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Monday, November 3, 1997 Published at 18:26 GMT

Background: Briefings

Britain prepares to light the blue touch paper - stand well back!

Britain's best loved traitor aims to bring the House down

The bonfires that were once burned on Hallowe'en to ward off evil spirits are now lit on November 5 to commemorate Guy Fawkes Night. Also known as Bonfire Night, the festival celebrates the memory of Britain's best-loved traitor, Guy Fawkes, who was part of a group that tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1604.

Bonfire Night celebrations are spectacular events, often held in private back gardens, though firework safety worries have led to the increased popularity of large, organised displays. After the fireworks, a 'Guy' -- an effigy of Guy Fawkes, often made by children -- is thrown on to a bonfire.


In 1603, King James I arrived from Scotland to succeed to the throne. Even after the break with Rome during the reign of his predecessor, Elizabeth I, Catholicism retained many followers in Stuart Britain. Despite initial indications to the contrary, James I did nothing to alter the Protestant status quo.

When the King's Chief Minister, Sir Robert Cecil, banished all Jesuits and Catholic priests in 1604, a group of thirteen Catholic conspirators, with the charismatic Robert 'Robin' Catesby at the helm, decided it was time to take action in the name of God and their beleaguered Catholic kinsmen.

The gunpowder plot

Guy Fawkes, a thirty-three-year-old professional soldier was hired by Robert Catesby and his fellow conspirators Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, John Wright and Robert Keyes to blow up the House of Lords -- then Britain's primary legislative body. Guy, known also as Guido, was a fanatical Catholic and an expert in laying explosives.

On Sunday, 20th May, 1604, the gunpowder treason was initiated at a meeting of the conspirators at the Duck and Drake Inn in the Strand. The plan was a simple one: to blow up the House of Lords and the King at the State Opening of Parliament in February the following year. The King and other members of the Royal Family would be killed and the building where anti-Papist legislation was passed would be demolished.

After the meeting, the plotters left London for the country, content in the knowledge that they had until February to perfect their plan. After returning to the capital in early October, the plotters learned that renewed fears of the plague had postponed the Opening of Parliament for eight months. The new date for the ceremony would be Tuesday, 5th November. Unabashed, they went on to recruit more conspirators to their number.

In October, the final details of the plot were decided. By 25th March, 1605, two houses close to the House of Lords, had been leased to Thomas Percy. One of the properties had a coal cellar which lay directly beneath the House of Lords. Thirty six barrels of gunpowder were placed there beneath piles of firewood.

Guido Fawkes stayed in London under the alias 'John Johnson'. It would be his job to light the gunpowder fuse in the cellar before making his escape by boat to the continent. Other members of the group would head for the Midlands, where they planned to start a Catholic 'stir' before abducting Princess Elizabeth as a 'puppet' queen.

According to official Parliament records, the plot was discovered when a mysterious coded letter of warning was sent to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, who was due to be in Parliament when the barrels exploded. The letter was passed to the King, who informed his government of the threat.

Although the group learned of the leak and surmised that a traitor lay amongst them, they did not know to what extent word had spread and continued with the plot. The written betrayal led to the discovery and subsequent arrest of 'John Johnson' when the cellar was searched just a few hours before Parliament was to meet.

In the Commons Journal of the time, the spectacular discovery is recorded as a mere marginal note:

"This last night, the Upper House of Parliament was searched by Sir Thomas Knyvett, and one Johnson, servant to Mr Thomas Percy, was there apprehended, who had placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the vault under the House with a purpose to blow [up] it and the whole company when they should here assemble."

Conspiracy theory

Suspicions that the plot may have been set up to undermine growing support for Catholic opponents of the government have become popular in recent times. The plans might have been laid -- or backed -- by agents-provocateurs, anxious to set up as traitors a band of gullible men and thus reinforce the ascendancy of Protestantism from the wave of popular revulsion which was likely to result.

Although the Gunpowder Plot failed, Catholics became less popular in England than ever before. Whether the leaked letter was genuine, from a fellow Catholic concerned about Montague's welfare, or whether it was a forgery and leaked from within government circles, remains a mystery.

Trial and executions

'Johnson' was taken to the Tower of London where he was tortured. He was hung by his wrists in manacles and stretched on the rack. Forty eight hours later, and with a broken body, he revealed his true identity as Guido Fawkes and admitted that five people were involved in the plot.

Maintaining a scornful attitude, he bravely refused to give away the names of his friends until he learned that their identities were no secret to the government, and that some of the plotters had already been killed.

Following his barely legible signed confession, Fawkes was condemned to death. He was hung, drawn and quartered - on Friday, 31st January, 1606, in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. Other members of the group had been variously hunted down and shot by Cecil's men and were captured, tortured and executed in the same manner.

Members of Parliament went on to ordain the 5th of November as a day of thanksgiving for their narrow escape, and the bonfire tradition began.

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