The 5th of November is engraved in each and every diary in England. It’s commonly perceived as an excuse for a night out with friends. A night when people across England build a man, a ‘guy’ to burn in order to watch fireworks. The fireworks symbolise the explosion at Parliament that never went off. Most of the country knows, at minimum, that “some bloke named Guy attempted to blow up the parliament”.
In 1605, Guy Fawkes night was born was during the heat of the Protestant Reformation, a crucial movement in European history. James VI of Scotland had just become James I of England upon the death of Elizabeth I. This meant James was to reign over three countries: England, Scotland and Ireland. According to Professor Mark Stoyle for BBC History, this led to tensions among the three nations because each country had their own religious preferences. The Irish leaned towards Catholicism while the majority of the Scots favored Calvinism and the English mainly followed Protestantism. As a man raised Protestant, King James’ rule over three countries with different major religions posed a problem.
The Reformation movement started due to several people questioning Roman Catholicism. Ultimately, there was an aim to “reform the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church“. Guido, or ‘Guy’ Fawkes was raised a Protestant but converted to Catholicism. He was living in a Protestant England as a minority believing in the Catholic faith in a country where the majority of citizens were trying to reform Roman Catholicism. Meanwhile, James was an author and considered himself an intellectual. In some of his work he wrote about Roman Catholics using words like ‘devil‘, and ‘Satan‘ even though his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, was herself Catholic. This points to his strong feelings about Catholics and the poor treatment that Catholics were perhaps subjected to during his reign.
These tensions resulted in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. According to Steve Myall for ‘The Mirror’, Guy Fawkes enlisted in the Spanish Army before the plot in order to escape England. This is where he gained his experience with explosives. By 1604 Fawkes met Thomas Winter. Through Winter, Fawkes was introduced to the ‘mastermind’ of the plot on the way back to London, Robert Catesby. Fawkes also met John and Christopher Wright around this time.
This circle of Catholic men then came up with the plot to blow up Parliament, to kill King James. Fawkes was in charge of placing the explosives in the Parliament. The plot was ruined when an anonymous letter was sent to a Catholic MP on the 26th of October urging him not to go near Westminster on the 5th of November.
The letter was later made public. This raised suspicion, leading to a search that resulted in Guy Fawke’s arrest. Once Fawkes was arrested, English intelligence tortured him and found his co-conspirators. Eventually, according to Bruce Robinson for BBC History, everyone involved in the plot was found guilty of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered.