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Guy Fawkes' doomed attempt at regicide encourages reflection on those who have conspired against their rulers in more modern times, says Dan Hartley

Guy Fawkes' doomed attempt at regicide encourages reflection on those who have conspired against their rulers in more modern times, says Dan Hartley

  • Bonfire Night, 5 November
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    • Guy Fawkes is sometimes referred to as the only man to have entered Parliament with honest intentions. Certainly he knew what he wanted, though his attempts, and those of his 12 co-conspirators, to assassinate King James I in 1605 in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot were repeatedly foiled - even before the fatal discovery of the plan and their arrest.

      Royal retribution was brutal, if not swift, with those guilty of treason held and tortured in the Tower of London before being hung, drawn and quartered - their body parts sent to four corners of the realm and displayed as a warning to any other malcontents thinking of questioning the power of the monarchy. (Only Fawkes escaped the agony of this barbaric mutilation, jumping from the scaffold and breaking his neck before the disembowelling began.)

      Yet throughout history there have been numerous attempts to overthrow a ruling party or monarchy in order to wrest power from the authorities and change a country's politics and way of life. And investigating what drove men and women to move forward from whispered murmurings to often violent or desperate action is a fascinating topic of debate for pupils.

      There is the question of retribution, why the plot failed, and what it might have meant for the country if it had succeeded. How different might Britain be today if Guy Fawkes and his team had dispatched the king and placed Princess Elizabeth on the throne?

      Fast-forward nearly 200 years and the plot to overthrow the monarchy in France had a very different outcome. In the late 1700s the country was a pressure cooker of seething emotions, with many long-term economic issues and a perception of the royal family as profligates who cared not a jot for the starving populace (though historians dispute whether Marie Antoinette ever said "Let them eat cake").

      After the National Assembly eventually forced a reluctant Louis XVI to make changes to his powers, the authorities hoped revolutionary feelings might have been appeased. Yet too many in France saw this as an opportunity to oust the monarchy forever. Angry mobs swarmed the streets and soon a fleeing Louis XVI was captured and publicly beheaded. His queen was to lose her head only a little later to Mademoiselle Guillotine.

      Can pupils draw comparisons with Guy Fawkes? Can they highlight the similarities and differences in the two countries at the time of each very different revolt? If the explosives buried under Parliament had killed King James, would the structure of Britain's ruling system have been overturned as France's was?

      History is riddled with tales of doomed battles, conspiracy plots, attempted assassinations and revolutions. And the more dramatic the events, the more students revel in the retelling. Who could be unmoved by the execution of the Romanov family, Russia's last remaining tsars, including their four children, valet and family doctor, and the manner in which they were slain: gunned down in cold blood in the basement of a dacha where they had been held captive, and promised they would be kept safe?

      The tsars had ruled Russia until the beginning of the 20th century. And like Louis XVI, they believed the power invested in them was derived directly from God. Yet, like Guy Fawkes, and the French royal family, they suffered the same outcome - public humiliation and pitiless punishment, ordered by new rulers who wanted blood on their hands to prove they had completely conquered their foe.

      More recently, when a number of Hitler's officers plotted to plant a bomb in a briefcase just a few feet from him in his east Prussian hideout, retribution for the failed assassins was systematic and dreadful - rather like the Third Reich itself.

      Hitler survived the blast, protected by a heavy table, and promptly ordered the arrest of over 5,000 people - including the plot leader, Claus von Stauffenberg, who was executed by firing squad.

      How would such people be treated today? The truth is, in many countries not very differently. To the victors go the spoils. Or to use another colloquialism: all's fair in love and war.

      Yet fear cannot stop the plots and conspiracies determined to overthrow unpopular regimes and brutal dictatorships. In Libya the Allies joined the relentless hunt for toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi that ultimately ended in his death. And when Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was found last year, hiding out like a cornered rat in the mountains of Pakistan, the Americans did not wait for a court to dispense justice.

      It is unlikely, however, that there would be the same public appetite for spearing the severed heads of the treasonous on the spikes of Traitors' Gate, despite the intermittent calls in this country for the return of capital punishment. And in England, during the summer riots, police did not charge the juvenile looters, batons held high, and beat them senselessly into submission.

      Though there was unanimous condemnation of the rioters and many of those apprehended have received prison sentences, modern-day democracies are far less draconian than the kings and rulers of centuries past.

      Guy Fawkes, of course, has been immortalised, and is now synonymous with Bonfire Night, on which date effigies of the Pope and other unpopular figures were once placed on the pyre to burn.

      But how might he have been dealt with in modern Britain? Perhaps an even more interesting question might be how James I would have dealt with the youthful opportunists who burned and looted in several days of anarchy across the UK. Our modern "conspirators" would almost certainly have put their hands up for a prison sentence, rather than test their luck at the hands of Stuart justice.

      Dan Hartley is head of history and religious studies at a Devon comprehensive

      WHAT ELSE?

      TES Topics has launched Guy Fawkes and Fireworks interactive packs for primary. Try samples and purchase from

      In the forums

      Teachers share ideas for fun Guy Fawkes lessons to suit young pupils

      All resources and links are at

      Original headline: Why the plot still thickens

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