Guy Fawkes: And the “Gunpowder Plot”
A BIG, bearded man, known as “Johnson,” aroused some idle curiosity by bidding in at auction the lease of a vault or coal cellar underneath the House of Lords in London. Johnson explained that he was the servant of Master Thomas Piercy, who lived next door to Parliament House, and that he wanted the vault as a storage place for fuel.
James I, was king of England. He had succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603. He was a scoundrel in a weak stilted way. He persecuted the Catholics, broke his solemn state promises, lied out of difficulties and in other ways made for himself a host of enemies. Parliament, for the most part, backed the king’s wishes. Hence Parliament shared his unpopularity.
A band of daring, if unscrupulous, men resolved to rid England of King James, the royal family and Parliament as well by the very simple means of destroying the whole lot at one blow. Their plan was to fill the cellars of the House of Lords with gunpowder. Then, on the day when the king and his family should come to open Parliament, to set a match to the powder and blow up every one in the building.
Robert Catesby, Thomas Piercy and eighteen others were in the conspiracy. They chose as the actual assassin a brave, heartless soldier of fortune whose real name is said to have been Guido Fox, but who is known to history as “Guy Fawkes.” No one knows whether Fawkes was to receive money for his deed or whether he consented to do it through hatred for King James.
In the early autumn of 1604 the conspirators began to cut a hole through the nine-foot wall between Piercy’s house and the Parliament cellars. Then, hearing the cellars were for rent, Fawkes hired them. After that the work went on easily and safely enough. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were rolled into the cellars and were covered with masses of wood. A train of powder was laid. Everything was ready.
Parliament was to meet on November 5, 1604. The king and most of the royal family were to be there. At a signal Fawkes was to light the powder train and was then to escape by ship to Flanders. The other conspirators were to kill or capture any members of the royal family who did not chance to be at Parliament’s opening.
No one betrayed this plot, which might have changed the history of the world. Yet it was discovered. The discovery came about in an odd way.
One of the conspirators — which one was never known — was a friend of Lord Monteagle, a noted English statesman. He sent Monteagle an anonymous letter, begging him to keep away from the opening of Parliament. Monteagle, not sure whether or not the warning was a joke, showed it to the secretary of state.
The secretary laughed at it as a hoax, but was induced to show it to the king. James (who was so cowardly that the sight of a sword used to make him ill) fell into a frenzy of fear. On the night of Nov. 4 he ordered Parliament house searched. As the searchers neared the cellars they met Guy Fawkes coming out. He was seized before he could dart back and the place was ransacked.
The sight of so large a pile of wood roused suspicion. The wood was cleared away and the gunpowder barrels were discovered. Fawkes, raving with helpless fury, strove in vain to set fire to the gunpowder and to die with his enemies. He was overpowered and dragged before the king. There he made surly, contemptuous answers to all questions and refused to betray his accomplices. But torture at last made him speak. The conspirators were seized and most of them were executed — Fawkes last of all. An old chronicle gives the following account of his farewell to the world:
“This very tall and desperate fellow . . . made no long speech, but (after a sort), seeming sorry for his offense, asked a kind of forgiveness of the king and the state for his bloody intent.”
All Europe shuddered over England’s narrow escape. The fifth of November was ordained by King James “to be observed forever as a day of thanksgiving.” For centuries thereafter Nov. 5 was celebrated throughout England much as we celebrate July 4. Amid bonfires and noise Guy Fawkes was burned in effigy. Even now the cellars of the houses of Parliament are regularly “searched” in memory of a government’s old-time peril.
So, for more than three hundred years after his death, Guy Fawkes has had the honor of an annual “Day” — a privilege denied to most heroes and accorded perhaps to no other blackguard.
The Newark Advocate (Newark, Ohio) Dec 28, 1912