Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot!
So runs the popular children's rhyme which helped to put this date in the diary - for those not native to the UK, November fifth is popularly celebrated as Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, when we mark an historic event which could have had a devastating impact on England (and, indeed, Scotland).
It was an event that featured all of the above - gunpowder, treason, and plenty of plot! - along with lashings of government intrigue, religious zeal, and attempted regicide.
On the night of November fourth 1605, an inspection of the undercroft under the House of Lords, one of the British Houses of Parliament, revealed that barrels of gunpowder had been stashed directly beneath the room where the king, James I of England, would be delivering the state opening of Parliament the following day.
The inspection followed a tip-off to the authorities sent in an anonymous letter the week previously - it was the latest of a number of attempts on the life of the king, who had taken the throne just eighteen months before.
James was not a popular king in England at this time, having acceded to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth I. There were plenty of reasons for the masses to dislike him - he was Scottish, after all, having been born to Mary, Queen of Scots, in a small room at Edinburgh Castle, and having ruled Scotland as James VI since 1567.
He was also, unlike his mother, a Protestant, and England had recently seen its share of sectarianism - Henry VIII has wrestled with the Catholic church, and established himself as head of the Protestant Church of England; his successor Edward VI was the first fully Protestant English king, in turn replaced by his half-sister 'Bloody' Mary I, a devout Catholic who had Protestants executed in order to restore the throne to Catholicism; she in turn was replaced by her own half-sister Elizabeth I, who had spent time in prison under her sister's reign for support of the Protestant cause.
Into this religious landscape stepped James VI of Scotland, becoming James I of England in 1603. The state of the national faith was in a period of chaos, and James brought with him a brood of children, securing the future of the line of monarchy for the foreseeable future; a future of Protestant monarchs seemed certain. There was also an expectation that, given his mother's devout Catholicism, he may have brought a more tolerant attitude to religious division in the country. Alas, he didn't.
Those who were resistant to a Protestant monarch sought to return a Catholic to the throne, and ridding themselves of this non-English, protestant king was the first step in overthrowing this regime.
The plot against James I was led by Robert Catesby, an English Catholic, with a string of co-conspirators, among them Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was an Englishman, and a Catholic convert, who had experience of working with explosives as a political mercenary in Europe. When he was discovered under the House of Lords, shortly after midnight on November fifth, he had managed to stash thirty-six barrels of gunpowder there, enough to not just kill the king, but to wipe out the ruling aristocracy of England, too. It was to have been the climax of six months of planning, foiled at the last minute.
Fawkes was to be executed last among the conspirators who were traced and arrested. After having been tortured, he died last, watching his fellow traitors be hanged, drawn and quartered. Today, Fawkes gives his name to the annual celebration marking this historic event, and effigies of him (popularly known as 'guys', and latterly dressed up to represent unpopular contemporary political figures) are often burned on bonfires around Britain.
Moreover, the traditional face of Guy Fawkes has become a global image of protest - masks worn by protesters around the world are modelled on the popular image of a masked figure from the comic book V for Vendetta, a steampunk retelling of the events of the original Gunpowder Plot, and now a generic image for political protest in the twenty-first century.
So have a care, if you're enjoying a fireworks display or a bonfire this week, to remember, remember some of the deeper political and religious machinations which brought the Gunpowder Plot to fruition.
Find out more about James VI & I on my private Edinburgh walking tours!
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