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The Plot to Blow up the Houses of Parliament
Why the UK still celebrates the Gunpowder Plot
Whilst Americans are getting over the hangover from Halloween, the UK is preparing to celebrate another occasion, Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night. Celebrated on the 5th November the celebration, which is bigger than Halloween, involves bonfires and fireworks.
Many families flock to fields to stand by a bonfire and let off fireworks to celebrate a failed attempt to blow up the houses of parliament. Children of all ages make straw men and decorate them to place on the fire. Nicknamed Guys these symbolise, Guy Fawkes one of those involved in The Gunpowder Plot.
The tale of The Gunpowder Plot is told by grandparents to their grandchildren every year. It is an English legend that exists through tales told around a bonfire. The truth of the story though is even more sinister and involves one of the original religious conflicts. Protestants and Catholics.
Royal and Religious Conflict
The conflict between Catholics and Protestants had been raging for many years. It had been made worse by the death of Queen Elizabeth I. When she died Elizabeth was unmarried and childless, she refused to name her heir. Many Catholics believed that Mary Queen of Scots, her cousin was the legitimate heir until she was executed for treason in 1587. What neither woman was aware of was the government at the time had other plans. They had been talking to Mary’s son, James about ascending the throne. His attitude towards Catholics was one of tolerance, he was seen as the ideal successor.
During the early years of his reign, he did seem to have a more tolerant approach to the Catholic religion. Several unsuccessful plots against him meant this attitude changed. There was only one thing left for Catholics to do, remove him from power.
The Gunpowder Plot
On 5th November 1605, 13 men attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament and murder King James I. The plan was to bring the House of Lords down during the state opening of parliament. Bringing down the Houses of Parliament would kill the monarch, those relatives closest to him, senior judges, the protestant aristocracy, and Bishops of the Church of England.
With these prominent protestant men removed from power, the group would then kidnap the King’s daughter, Elizabeth, and install her as monarch. Henry Percy, a Catholic, would act as regent and control all matters.
The revolt started in the Midlands (the middle of the UK) and was led by Robert Catesby. Catesby recruited many men, one of these was Guido Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes as he became known.
Fawkes was a military man who had seen a large amount of service. He was given charge of the explosives. It was his job to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
The Plot is Discovered
In a twist of fate, the plot was revealed through an anonymous letter that was sent to the 4th Baron Monteagle, William Parker on 26th October. To this day, it is not known who sent the letter.
On the 4th November, a search was made of the House of Lords. During this search, Fawkes was discovered under the building guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was immediately arrested. Hearing this, his co-conspirators fled.
What Happened to the Unlucky 13?
The Sheriff pursued the men and during a fight five of them were killed, this included their leader Catesby. James I, approved the use of torture to find out all the details of the plot from the eight survivors, resulting in one man dying before sentencing. The seven survivors including Fawkes were convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered.
This is a particularly gruesome death, used regularly in history. It involves hanging a man until he is half-dead, then cutting off his genitalia and burning it in front of him. Still alive the convicted heart and bowels were removed. The final insult was to dismember the body and leave the four parts out in the open to be feasted on by animals.
The World After the Gunpowder Plot
As a result of this attempt, many anti-catholic laws were passed. These laws prevented Catholic people from practicing law, serving in the forces, or voting. Despite this many Catholics remained in high office.
From that day in 1605, the thwarting of the plot has been celebrated on November 5th. In the early years, it was commemorated with special sermons and other public events, such as the church bell ringing. In recent years it has turned into the festival of Bonfire Night. English people gather around huge bonfires and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. We then watch fireworks displays and eat toffee apples. It is a time that is special to me and one I always look forward to. This year is the first year since 1605 when the public will not be able to celebrate with their friends. In the true spirit of the event though, you can be sure we will be celebrating at home with a few fireworks.