Friday, November 5, 2010

Guy Fawkes Day (That's today)

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

I must tell you that on the day I started this blog a couple years back, all that I knew about Guy Fawkes was... um... nothing, actually.

Today, I know a little bit more about the holiday, though I still don't know why you would want to have a holiday for such a man. It is as if we in the U.S. were to have a Benedict Arnold Day, or, more to the point of bombing government buildings, a Bill Ayers Day. Now, if you were to have a "Burning Guy Fawkes in Effigy Day," that I would understand. I am going to use this space today to tell you what I've learned about Guy Fawkes.

First, a couple of really cool words I have added to my vocabulary:

1. Recusant

2. Undercroft

Recusant: a person who refuses to submit to an authority or to comply with a regulation. Primarily refers to historic Roman Catholics in England who refused to attend the Church of England.

Undercroft: a basement or cellar under a building, often bricked and with vaulted ceilings. Used for storage, of, say, gunpower or like that.

Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) was born in York. His father died when he was eight years old and his mother then married a recusant Catholic. Fawkes himself converted to Catholicism and emigrated to Spain. Where there were a LOT of Catholic folk.

As often happens with religion, Spain fought the 80 Years War with the Protestant Dutch just because, and Guy (called "Guido" by the Spanish) took part and became a fairly knowledgeable soldier. I don't know how long the war lasted. I'm guessing Guido was a demolition man, but I don't know that for sure. Somewhere along the way I'll bet he learned to speak Spanish. According to another unreliable source (Wikipedia being the first) it is said that when he was about to be drawn and quartered, he shouted, "Ole! Ole!" just before he jumped. Only this source had two upside down exclamation marks and mine doesn't.

Sometime after his military discharge, Guido, having fallen in with a bad crowd, thought it would be a good idea to return to England and kill King James I. As you do.

Security being not quite what it is today in our airports, the conspirators were able to rent some storage space in the undercroft under Parliament. "Hire," I mean. They have since installed motion detectors and retired security guards down there. But, back then, it didn't occur to anyone that renting out space under Parliament to people who frothed at the mouth was anything unusual.

Quickly, the protestant-hating renegades moved in a couple megatons of explosives and chose Guido F. to guard the stuff until D-Day.

Someone who either loved James or hated Guido sent an anonymous letter to the authorities, though, and in the early morning of 5 November, 1605, the coppers came arrestingly, and read the hapless G.F. his rights.

"You have the right to be tortured until you confess." And, before long, Guido broke. As you do.

Yes, Guido broke from the torture (no pun intended) and the hanging/quarter-drawing was scheduled for January next.

Well, getting more or less right to the point, on 31 January 1606, standing on the gallows and a-waitin' his hanging, no doubt freezing his treasonous arse in the January breeze, contemplating the agony that was awaiting him at the drawing and quartering party which was scheduled after the half-hanging (partial strangulation, actually) and came to the obvious conclusion: "Fuck this!" and jumped off the scaffold and broke his neck. By breaking his neck, he thus avoided hanging and... um... breaking his neck. He showed them.

But, truly - and there is no real reason not to throw in a tidbit of truth here - back then they didn't hang you like we think of hanging. No, when that many people show up for the show, they drug it out more. So instead of dropping you with a rope around your neck, they slowly RAISED you with a rope around your neck. When you turned purple enough, they took the rope off and brought you back to consciousness, then they had four horses yank your arms and legs off your torso. Then you just sort of lay there looking up at the sky, blinking rapidly, yearning for some pain killers. I assume. Piking your head was then optional. This was supposed to act as a deterrent for any would-be traitors in the viewing audience. It probably did.

Since Guy Fawkes was to be hanged and then drawn and quartered, of course the British celebrate this event with bonfires and fireworks. Go figure.

You'd think they'd hold horse-pulling contests or something.


  1. But the bonfire is for burning poor old Guy. I haven't seen it done for a long time, but children used to make a guy, tout it around the streets to collect money for fireworks, and in the end the guy would be burned on the bonfire. Is that not as good as a horse pulling contest?

    Children aren't allowed buy fireworks other than sparklers these days so I suppose that's why you don't see anyone asking, "Penny for the guy?" any more. It's a bit of a shame, especially that the event is being overtaken by the more commercial Halloween.

  2. For one thing it was James VI & I who was King over two kingdoms, not James I.
    There is a possibility that Guy was set up, and the catching him red handed was propaganda rather than police work. There is no holiday for this but folks still set off bonfires, light noisy fireworks (several days in advance) and wonder who Guy Fawkes actually was. None really care about the actual event except I reckon in Northern Ireland. Any excuse for a riot there!

  3. A weird piece of history. I think I would have jumped, too, given the alternative.

  4. Actually the 'holiday' is as a result of the intended victim King James ruling that the discovery of the plot and saving of His Majesty's government from terrorists was such a momentous event it should commemorated each year....which is why an effigy of Guy is a warning. It also had the dual purpose of toadying to the crowds a bit ("have a festival, go on") plus reminded them that the score so far was King James = 1, Guido Fawkes = 0.

