Gunpowder, treason and plot

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Remember, remember The fifth of November Gunpowder treason and plot.

We see no reason Why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot.

November the 5th is Bonfire Night. All children in the United Kingdom know that, but do they know what they are celebrating? Does it matter?

Gerald Haigh tells the story of Guy Fawkes, history's most famous plotter, and introduces children to some historical detective work. He also asks whether the historical event is relevant to the modern celebration.


Four hundred years ago, members of the Catholic Church in England felt badly treated. Sixty-five years earlier, in Henry VIII's reign, England had broken away from the Catholic Church, and English Catholics felt cut off from their leader the Pope.

At times they were forbidden to worship openly in the way they wanted, and had to meet in secret.

When James I came to the throne, they hoped for better treatment and were bitterly disappointed when he failed to help them.

The plotters, all Catholic, decided that the only way to achieve justice was to kill the king. They planned to do this by blowing up Parliament on the day the king was to open the new session.

The plotters rented a house nearby, and hired a cellar underneath the Houses of Parliament, which they filled with a huge amount of gunpowder contained in 36 barrels.

They then waited for the opening of Parliament, which was postponed more than once.


Look at the picture of the plotters. Do you think it was drawn by someone who agreed with them and thought they were doing a good thing? Or by someone who regarded them as evil?


One of the plotters - it's not certain which - was worried that Lord Monteagle, a friend of his, would be blown up in the explosion.

So 10 days before the explosion was due he sent Monteagle a letter warning him not to go to Parliament that day. The letter warned of a "terrible blow".

Monteagle sent the letter straight to the king's secretary.

On the night of November 4, Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellar with the gunpowder. He was carrying the equipment he needed to set off the explosion.

Guy Fawkes was tortured until he told everything about the plot.

There are two signatures, one before he was tortured and one after, which give us an idea of the terrible things that were done to him.

The conspirators all died. Catesby and some others were killed resisting arrest. The others were arrested and in January, 1606, all of them, including Guy Fawkes, were executed in London. They were hung, drawn and quartered, as was customary for traitors. The terrible punishment was a warning to all who would defy or threaten the king.


Look at the Monteagle letter on the opposite page. Can you read any of it? It's not easy. It's not just the handwriting that's difficult. The words and the language differ from modern English too. Just see how many words you can read.


Even now we still have fireworks and a bonfire on the anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.

We often make a guy - supposedly a model of the villain, Guy Fawkes - and burn him on the bonfire. But how often do we actually remember the Gunpowder Plot when we do this? How many of the people at a bonfire or a firework display know the full story?

Some people believe that the Gunpowder Plot is a poor excuse for a celebration. It was a sad and tragic business for all concerned. Can you make a list of reasons why maybe we shouldn't use the plot as a reason for celebration?

On the other hand, most cultures have fireworks, and sometimes bonfires, at particular times of the year. Perhaps we should just regard Bonfire Night as an autumn festival - a time to build a big fire to drive away the darkness for a while before the days grow short and winter comes.


Ask pupils to:

* make a list of other occasions that are used for fireworks displays in this country and others;

* discuss if it would be better if we stopped celebrating the Gunpowder Plot and celebrated something else, Diwali for example?


In the North of England, many people traditionally eat a sticky, spicy cake called parkin.

Preheat oven to Gas 4180C350F.

Line a 20cm square baking tin with greaseproof paper.

100g plain wholewheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons ground ginger

100g medium oatmeal

50g dark brown sugar

100g black treacle

100g golden syrup

100g butter or margarine

175ml milk

1. Melt the sugar, treacle, syrup and butter together in a pan until just

dissolved, and allow to cool slightly.

2. Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

3. Add the milk to the sugar mixture, stir well, then stir this mixture

into the dry ingredients.

4. Pour into the tin. Bake for 1 hour, or until firm on top.

Are there any other bonfire night snacks you know about? What other bonfire

night traditions can you discover?


Much of the story of the Gunpowder Plot is open to debate. There has been a view, still held by some, that the whole affair was either engineered to discredit Catholics or at least was known about and allowed to go on almost to its conclusion.

This kind of dispute is common enough whenever there is a conspiracy against established authority. In more recent times the Reichstag Fire - the burning down of the Nazi Parliament in Germany - was for many years blamed on the Nazis themselves, who supposedly did it to justify persecution of their opponents.

Later still, civil rights workers in the Southern USA were often accused by law-and-order authorities of engineering atrocities against themselves. It's difficult enough in modern times to unravel the truth of these affairs. In the case of the Gunpowder Plot it's almost impossible.

Nevertheless, it's worth discussing with children whether it is right to celebrate an event the ingredients of which are anti-Catholic bigotry, attempted mass murder, and judicial punishment so brutal that even now we can hardly bear to take in the details, let alone tell children about them.

The plot thickens We remember Guy Fawkes because he was the one caught in the act. The leader, though, was Catesby.

The famous picture of the plotters couldn't have been drawn from life. As was often the case, it was deliberately arranged to suggest conspiracy and secrecy. Would you expect the artist to have drawn them looking cheerful and relaxed, with their families perhaps?

There's a point to be made about the way people are portrayed in historical documents.

Crime and punishment There's endless speculation about the exact nature and origin of the Monteagle letter. It's a good example, though, of the kind of document that historians have to work with - raising as many questions as it answers.

A penny for poor old Guy While it's not a good idea to go into the punishment in detail, can we trace a correlation between the growth of the media since the 17th century, the increasing likelihood of criminals being caught and the decline in the brutality of punishment since then?

If criminals aren't caught, and you have to rely on word of mouth, then as a deterrent, you make sure you punish them in a way that everyone gets to hear about. If there is a greater chance of catching criminals, and there are television news reports and newspapers to spread images of alleged wrongdoers, then there's no need to hang, draw and quarter anybody.

The "guy" is Guido - or Guy - Fawkes. And yet we don't make that connection do we? How do we feel about burning a guy if we know it's an effigy of a real man? After all, they don't burn his effigy at his old school, St Peter's, York.

Did he deserve his fate or was he trying to get justice in the only way he could think of?

Today Bonfire Night is like Diwali, the Fourth of July and New Year's Day - an occasion seen by many as simply an excuse to let off fireworks. The historical links are vestigial.

Are we right to "Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November"?

Other topics to discuss * Freedom of religious worship.

* The use of violence to achieve your ends.

* Torture as a means of getting the truth.

* The difficulty of getting at historical fact.

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