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Bonfire Night for Politically Weary People

The core conspirators planned to rent a basement warehouse below the House of Lords, bring in barrels of gunpowder…

by Bob Kerstetter

For those tired of the political bickering worldwide, the eleventh month offers the story of Bonfire Night—a British festival also known on the British Isles as Guy Fawkes Night or Guy Fawkes Day.

Bonfire Night finds Britons lighting fires and fireworks—plus burning effigies of Guy Fawkes—to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Treason, sometimes called the Gunpowder Plot.

Kill the King to Gain Freedom

Made famous worldwide by his appearance in the film V for Vendetta, Fawkes—plus some friends—attempted to kill the royal family and members of Parliament. The dozen conspirators—about eight too many for success—hoped their actions would end religious persecution of Catholics in Great Britain. Devised by the trio of Robert Catesby, John Wright and Thomas Winter, the plan seemed simple.

V-for-Vendetta-Watching-V-on-ScreenFireworks on Bonfire Night celebrate the failure of the plot to kill British leaders. Guy Fawkes masks enjoy popularity because of the anarchist comic book and film V for Vendetta.

Rent a Warehouse, Build a Bomb, Find a Fuse Lighter

The core conspirators planned to rent a basement warehouse below the House of Lords, bring in barrels of gunpowder, camouflage the explosives with stacks of lumber, light the fuse and run. The trio later recruited Fawkes to their intrigue. They envisioned the self-controlled veteran of religious wars as an inconspicuous fuse lighter. No one in London knew Fawkes.

They set to work building their bomb. Several possible ground-zero days came and went. They eventually settled on November 5, 1605, parliamentary opening day.

Making Disciples Through War

While a fairly minor player in the Gunpowder Plot, Fawkes practiced religious warfare as a lifestyle. He entered life through Protestant parents in 1570. After his widowed mother married a devoted Catholic from Scotton, Yorkshire, Fawkes converted to Catholicism. He followed his stepfather into religious dedication—soon feeling the bite of sectarian discrimination and ingesting its bitterness.

Upon coming of age and inheriting the estate of his father, Fawkes liquidated most of his material assets. Rich with cash, he journeyed to Europe to fight as a soldier of fortune with Spain during the Eighty Years War. This struggle aligned Catholic Spain against its northern colonies, especially Dutch Protestants seeking freedom from religious persecution.

After gaining honors for his service, Fawkes unsuccessfully tried to enlist Spain to assist British Catholics. When he returned to England, Fawkes met gunpowder conspirator Winter who introduced him to Catesby. After laboring together for some time, the men became weary from the work and recruited other supporters.

Failure Through Compassion, Torture for Intelligence

As 5 November approached, some possible unintended consequences began to creep into the minds of the conspirators. The probability of killing Catholics serving in parliament especially troubled them. When they approached Winter and Catesby on this issue, their concerns met with unsympathetic replies—they should warn no one. But someone did.

Information leaked. The king's men discovered the explosives, watched for the conspirators to return and arrested Fawkes in the warehouse while he guarded the bomb. With permission from the king, the government tortured Guy Fawkes on the rack for several days to extract information.

V-for-Vendetta-Watching-V-on-ScreenHonoring the spirit of Guy Fawkes, the hero of the film V for Vendetta interrupts regular programming to deliver his message of freedom to the British people. He wears a Guy Fawkes mask and names his broadcasting network V TV.

Pursuit, Capture, Trial

The other plotters scattered—many dying while fighting those in pursuit. All of those captured faced trial. Being found guilty, all were hanged until half-dead. They were then disemboweled, quartered and fed as carrion to birds—or so the story goes.

The Gun Powder Treason ended. Religious persecution expanded, including exclusion from voting. The British Empire continued to grow. Love disappeared.

Resistance to Oppression

Today, Guy Fawkes symbolizes resistance to oppressive governments of all ideologies. Masks of his face enjoy widespread popularity because of the anarchist comic book and film V for Vendetta.

In early November we watch the film because we are a little weird. We also vote, but never wear Guy Fawkes masks.

For more information about the background of the Gun Powder Plot, religious persecution, voting and Bonfire Night, see this brief history by a Briton named Bruce Robinson.

In addition, the BBC posts an interesting video on the history and operations of fireworks.

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