  5. @A. - Listen carefully. :) They HANGED him. They didn't burn him at the stake. They didn't shake sparklers in his face. They HANGED him. Or would have if he hadn't had his little premature trajection.

    Ok, later down in the comments, you will see where this gets explained to me. See, I was thinking you were commemorating GF's death. When, in reality, you are celebrating Nelson's pre-Halloween victory at Trafalgar 200 years later. 1805, not 1605. Hence the fireworks. Rather convoluted, but now I understand. :)

  6. Incidentally, I tried your "Penny for Guy" thing tonight as it was getting dark. The old lady dow the street stuck a large fork in my belly instead of giving me a penny. Maybe I should have dressed after taking my shower before I knocked on her door.

    Thanks a lot for a great idea. I owe you. :)

  7. I think it was really my Guy hat with the Pilgrim buckle that set her off though.

  8. @punctuation - Thank you for stopping by today. If I'd known you were coming I would have cleaned the place up a bit. And thank you for finally telling me why people celebrate. Makes sense now. I hope everyone here will visit your fine blog.

  9. @Adullamite - Guy Fawkes may have been set up? Let's see...

    There were three conspirators: Guy's army buddy Thomas Wintour, Robert Catesby, a guy Fawkes had just met who was obsessed with killing King James I. I mean King James VI and I. (Did you know, btw, that is where the saying, "Six of one, half dozen of the other" came from?)

    Now, only those three knew about the plot. Except for Catesby's daughter Kate, whom Catesby was having an incestuous affair with at the time of the plot. Fawkes' mother, Edith, also knew of the plot.

    What I am telling you now is known by only a few people, so I hope you will use discretion if you happen to see this comment and decide to respond.

    As it turned out, Guy (on religious grounds) condemned Bob Catesby's revolting affair with Kate. But when Guy found out Catesby was after Guy's mother as well, he just lost his head completely. As he left for the undercroft that fateful night, Fawkes is said to have just exploded (pardon the pun) at Catesby, "You can't have your Kate and Edith too!"

    Well, I leave it to you to decide whether Bob had motive to write a note to the authorities. Plus, it is well known that Bob knew how to write. Case closed, I say.

  10. @Shakespeare - Yes, weird. Almost unbelievable. But the British would never make something up that weird. Or dress up like trained seals when nurdling is afoot.

  11. Following the gunpowder plot, an act of parliament made a law, that each year, on the 5th noveber, the people should make bonfires and celebrate "the joyful day of deliverance", and, as the whole thing really hung upon the religious schism, the seeking of catholics to overthow a protestant king and legislation, the effigy burned upon the fire was originally one of the pope.

    Guy Fawkes was more than the fall guy. He was, it would seem, a suicide bomber. The amount of gunpowder used was far more than would be needed to destroy parliament, had it all detonated, (the plotters were concerned that the original ten barrels might be damp, because.. there were outbreaks of the plague in London, and so parliament's opening was delayed) Guy went back to france to get more fresh gunpowder from his regiment, to bring the number to thirty-six... Then they laid stones and iron bars over them to give a greater destructive force, and hid the whole bomb or ied in a heap of firewood.
    Modern analysis using contemporary explosives modelling suggest the blast radius would be about a third of a mile, if the bomb was at the surface. Being in the undercroft, most of the force would be upwards, so the palace of westminster and its occupants would have rained down in tiny pieces over a large part of London.
    No way was Fawkes going to get out alive.
    As for his betrayal? Not so much.
    One of the members of parliament, whose brother, co-incidentally, was one of the plotters, received a letter advising him not to attend the opening of parliament, but not saying why. He took it to Lord Cecil, who instigated a huge search.

    I have far more, but I'm trying not to write a book here.
    The person who jumped and broke his neck in defiance of the executioner was not Guy, it was Keyes, who "was so sturdy a villain that he would not wait the hangman's turn, but turned himself off with such a leap that he broke the halter with the swing, but after his fall he was drawn to the block, and there his bowels withdrawn, and he was divided into four parts.
    Last of all came the great devil, Guy Fawkes, alias Johnson, who should have put fire to the powder.His body being weak with the torture and sickness he was scarce able to go up the ladder, yet with much ado, and by the help of the hangman, went high enough to break his neck by the fall. He made no speech, but with his crosses and idle ceremonies made his end upon the gallows and the block, to the great joy of all beholders that the land was ended of so wicked a villainry."
    Source: The Weekly Newes, London, Monday 31st January 1606.

  12. Guido Fawkes was a yorkshireman, and I used to go to a pub just outside Knaresborough.In one room was a somewhat ancient oak table. A plaque upon it claimed that it had come from Guy Fawkes' family home in Scotton, nearby, and that family legend had it that the gunpowder plot came into being at a meeting around that table.

    The Fawkes family descendants are the Horton-Fawkses, who have Farnley Hall, just north of Otley, and I have been told that it is a condition of tenancy for all the estate farms and houses belonging to them, that no bonfires or fireworks are permitted on or around the fifth of november.

  13. It's an interesting historical tidbit. I've found the comments as fascinating as the blog post. As frequently happens with you RM.

    Take that as a compliment.



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