This week British people will be celebrating Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. They are celebrating the safety of the king, because in 1605 King James I almost didn’t live to see November 6th. On the other hand, there may not have been any risk at all. I smell intrigue!
Like most violent historical events, this one is also about religion. For 50 years, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England with a rather anti-Catholic attitude. The Catholics in England were optimistic for change when King James I came into power in 1603, but the same attitude prevailed. In the name of religious freedom a plot was hatched to blow up the parliament building along with everybody inside, including the king and many other officials who were down on Catholics. The theory being they could get a fresh start in the morning, the princess would be forced to marry a Catholic prince, and life would go on.
A group of 13 men planned the attack, but things went south on night of the 4th, and Guy Fawkes was discovered by guards waiting in the Parliament cellar with 36 barrels of gunpowder. Over the next few days, the men were rounded up, tortured into extravagant confessions, then publicly hanged, drawn and quartered. (which means they were killed once, then killed again for show) The citizens of London immediately started a big old party to celebrate the king being alive, a tradition which continues today.
There are a few details of the story which don’t quite add up, and the theory is that the whole plot was discovered by the government early on but they let it play out, and indeed manipulated the events, in order to act on their own political agenda. (which included the killing of two Catholic Jesuits who were “mentioned” by the tortured prisoners)
Part of the celebrations of Bonfire Night, still practiced today, is throwing a Guy Fawkes dummy into the flames. Sometimes a dummy of a Catholic Pope is thrown in for good measure. (I’m assured this is just for the sake of tradition rather than religious intolerance) Occasionally a modern politician look-alike gets tossed in as well, for good measure.
Another tradition that remains from 1605 is that on the one day a year the monarch enters the Parliament building, the cellar is first checked and secured by the royal guard. Again, it’s pretty much just ceremonial, but hey, better safe than sorry.