Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, is one of Britain’s more unique holidays. Celebrated every year on 5 November, it commemorates the thwarted attempt by Guy Fawkes and several other conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament and all inside them, including the king, James I, in 1605.
The event is often commemorated by the rhyme, “remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.”
On Bonfire Night, effigies of Guy Fawkes are traditionally burnt and fireworks let off – a reminder of the huge explosion that would have happened had the plot not been foiled.
But what was the Gunpowder Plot actually about, and how did it unfold? Here are 10 facts about one of the most iconic events in English history.
1. The plot sprang from King James I’s lack of tolerance for Catholics
Under Elizabeth I, Catholicism in England had been tolerated to a certain extent. The new Protestant Scottish King James I was far less tolerant than many Catholics had hoped, going as far as to exile all Catholic priests and reimpose the collection of fines for recusancy (refusing to attend Protestant church services).
As such, many Catholics began to feel that life under the rule of King James was almost unbearable: they began to look for ways in which they could remove him (including through assassination).
2. Guy Fawkes wasn’t the leader of the plot
Even though Guy Fawkes’ name has become the most famous, the leader of the plotters was actually an English Catholic called Robert Catesby. Catesby had been involved in the Earl of Essex’s 1601 rebellion under Elizabeth I and found himself increasingly frustrated by the new king’s lack of tolerance.
3. The plotters first met in 1604
By the spring of 1604, Catesby had clearly decided that his plan was to kill the king and government by blowing up the Houses of Parliament: the location was symbolic as it was where the laws restricting Catholicism had been passed.
The first recorded meeting of the initial plotters (Catesby, Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes) was on 20 May 1604 at a pub called the Duck and Drake. The group swore an oath of secrecy and celebrated Mass together.
4. The plan was delayed by an outbreak of plague
The opening of Parliament in February 1605 was the original target for the plotters, but on Christmas Eve 1604, it was announced the opening would be pushed back until October due to concerns about an outbreak of plague that winter.
The plotters reconvened in March 1605, by which stage they had several new co-conspirators: Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Christopher Wright.
5. The conspirators rented an undercroft by the House of Lords
In March 1605, the conspirators purchased the lease on an undercroft alongside a passageway called Parliament Place. It was directly underneath the first floor of the House of Lords, and it was later suggested that it was once part of the medieval kitchen of the palace. By this time, however, it was out of use and practically derelict.
The plan was to transfer gunpowder and explosives from Catesby’s house in Lambeth to the undercroft, rowing it across the Thames in the dead of night so it was stockpiled ready for Parliament’s opening.
6. The aim was to kill King James and put his daughter Elizabeth on the throne
The plotters knew that there was no use killing the Protestant king if they didn’t have a plan in place for a Catholic to succeed him. As such, the plan actually had two parts: blowing up Parliament and capturing his daughter Elizabeth, who was based at Coombe Abbey in the Midlands.
Elizabeth was only 9 years old at this point, but the conspirators believed she would be pliable and that they could use her as a puppet queen, marrying her off to a Catholic prince or noble of their choosing.
7. No one knows who betrayed the conspirators
Everything was set: the gunpowder loaded, the plotters ready. But someone betrayed them. Lord Monteagle, a peer who was planning to attend the opening of Parliament, was tipped off by an anonymous letter handed to one of his servants on the road.
Monteagle rode to London and passed it on to relevant authorities and nobles. The king was alerted to a possible assassination attempt on 1 November 1605.
No one is sure who tipped off Monteagle, though many think it was his brother-in-law, Francis Tresham.
8. Guy Fawkes was apprehended on 4 November 1605
Authorities began searching the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament. No one was quite sure of the exact nature of the plot at that point, but they began to look for things that were amiss.
In one of the undercrofts, they found a large pile of firewood, with a man next to it: he told the guards that it belonged to his master, Thomas Percy, who was a known Catholic agitator. The man in question, although his name was not known yet, was Guy Fawkes.
Another, more thorough search party later in the day found Fawkes in a similar spot, dressed this time in a cloak, hat and spurs. He was arrested and taken for questioning. A quick search showed up a pocket watch, matches and kindling.
When the firewood and the undercroft were inspected, officials discovered 36 barrels of gunpowder.
9. Investigators used torture to extract details of the plot
Precise details about the plot are surprisingly hard to elicit. Guy Fawkes did give a ‘full confession’, but the question of whether he was tortured or not remains unclear. It is therefore difficult to tell how much of his confession is true and how much is what he thought his jailers wanted to hear from him under immense pressure.
Thomas Wintour was also caught and interrogated. His confession was published 2 weeks after that of Guy Fawkes, and it elicited much more detailed information as he was more involved in the conspiracy from the start.
10. The plotters were dealt with brutally
Catesby and Percy had been killed as they were captured. Their bodies were exhumed and decapitated, before their heads were put on spikes outside the House of Lords.
8 other conspirators, including Fawkes and Wintour, were hanged, drawn and quartered in front of large crowds in January 1606.