On this day four centuries ago, a man was seen with several barrels of gunpowder in the cellar of the Parliament, underneath the House of Lords. Let us go back to 1605, to the day the plan to blow up the English Parliament and assassinate the King was foiled.
“Remember, remember the fifth of November…” so opens a poem about the so-called Gunpowder Plot, which was popularized in the 2008 film V for Vendetta. But what did really happen on November 5th?
When Protestant monarch Elizabeth I died in 1604, English Catholics who experienced persecution under her rule were hopeful that the reign of her son, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. However, it never happened. So, for a small group led by Robert Catesby, there was no other way to achieve their cause, but a violent way.
The group came up with a plan to create an explosion on the day of the English Parliament’s state opening, ultimately killing the King and the rest of Parliament members who were giving Catholics the ill-treatment. To achieve this, the group obtained 36 barrels of gunpowder and placed them in a cellar beneath the House of Lords. One of the conspirators, a man with significant military experience, was tasked to handle the explosives. His name was Guy Fawkes.
As the days crept closer to the big day, it became clear to some of the conspirators that the planned explosion would bring harm to everyone—including the innocent, their fellow Catholics, and even some ardent advocates of their cause. With this in mind, one of the plotters probably penned an anonymous letter addressed to Lord Monteagle a few days beforehand, advising that he stay away from the Parliament.
From Monteagle, the letter eventually reached King James, who ordered his men to investigate the cellars below the Parliament. A search was conducted early in November 5th, 1605, and Guy Fawkes was found taking leave of the area shortly after midnight. The gunpowder barrels were also discovered, concealed beneath piles of coal and firewood.
On the very same day of the foiled explosion, Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires in celebration of the King’s escape from the assassination. An Act of Parliament declared November 5th as a day of thanksgiving, and was implemented until 1859. Centuries after, much of Great Britain still celebrates the day as Guy Fawkes Night (also called Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night, and Plot Night) with bonfires, fireworks, and burning of Guy Fawkes effigies.