Fireworks are absolutely beautiful works of art. These bright, colourful, amazing displays can warm you up on a cold November night, as is the case every year, on the 5th of November (and to be fair, usually a few days either side of the 5th!). However, these gorgeous displays of light hide a dark secret.
Well OK, not a secret, per se, but not everyone knows why we have big fireworks displays here, every 5th of November. We are commemorating something, and it’s something wrapped up in a deadly plot.
Many of you will have heard of this plot. It is the Gunpowder Plot, where Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators sought to blow up the House of Lords, thus killing King James I, and his parliament. This plan involved the use of several barrels of gunpowder, which were stored underneath the House of Lords. The timing was crucial. The 5th of November 1605 was to be the formal opening of Parliament, and therefore virtually everyone who was anyone in the British government was to be there. Had the plot succeeded, it would have spectacularly decapitated the British government.
You may be wondering ‘why’? Well, Guy Fawkes, and the numerous other conspirators, were radical Catholics, who sought to remove the Protestant King James I by any means necessary. They envisioned placing King James’ nine year-old daughter, Elizabeth, on the throne, as head of a new Catholic regime. Guy Fawkes has become the ‘face’ of the plot, but there were several men involved, and one of them, acting in the interests of their brother-in-law, accidentally served to warn the King of the treasonous plan. The King ordered that the House of Lords be thoroughly searched, and Guy Fawkes was discovered, along with 36 barrels of gunpowder, late on the 4th of November. Come the early hours of the 5th, Fawkes had been brought before King James, who was said to be impressed with Fawkes – who was operating under the false name of ‘John Johnson’ – for remaining stoic in the face of threats and torture. Nonetheless, Fawkes was tortured (he was said to have been placed on the rack), and eventually gave up the names of his co-conspirators.
Following arrests and trials, the men were publicly executed the following January, in one of the most gruesome means possible. The process of being ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ would serve as a powerful example of what would happen for committing treason, though Guy Fawkes himself avoided this fate; his neck was broken upon being hung, which some believe was due to Fawkes jumping at the point of being hung, to avoid the torturous death to follow.
A lot of historians believe the plot would have failed anyway. The gunpowder had been held in secret under the House of Lords for some time, and exposure to the environment would have quite possibly rendered it unusable. However, if it had ignited, it would have obliterated the House of Lords, and part of the surrounding area. This would not have had the impact the conspirators hoped for.
Far from helping to establish a new Catholic dynasty, the chances are the backlash against Catholics in Britain (which was quite substantial anyway) would have been immense. The odds are good that Catholics would have been horribly persecuted, and thus, Guy Fawkes and his companions would have been left to watch as their aims disintegrated into smoke and ash.
So, the next time you enjoy the pretty fireworks, it’s worth reflecting upon how history could have held a very different account of events!