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Guy Fawkes Day - 5 November

History of Guy Fawkes

     Guy Fawkes was part of the group of English Catholics who fomented the so-called Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Their plan was to blow up the House of Lords on the day King James I would attend the State Opening of England's Parliament (on 5 November 1605). The plot was revealed by an anonymous letter and most of the conspirators were arrested, including Fawkes who was discovered during a search of the House of Lords on the eve of the assassination attempt: he was guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder...

     The conspirators were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered which was the traditional punishment for traitors. Public executions were largely attended by the Londoners at the time. Here is for instance the description of the sentence of Philip Howard, convicted for treachery in 1589: "That he should be conveyed to the place from whence he came, and from thence to the place of execution, and there to be hanged until he were half dead, his members cut off, his bowels to be cast into the fire, his head to be cut off…" Such displays were orchestrated by public authorities not only to show to potential traitors what could happen to them but also to entertain the masses who were keen on this sort of entertainment.

     This contemporary engraving shows the various steps of the spectacular execution of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. The severed heads of the traitors were displayed above the gate of London Bridge as a reminder of what awaited those found guilty of treason.

Bonfire Night

     In the months that followed the failed assassination attempt, Londoners started lighting bonfires to celebrate the demise of Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators. In the wake of this spontaneous popular reaction, the authorities introduced the Observance of 5th November Act that enforced an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot's failure. Here is an extract from the observance:
Forasmuch as almighty God hath in all ages showed his power and mercy in the miraculous and gracious deliverance of his church, and in the protection of religious kings and states, and that no nation of the earth hath been blessed with greater benefit than this kingdom now enjoyeth, having the same true and free profession of the gospel under our most gracious sovereign lord King James, the most great learned and religious king that ever reigned therein, enriched with a most helpful and plentiful progeny proceeding out of his royal loins promising continuance of this happiness and profession to all posterity: the which many malignant and devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests much envying and fearing, conspired most horribly, when the king's most excellent majesty, the queen, the prince, and the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, should have been assembled in the upper house of Parliament upon the fifth day of November in the year of our lord 1605 suddenly to have blown up the said house with gunpowder, an invention so inhuman, barbarous and cruel, as the like was never before heard of.

     The Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was known in the early seventeenth century, became an object of official commemoration. The puritans encouraged the celebration as it fostered the anti-Catholic feelings in England. The anti-Catholic rhetoric was toned down in the course of the nineteenth century and Guy Fawkes Day became what it still is today: a popular celebration involving bonfires, firework displays and songs: "Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot."

Websites dedicated to Guy Fawkes Day

- Interactive quiz on the BBC website
Answer the questions and save King James I.

- The Guardian, guide to the plot
What could have been the consequences of the explosion?

- The Gunpowder Plot Society
Concise history of the events with primary sources.

- Confession of Guy Fawkes
Facsimile on the National Archives website.

- Lesson plan
Teaching activities from The National Archives.

- British Council activities
Worksheets and online exercises on Bonfire Night.

- Exploding the legend
ITV re-enactment of what could have been the explosion of the House of Lords.

- Victorian illustrations
Postcards and illustrations from the Victorian era.

- Bonfire Night safety
A website for a safe celebration...

Pour citer ces ressources :

Clifford Armion. 11/2013. "Guy Fawkes Day - 5 November".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 9 septembre 2016.
Consulté le 22 janvier 2018.
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Mise à jour le 9 septembre 2016
Créé le 4 novembre 2013
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues