“Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. We see no reason why the gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot”.
Even if you aren’t British, you’ll recognise the above, but do you know the real story behind the day that has you setting off fireworks late into the night, while people are trying to sleep?
It’s a bit weird that so many South Africans celebrate Guy Fawkes Day (and Night). It has very little to do with us – but I guess some people just like to cause havoc.
So, before you start stocking up on next year’s fireworks, here’s what the day is actually about.
Every year Brits gather in parks and yards to watch dummies burn on bonfires, while fireworks light up the sky, reports The Telegraph.
The festivities that we associate with Guy Fawkes Day, however, are a far cry from their origins, which were shrouded in religious tension and a foiled assassination attempt.
November 5 commemorates the failure of the November 1605 Gunpowder Plot by a gang of Roman Catholic activists led by Warwickshire-born Robert Catesby.
When Protestant King James I acceded to the throne, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution they had felt for over 45 years under Queen Elizabeth I would finally end, and they would be granted the freedom to practice their religion.
When this didn’t transpire, a group of conspirators resolved to assassinate the King and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament.
Guy (real name Guido – not kidding) Fawkes, from New York, and his fellow conspirators were able to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building.
Fun fact – physicists from the Institute of Physics calculated that the 2 500 kilograms of gunpowder beneath Parliament would have obliterated an area 500 metres from the centre of the explosion.
The scheme began to unravel when an anonymous letter was sent to William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him to avoid the House of Lords.
The letter (which could well have been sent by Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law Francis Tresham), was made public and this led to a search of Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5.
Fawkes, who was an explosive expert, was caught by a group of guards who discovered him in the cellars at the last moment. He was arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave up his co-conspirators – all of whom were either killed trying to escape arrest or, like Fawkes, tried, convicted, and executed.
The traditional death for traitors in 17th-century England was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in public. But this proved not to be the 35-year-old Fawkes’s fate.
As he awaited his punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt off the platform to avoid having his testicles cut off, his stomach opened and his guts spilled out before his eyes.
Mercifully for him, he died from a broken neck but his body was subsequently quartered, and his remains were sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others.
The day was declared a holiday of thanksgiving to commemorate the failure of the plot, and the first celebration took place in 1606.
Today, the Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the state opening, which has been held in November since 1928.
The idea is to ensure no modern-day Guy Fawkes is hiding in the cellars with a bomb, although it is more ceremonial than serious. And they do it with lanterns.
The cellar that Fawkes tried to blow up no longer exists. In 1834 it was destroyed in a fire which devastated the medieval Houses of Parliament. The lantern Guy Fawkes carried in 1605 is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
At the celebration, straw dummies representing Fawkes are tossed onto a bonfire, as well as those of contemporary political figures.
Traditionally, these effigies called ‘guys’, are carried through the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day and children ask passers-by for “a penny for the guy.” Today the word ‘guy’ is a synonym for ‘a man’ but originally it was a term for an “repulsive, ugly person” in reference to Fawkes.
Pens down, because that’s your history lesson over.
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