by Mrs. Gretta Harrison, 3rd Grade Teacher
Many of you may be familiar with the face of Guy Fawkes, but few know the story behind the now popular anarchist mask. It is a story full of spying, secrecy, and high treason. In order to properly introduce you to this tantalizing tail, we must first add a few more players to the board. Recently in 3rd grade, we learned about King James I of England, of the King James Bible fame. But King James I of England also happens to be King James VI of Scotland. If you don’t know anything about this era in English history, it was a time fraught with unrest and disagreements over whether England should be Catholic or Protestant. The country was divided. Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of the infamous Henry VIII, was, like her father, a Protestant. As such, she did not make it easy to be Catholic during her reign. Queen Elizabeth had no children, so when she died, the throne went to the closest next of kin. This happened to be the son (James) of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scotts, whom she had beheaded for treason after she had fled to her for help. Mary had fled to her cousin for help because she had been forced to abdicate her throne to her infant son since she was Catholic. Instead of the help she had hoped for, Mary faced imprisonment and eventually, the death of a traitor. James was raised by a group of Protestant lords, and had a Protestant tutor, but, the Catholics of England still had hope. James’s mother had been Catholic, as well as his wife. Further, upon being crowned king, he ended the fines that the Catholics had been forced to pay. This, unfortunately was where things began to take a turn for the worse. King James felt torn between the two factions of Protestantism and Catholicism, eventually lashing out at extremes on both sides of the spectrum by reinstating fines.
Now that the scene has been set, we can let our main characters enter the story. In retaliation to the previously mentioned grievances, a Catholic man named Robert Catesby and four other of his friends, including Guy Fawkes, began to meet at The Duck and Drake Inn in May of 1604, hatching a plot to blow up Parliament and King James. Guy was tasked with being a caretaker of the house they had rented in Westminster. The conspirators grew from five to ten, as more and more people became disgruntled about their unfair treatment. With more conspirators, the plan began to progress as well. Originally, they had planned to dig a tunnel under the House of Lords; however, the tunnel kept filling with water, so in March, they rented a cellar that was directly underneath the House of Lords. Over the next few months, the conspirators succeeded in smuggling 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar! The plan was for Guy to light the fuse to ignite the gunpowder and then escape to continental Europe. After the explosion, one of their wealthy supporters, Sir Everard Digby, was to lead an uprising and kidnap King James’s daughter in order to put her on the throne as a puppet queen in his stead. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on which side of the fence you find yourself on, their plot was not as secret as they had fancied. Someone had sent an anonymous letter warning one of the lords not to open Parliament. One of the lord’s servants alerted the plotters of the letter, but they had come too far to turn back. They were determined to follow through with their plan! The lords decided that to catch the plotters, they would feign ignorance and behave as though they were opening Parliament on its scheduled date of November 4th. As all seemed well, the conspirators felt comfortable to move forward with their plan. Since Fawkes was to stay behind and light the fuse, the other conspirators dispersed into the countryside to their designated spots.
All was not well for the conspirators, however. Since the time for the plot to be carried out had arrived, the lords searched Westminster. The first search turned up a curiously large amount of firewood in one of the rooms, and on the second search, they hit payload, finding Fawkes. He was immediately arrested, but would only give the alias of “John Johnson”, keeping his silence. Upon his arrest, another of the conspirators rode 30 miles in two hours to warn the others that they were now wanted men. After this, the plot began to disintegrate quickly. The other conspirators rode to what they had planned to be their stronghold. Much to their dismay, upon their arrival, they found that all their gunpowder was damp. In order to remedy this, they thought to dry the gunpowder out by setting it before a fire… If you are familiar with gunpowder, you will understand the absolute folly of this plan. Needless to say, there was a large explosion that left one of the conspirators blind. Three days later, on November 8th, their recompense came in the form of 200 men led by the High Sheriff of Worcestershire. This encounter left four of the conspirators dead and three captured. Five were still at large until December, when only one remained free, and since one of the conspirators had confessed plot to a Jesuit priest, the priests were now implicated in the plot as well.
Meanwhile, back in London, Fawkes refused to talk, prompting King James to allow for his torture. Fawkes eventually confessed and suffered the death of a traitor. The consequences did not stop with Fawkes, effecting Catholics in England from the highest office to the everyday parishioner, ending in the exact opposite effect of what the conspirators had hoped for.
To this day in England, they still celebrate the foiling of this plot, holding parties and bonfires where they burn the effigy of Guy Fawkes. His image is associated with anarchy and hopes to overthrow unjust governments. To help us remember, the 3rd grade learned to recite this poem:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, twas his intent
To blow up the king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s mercy he was catched
With a dark lantern and a lighted match.
Holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring,
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King.