I look forward to November 5 every year. Sure, it’s the day before my birthday; and the birthday of my college roommate Mike Stevens. But it is also Guy Fawkes night. And since I consider myself a bit of a patriot and rebel, it is holiday worth remembering.
Most of us in the United States only know about Guy Fawkes from the graphic novel and movie – V for Vendetta. In doing research on James I (England) and James VI (Scotland) for my book on Sawney Bean, I got the chance to crawl through this tale anew. King “Jamie” had an obsessive streak when it came to hunting down and executing witches – but the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes and his compatriots are what is often remembered about his rule.
Religious upheaval and instability was the hallmark of Scotland and England in the years leading up to the 1605 plot that led to tortuous execution of Mr. Fawkes. Church and state were so intertwined that the religious leanings of the monarch often imperiled an opposing religion. In the case of the Gunpowder Plot, a cabal of Catholic’s plotted to blow up Parliament and the royal family to wipe out the whole of British government in a stunning coup.
On November 5, 1605, Fawkes was discovered in the undercroft (crawlspace/basement) of Parliament along with 36 barrels of gunpowder set with slow burning fuses. The barrels were hidden under kindling but were uncovered. Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London where he was put on the rack at King James direction. Eventually he succumbed to the torture, revealing his co-conspirators.
The price of treason was high. Fawkes was hanged, taking a jump from the gallows with the noose around his neck, breaking it. His body was quartered and the parts were taken the “four corners of the kingdom,” as a warning as to the price of treason.
In England, the 5th of November is marked with fireworks and the burning of effigies of Fawkes. There was a nursery rhyme set to his tale (below). The holiday serves as a reminder to all that treason, especially failed treason, is a crime that is most severe.
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
For me, I don’t deeply admire Fawkes, after all he was a failure in his plans and eventually gave out the names of his conspirators. One must admire, however, the audaciousness of their plan. Further, I am reminded that my nation is one that was forged by traitors. Our founding fathers were traitors to the crown of England and faced the same fate that Fawkes and his conspirators did. Only their eventual victory turned them from traitors to patriots. It also makes one wonder how things would have been different if Fawkes had succeeded. Even today, when the State of the Union speech is read by the President, one member of the cabinet is off-site in case of a Guy Fawkes attack on our own government. While the holiday is meant to remind all of the price of treason, it also serves as a warning to all governments as to how precarious their positions really area.