At this time of year, our English students often ask about the story of Guy Fawkes. Why do we remember this failed attempt to blow-up a king?
When Guy Fawkes planned the Gunpowder Plot more than 400 years ago, he could hardly have imagined his treasonous actions would be remembered for so long afterwards and inspire so many books, poems, short stories and songs.
Yet the man who was part of a group – led by Robert Catesby – that tried to kill the king of England in 1605 has been the inspiration for many millions of words – to which we add these few.
Most people born and raised in Britain know the story of the Gunpowder Plot, which was an attempt by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators to kill King James I, when he opened the Parliament at Westminster.
Fawkes and his group cooked up a secret plot to assassinate King James. England was a protestant country and Fawkes and his fellow band of men wanted to have a Catholic king or queen on the throne.
Fawkes planned to blow up Parliament while the king was there. But the king’s guards were tipped off and on November 5, 1605 they searched Westminster Palace and found Fawkes guarding a pile of gunpowder. He was arrested and sentenced to death.
The fact that King James survived was cause for great celebration! People took to the streets to have a party. The country soon followed in the celebration and a party-like spirit spread across England. Everyone gave thanks that God had saved King James’s life.
The king did not want any more attempts on his life. His ministers made sure people did not forget Guy Fawkes, and November 5 became known as Guy Fawkes Night. It continues today as an evening of celebration, with food, drink, songs and stories. Effigies of Guy Fawkes are even burned on a bonfire.
And it continues in our literature because the drama and intrigue of the Gunpowder Plot have appealed to writers across the centuries. The story has been captured in various ways.
The most famous poem, sometimes classed as a nursery rhyme, is “Remember Remember”.
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
In Britain, most children will learn this ditty in infancy, but there are longer versions: the longest being kept in the Tower of London archive.
There are Guy Fawkes related songs, and many of these are period ballads with a decidedly sinister feel to them, including the “Devil and the Washerwoman”, but there is also a more recent “Ballad of Guy Fawkes” by the band Green on Red, which links these seventeenth century events to recent political dissatisfaction.
The most successful substantive account of the Gunpowder Plot has been that written by the renowned historian Antonia Fraser. Her book “The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1996) unravels the tangled web of religion and politics that spawned the plot.
The Gunpowder Plot captures children’s imaginations too. There are many books for younger readers about Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night. Two of the most popular are “The Gunpowder Plot”, by Liz Gogerly, and “Guy Fawkes” by Harriet Caster. Indeed, in towns and cities across the UK, children may still ask strangers to spare ‘A Penny for the Guy, Mister?’, although it is likely to mean a lot more than a penny these days.
Guy Fawkes even shaped our language. In the 19th century the word “guy” was used to describe an effigy or a strangely dressed person. In American English use of the term evolved and it came to mean any male person.
Today, some people say Guy Fawkes Night is overshadowed by Hallowe’en, and the advent of ‘Trick or Treat’ – an American import, described by one Guardian journalist as ‘the Japanese knotweed of autumn festivals’.
So, whether you see Guy Fawkes as ‘The only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions’, or as a treacherous traitor, who deserved all he got, it seems we do ‘Remember, Remember’ pretty successfully, so it is unlikely that ‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot should Ever Be Forgot!’
At HELLO English, we love explaining the old customs and traditions of England, and we even enjoy exploring those of our near neighbours in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.