Every 5th November, people commemmorate the man Guy Fawkes who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, usually with a display of fireworks. But who was this man, and what was he really trying to do?
Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators (pictured above – Fawkes is 3rd from the right) were actually trying to assassinate the Protestant King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. They were recusant Catholics themselves, which at the time was highly dangerous, and they didn’t like the King. King James of course was instrumental in bringing an authoritative English Bible to the general public, which still bears his name today and was published in 1611. These Catholics had hoped that the King would move to end Catholic persecuation and be more tolerant, but a good few years into his reign, there was little evidence of this. And so various conspiracy plots arose to remove James from the throne – not just the one Guy Fawkes was involved with.
Eventually it was an anonymous letter which prompted the authorities to search Westminster Palace in the early hours of 5th November 1605 and found Fawkes guarding the explosives. Over the next few days, he was questioned and tortured, and eventually he was executed in January the following year. He could not have known how famous he would become.
Bonfires had always been traditional at this time of year – they were originally a means of disposing of the bones (hence bon-fire) of the cattle slaughtered ready for winter. But they were first accompanied by fireworks in the 1650s. It became the custom to burn an effigy in the late seventeenth century, which was usually the pope in those early days – perhaps a reference back to the troublemaker Guy Fawkes and his Catholic friends.
Perhaps we too can spare a thought for a time in this country where religious freedom did not exist. People really could be executed for what they believed, and the monarch was there to tell you what you should think about religion. We wouldn’t have agreed with Guy Fawkes’ beliefs, or his rather desperate actions, but he was essentially standing up for the idea that people should be free in this country to believe what they choose.