Every Autumn when I was little, we built a bonfire in the field at the back of the house. The farmer didn’t mind, because he and his wife had a lot of land and five children, and they were all at the heart of our best village celebrations. Then, on 5 November, the whole village (probably no more than about 50 of us, tops) would gather in the dark around the blazing glory of the bonfire, eat toffee apples, cinder toffee and gingerbread, and watch the fireworks – carefully stored in a biscuit tin with images of London on it, and usually let off by the village dads.
It’s a beautiful memory, and never fails me at this time of year. Of course, I didn’t realise at the time that we were celebrating the failure of an attempted act of terrorism – it’s usually served up as a far more palatable and romantic dish of treason, intrigue and seasoned by the centuries that separate us. But in fact it was just the sort of attack that stains the last 50 years of our own history.
But in spite of its evil and repellent intentions, the Gunpowder Plot is still an incredibly good yarn – it’s got all the ingredients of a Hollywood film, with goodies, baddies and a dastardly plot that’s foiled at the last minute, with the perpetrators duly caught and punished in dramatic and grisly fashion.
I know the basics of the Gunpowder Plot (in fact, I used it as my specialist subject in History Club Mastermind at school) but there are a few brilliant little facts that I discovered when researching for a client recently. So here they are, in all their 5th of November, Treason and Plot glory – three facts I never knew about the Gunpowder Plot.
An Anonymous Letter
The main reason the Houses of Parliament weren’t blown sky-high as planned was an anonymous tip-off to a member of the House of Lords. Lord Monteagle received a letter warning him to stay away from the opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605, and he naturally smelled a rat (I think I would, too) and instigated a search of the site. It revealed a massive pile of firewood and barrels of gunpowder – probably not strictly necessary for the wheels of power to turn, at least not here, so immediately things were a bit suspicious. Coupled with the discovery of a man mooching around in the cellars with no good reason to be there – Guy Fawkes – and the plot was foiled, but only within moments of the planned fuse-lighting.
A Gangster Show-Down
Three of the gang were never brought to trial – because they were killed in a stand-off. When they heard that Guy Fawkes had been arrested, they holed up at one of their country estates, Holbeche House in Staffordshire. Fawkes gave up their names under torture, and the authorities charged up there for a shoot-out to rival Al Capone and the Prohibition (illustrated in this header, in a painting by Ernest Crofts). Three of them were killed and the remaining plotters were arrested, and went to trial with Guy Fawkes.
The First Guy Didn’t Burn
Guy Fawkes wasn’t burned as a punishment for his part in the plot. Even though we burn effigies of a “Guy” on our bonfires, he was sentenced to a different kind of 1600s justice – being hung, drawn and quartered, along with the rest of the convicted conspirators. However, he did take the matter of his death into his own hands: he leapt to his own destruction from the execution ladder before they could start on the hanging part.
There is a lot of speculation out there, from more learned students of history than I am, about what would have happened to the country – and even the world – had the plot succeeded. If King James had been blown up along with the majority of the aristocracy of the time, it’s possible that the early British colonies in the West Indies and America would never have been established. England and Scotland may have had a Catholic monarch again – or perhaps an even a more strongly-Protestant one than James was. Perhaps the two countries would have divided as quickly as they’d been united, and reverted to separate royal families.
We’ll never know…but it’s a wonderful thing that we continue to celebrate the foiling of such a brutal and brazen mass-murder attempt, over 400 years later.