflation in Europe.
As a result, the expenses of James’ court increased at an alarming rate. His lack of money meant summoning more parliaments, which again cost him more money, creating a vicious circle he had no way of controlling. When he asked for more money, Parliament came back with the comment that a monarch should ‘live off his own’ and any revenues from crown lands should be used for the upkeep of the public services not his personal use. Again, James disagreed. After all, he had no money of his own.
It had only taken one year but England had already had enough of him. And it’s not so surprising that by May 1604, a man by the name of Robert Catesby was hatching a plan. This burly man with burly friends had two things in common: they were all Catholics and they all disliked James intensely. By then, James had denounced the Catholic Church and ordered all Jesuits and Catholic priests to leave the country and had reimposed the collection of fines for those who refused to attend Anglican services. The anger had only deepened when he allowed his Scottish nobles to collect the ‘recusancy’ fines. This one fine alone gave James a total of £5,000 a year (equivalent to over £10 million by todays standards).
What happened next, and the incredible reasoning behind it, is like something out of a tacky novel. The conspiracy, famously called ‘The Gunpowder Plot’, was actually hatched over a few pints in the back room of a pub called the Duck and Drake between Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes.
Their plan was to assassinate James and his Protestant supporters by digging a tunnel under Parliament house and hiding thirty-odd barrels of gunpowder (two and a half tonnes by the way) in order to blow it up during the next sitting of parliament. At the same time, they would organise a riot in the Midlands to act as a decoy.
Thomas Percy, a member of the King’s Bodyguard was able to lease lodgings that were situated adjacent to the House of Lords and Guy Fawkes, a man who had been fighting for the Spanish in the Low Countries, was the man chosen to put the plan into operation. His roll was to light the match to a slow fuse and then escape across the Thames before high-tailing it to the continent for safety. He could then leave the others to complete the said plan. When James was dead, he would return triumphantly to celebrate and reap the spoils. After James was killed, they would then kidnap his 9-year-old daughter Princess Elizabeth and place her on the throne as the new Catholic monarch.
Elizabeth was chosen after considering all their options. Prince Henry, they believed, would die alongside his father, Charles was too weak and feeble and Mary was too young. Elizabeth was just right. She was young enough to be a puppet queen, brought up as a Catholic and later married to a Catholic bridegroom and having little Catholic princes and princesses. An oath was taken and they all went home, ready to make more plans at other meetings and organise just how they were going to surreptitiously transport this massive amount of gunpowder and have it in place before the next parliament opened in February 1605.
Was this rather amazing and intricate plot ever going to work? Imagine them. Four of the five men were tall and powerfully built with thick reddish-brown hair, flowing moustaches and bushy reddish-brown beards and they more than likely had big voices fuelled on by alcohol to complete the package. Is it just me or is this just a group of rather large obvious-looking men speaking in drunken whispers at the local pub most Friday nights over several rounds of drinks, plotting to kill the king and rule the world? With the way they looked, it’s not likely they could hide anywhere.
Not surprisingly, things began to go awry very early on in the planning stages. Firstly the re-opening of Parliament was delayed due to concerns over an outbreak of the plague, which meant that rather than sitting in February, Parliament would not sit again until 3rd October. The delay however meant they had more time to dig the tunnel beneath Parliament.
The Palace of Westminster in the early 17th century was a warren of buildings clustered around the medieval chambers and halls of the former royal palace that then housed both Parliament and royal law courts. It was easily accessible by merchants, lawyers and others who lived and worked in shops and taverns within its precincts.
On 25th March 1605, the plotters had purchased the lease of a ground floor brick-lined storage room, which may have been part of the palace’s medieval kitchen, beneath the first-floor House of Lords. The room was ideal since it was alongside a passageway called Parliament Place, which itself led to Parliament Stairs. Unused and filthy, its location was ideal for what the group planned to do.
Twenty barrels of gunpowder were brought in first, followed by sixteen more on 20th July and the plan was ready to be put into action. It was then they heard of yet another delay. The ever-present threat of the plague had risen again and the opening of Parliament was delayed once more until 5th November. While the plague raged, James had decided he would spend much of the summer away from the city, hunting and staying wherever convenient, which meant the plan had to be delayed until he returned.
When the men regrouped in August, ready to put the plan into action, it was to discover that the stored gunpowder had decayed. More gunpowder was brought into the room, along with firewood to conceal it, and the remaining details of the plot were finalised in October in a series of taverns across London.
Not so strangely, it was at this time that an anonymous letter found its way to Lord Monteagle just one week before parliament opened and the letter was then passed on to James. He in turn authorised a quiet search and shortly before midnight on 5th November, Fawkes was caught red-handed leaving the cellar after placing the last of the gunpowder in place.
The outcome of their trials was never in doubt and the jury found the defendants guilty of high treason. Their punishment was read aloud in the court as the men listened in shock to their fate. They were to be drawn backwards to their death by a horse to the very building they had tried to destroy. Before dying, their genitals were to be cut off and burnt before their eyes and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated and dismembered. The dismembered parts of their bodies were to be displayed so that they might become ‘prey for the fowls of the air’.
In January 1606, the sentence was carried out.