Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Bonfire Night

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Tonight is Guy Fawkes night (or bonfire night) in the UK when we set off fireworks, build bonfires and burn the unfortunate Mr Fawkes in effigy. In the week leading up to November 5th, kids around the country will make a stuffed "Guy" doll and wheel him round the neighborhood asking "penny for the Guy" (kind of a trick or treat thing). Poor old Guy then goes on the bonfire. But where did this odd tradition and behavior come from?

Back in 1605, things were not so good for British catholics. Elizabeth I had died but her successor James I was no less tolerant of their religion. For them it was worse than the Thatcher years. So a group of disgruntled catholics got together over a few beers after the football one night (proper football that is, the one you play with your feet) and came up with a great idea - they were going to blow up Parliament, thus getting rid of the King and all the members of Parliament who were making life so difficult. They even came up with a great name for it - the Gunpowder plot. Brilliant.

Throughout the summer of that year, the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder and hid them in a cellar they rented directly beneath Parliament. After all, who would ever suspect a bunch of shady characters wheeling in barrel after barrel of gunpowder? Apparently nobody. One of the conspirators - Guy Fawkes - was given the job of watching over the stash and lighting the fuse before fleeing overseas and spreading the good news. Happy days. It is believed he got this job because of his military experience with explosives and because of his magnificent moustache. Me, I think he just drew the short straw.

Unfortunately, one of the other plotters was not the sharpest tool in the box and sent an anonymous letter to his friend - Lord Monteagle - warning him to stay away from Parliament on November 5th (there are many theories as to who the letter writer was, but nobody really knows - the letter can be seen today in the National archives). The warning eventually got to the King, and his soldiers searched the cellar in the early hours of November 5th, apprehending Guy Fawkes at the door. A few days of enthusiastic torture (fetch the comfy chair!!!) and out popped the names of the other conspirators. Fair play to Fawkes though, he held out for four days while being subjected to unthinkably horrific tortures such as the rack, the manacles and non-stop Barry Manilow songs. This allowed the other conspirators time to flee. Unfortunately they didn't get very far and were either killed or captured in a siege at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. Those lucky survivors were then dragged through the streets of London to be gruesomely hung, drawn and quartered. This happy reunion included the unfortunate Fawkes, who was so crippled from the torture he could hardly climb the scaffold. Still, at least it wiped the smirk off his face. On the plus side, he was at least allowed to keep the magnificent moustache. In fact, it was put on display. Along with his head. On a spike.

The night he was captured, Londoners lit bonfires to celebrate the safety of the king, and the tradition has continued through to the modern day, though the more cynical of us sometimes wonder whether we are celebrating the foiling of the plot or honoring his attempt to blow up the Government :-)

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