“Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.” 

These words, known to many British residents from childhood, refer to an event that happened more than 400 years ago – The Gunpowder Plot. Each year since 1605 Guy Fawkes Night (also known as bonfire Night) has been celebrated on Nov 5th throughout Great Britain and the Commonwealth. It is a day to celebrate the foiling of a conspiracy to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament, a plot that is pivotal to Equivocation, a contemporary play by Bill Cain playing on the Studio Stage next season at Bard. In it, King James’ factotum Sir Robert Cecil charges William Shakespeare with writing the “true history” of Guy Fawkes and the thwarted Gunpowder Plot. The famous playwright then tries to discover where the fiction stops and where the facts may lead. 

So, we thought it fitting to commemorate this day by sharing some of the details of this strange story and the traditions that have resulted from it. 

The conspirators. Engraving by Crispijn van de Passe.

The plot itself was planned for the annual Opening of Parliament on Nov 5th 1605. A collection of “Catholic extremists”, including some Jesuit priests, decided to retaliate against the last 50 years of Catholic repression by the British government and monarchy. At that time, Catholic worship was illegal and fines were imposed on those who failed to attend Anglican services. That specific day was chosen because King James I would be attending that day with his family for the ceremonies. 

Guy Fawkes was one of many conspirators, not the creator or leader of the plot, but it is his name that has become forever associated with the infamous event. 

Ironically, Guy Fawkes was born a Protestant but later converted to Catholicism because of his close relationship with his stepfather – a seemingly harmless decision at the time but one that would ultimately cost Fawkes his life. He left England at twenty-three to fight for Catholic Spain against the Dutch. During this war he sealed his fate by becoming an explosives expert specializing in the intricate skills needed to blow-up buildings.

While overseas Fawkes was sought out by Thomas Wintour and then Robert Catesby, two of the Plot’s instigators, and in the spring of 1604 he agreed to join them. The initial plan involved the men digging a tunnel under Parliament but this proved too slow going and difficult to conceal, and so a small cellar was rented below the House of Lords. The room was filled with two tonnes of explosives and covered with irons bars and bundles of wood. An anonymous letter was sent to one of the Lords on October 26th warning him not to attend parliament on opening day. The houses were searched and although the large amounts of wood in the cellar room aroused suspicion the explosives were not discovered. The conspirators felt the letter was sufficiently vague to allow them to continue with their plans, although many of them fled London at this point. Fawkes agreed to stay to keep vigil and ultimately light the fuse.  Around midnight on November 4th, a second search was conducted of the cellar and the explosives were discovered. Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London and tortured. Many innocent people were interrogated or killed during the search for the conspirators, but finally several were found.  It is said that the signatures on their confession statements were unrecognizable due to their weakened and tortured states. 

Ironically it has been argued that the gunpowder they were planning to use was too old to be of any use even it had not been discovered. 

On January 31st the last four conspirators were taken outside the Houses of Parliament, the site of their intended crime, and hung, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes was made to watch his fellow colluders die before being subjected to the same fate. It is a little known fact that Fawkes managed to muster up enough strength to throw his broken body from the gallows breaking his neck with the fall and so avoiding the terrifying death intended for him.

On Nov 5th 1605, Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires throughout the city to celebrate the foiling of the plot. Since then the lighting of bonfires became a tradition and has continued for more than 400 years.  Effigies of Fawkes, guys, were fashioned out of rags, stuffed with hay or paper, and burned on top of pyres. Today fireworks displays are also associated with the evening, burning the same powder that Fawkes himself used so long ago. Children pull their guys on carts around the streets asking for “a penny for the guy” to buy fireworks. Potatoes wrapped in foil are cooked on the bonfires and a traditional Parkin Cake, a sticky cake containing a mix of oatmeal, ginger, treacle and syrup, is eaten along with sausages and marshmallows. 

To this day the opening of each new session of Parliament is headed by the traditional searching of the basement by the Yeoman of the Guard, even though the actual cellar used by Fawkes has long since perished.

Next summer you will see Equivocation’s main character, Shag (a nickname for Shakespeare), struggle with his commission from King James I to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot. His words, “I can’t! It isn’t dramatic. Nothing happens.” He is right. Nothing happened. The explosives were discovered hours before the fuse could be lit. It was simply a failure.
And yet, when you watch the play unfold and see the characters of Robert Catesby and Thomas Wintour live again, over four hundred years after their deaths, you may reconsider whether Fawkes did light a fuse that infamous night so long ago – a fuse that has been burning ever since.

An effigy of Guy Fawkes about to be burned as part of the Lewes 5th November celebrations. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Post by Jennifer McDonald