During much of the sixteenth century, England was wracked by violence between Catholics and Protestants. Hundreds of Protestants were executed during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–1558), earning her the nickname of “Bloody Mary.” Her Protestant successor, Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) returned the favor by persecuting and killing Catholics. She was followed by James I, whose Catholic mother had been executed. James’s wife had recently converted to Catholicism.
English Catholics therefore hoped he would be more tolerant than Elizabeth. While the number of executions dropped off, James ordered Catholic priests to leave England and said that Protestantism was the one true faith. Despairing Catholics decided on a desperate measure. They would assassinate James and install his nine-old-daughter Elizabeth as a Catholic monarch.
The plotters secreted three dozen barrels of gunpowder in the basement beneath the House of Lords a few days before the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters, planned to ignite a fuse when King James entered the chamber and then scurry to safety. With most members of Parliament and other high officials dead in the explosion, the resulting chaos would make it easier for the schemers to seize control of the government.
However, some of the conspirators realized that this plan would kill a lot of innocent people, including Catholics. So in late October, one of them sent an anonymous warning letter to a Catholic Member of Parliament. He passed along the message to the king’s guardians. Shortly after midnight on November 5, a search party discovered Fawkes and the concealed gunpowder. He was tortured for several days to reveal the names of the other conspirators and then executed. His body was hacked into several pieces. The grisly chunks were displayed in several parts of England as a warning to would-be traitors.
In celebration of the king’s salvation, many people lit bonfires on the night of the discovery. That began a tradition that continues to this day in what is known as Bonfire Night. Tonight in nations of the British Empire, revelers, many wearing Guy Fawkes apparel, are shooting off fireworks and building huge bonfires to burn effigies of the man regarded as England’s most notorious traitor.
Happy Guy Fawkes Day!
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