Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Bonfire Night - Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605

by Maggi Andersen

This post is an EHFA Editor's choice. It was first published on 15th June, 2012

The same year that the first Plays Act was passed, Guy Fawkes was discovered trying to blow up the King and the Houses of Parliament in the ill-fated Gunpowder Plot.

A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Fawkes is third from the right.

Guy Fawkes (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606), also known as Guido Fawkes – the name he adopted while fighting for the Spanish in the Low Countries – belonged to a group of provincial English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Fawkes was baptised at the church of St. Michael le Belfrey

Fawkes was born and educated in York. His father died when Fawkes was eight years old, after which his mother married a recusant Catholic. Fawkes later converted to Catholicism and left for the continent, where he fought in the Eighty Years' War on the side of Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers. He travelled to Spain to seek support for a Catholic rebellion in England but was unsuccessful. He later met Thomas Wintour, with whom he returned to England.

Wintour introduced Fawkes to Robert Catesby, who planned to assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. The plotters secured the lease to an undercroft beneath the House of Lords, and Fawkes was placed in charge of the gunpowder they stockpiled there.

Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (c. 1823), Henry Perronet Brigg

Prompted by the receipt of an anonymous letter, the authorities searched Westminster Palace during the early hours of 5 November, and found Fawkes guarding the explosives.

Fawkes being interrogated

Over the next few days, he was questioned and tortured, and eventually he broke. His signature of "Guido" made soon after his torture, is a barely evident scrawl.

Immediately before his execution on 31 January, Fawkes jumped from the scaffold where he was to be hanged and broke his neck, thus avoiding the agony of the mutilation that followed.

A 1606 etching by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher, depicting Fawkes's execution

As a result the Observance of 5th November Act was passed, which required the people of England to celebrate ‘with unfeigned thankfulness … this joyful day of deliverance’ as a ‘perpetual remembrance … for all ages to come’. This meant that you were supposed to go to church where prayers of thanksgiving were to be said, ‘and there to abide orderly and soberly at the time of the said prayers, preaching or other service of God’.

This law made it compulsory to celebrate the arrest of Guy Fawkes and stayed in force in England until 1859.

However, there is one law concerning bonfire night still in force which says it is only permissible for children to go door to door collecting ‘a penny for the guy’ with the written permission of the local chief constable of police – no mention of ‘trick or treat’ on Halloween without his consent.

Though long dead, there is still debate as to whether Guy Fawkes was a hero or villain. His adversary was King James I of England, and he planned to kill the queen, and elder son, Henry too. Before ascending the English throne (following the death of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth), James became the King of Scotland at the tender age of 13 years. The boy king was under constant threat. People around him were always looking to seize power.

James I was a man of integrity and new ideas. One of his greatest achievements was the translation of the scriptures.

The Monteagle letter

He ruled during a time when the Church and State were same and brought about various changes. There were two factions within the church: the Bishops, who had supreme power, used the Bishop’s Bible which was the sole religious text for the British. The Puritans had faith in the Scriptures and used the Geneva Bible. King James I felt that the Bishop’s Bible was a lazy work while the Geneva Bible had footnotes with political inclinations. He made the decision to give the English a new Bible. He formed a committee that worked for seven years to come up with King James Bible. England thrived under King James I’s leadership. But the old Roman Catholic followers were not happy with the radical thoughts of their king.

The plot led to renewed penal legislation against Catholics in 1606, and increased Protestant fears of popish conspiracies.


Maggi Andersen writes historical romances set in the Georgian, Regency and Victorian periods.
Find her novels at Amazon.
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Twitter: @maggiandersen

The Strange Laws of Old England, Nigel Cawthorne. Piatkus.
The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland. Guild Publishing, London.

Illustrations: All are in the Public Domain with additional attributions req: 
Church of St Michael le Belfrey: Source= |Date=28 May 2006 |Author=Andrew Dyer |Permission={{cc-by-sa-2.0}


  1. I had fun with a 1920s Guy Fawkes party in my mystery Gunpowder Plot. Fireworks--the perfect way to conceal a gunshot...

  2. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsJune 17, 2012 at 9:09 PM

    As negative as the situation was, Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated far and wide... Wherever the anglos settled it is remembered. How amazing...The Guy Fawkes bonfires are a huge thing in Canada also...

  3. "After the death of Virgin Mary he was placed on the throne." You cannot be serious or accurate.


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