Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November

The Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

A bonfire on Guy Fawkes' Day. (Photo © Andrew Holt/Getty Images)

A British Holiday, With a Catholic Connection

Throughout the United Kingdom, November 5 is Guy Fawkes' Day. On that day in 1605, a conspiracy by Guy Fawkes and other Catholics to blow up the English Parliament and assassinate King James I was uncovered. While James I had promised toleration for Catholics, political pressures compelled him to continue the anti-Catholic policies of Queen Elizabeth I.

Fawkes and his coconspirators began stockpiling gunpowder to place underneath the Parliament building, which is why the conspiracy is usually known as "the Gunpowder Plot."

The Conspiracy Backfired, and Anti-Catholicism Increased

After the conspirators were put to death (by hanging, drawing, and quartering), some of King James's government ministers attempted to implicate the Catholic Church, and the two Jesuit priests who had heard the conspirators' last Confessions were arrested. Both priests, however, refused to break the seal of the confessional, and one, Father Garnett, paid with his life. Meanwhile, the government of James I increased the persecution of Catholics.

Celebrating an Insurrection

Over time, Guy Fawkes' Day became a legal holiday, celebrated with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes and, often, the pope. Today, it would seem odd to us to celebrate a day of attempted insurrection with joyful activities; imagine "celebrating" the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of Osama bin Laden in effigy!

But the development of Guy Fawkes' Day is an indication of how seriously the British took the divisions between the Church of England and the Catholic Church, and how great a threat Catholicism was seen to be at the time—not just religiously but politically. 

The legal holiday was repealed in 1859, and, in recent years, popular celebration of Guy Fawkes' Day has begun to wane, though fireworks and bonfires are still fairly common.

Today, Guy Fawkes is probably better known through the masks used by the anarchists in the 2005 film V for Vendetta

Memorialized in a Poem

One poem about the Gunpowder Plot took on the nature of a nursery rhyme, and because of it Guy Fawkes' Day is unlikely ever to pass out of the popular imagination, even among people who don't know the historical event to which it refers:

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

More on Guy Fawkes' Day and the Gunpowder Plot