The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in earlier centuries often called the Gunpowder Treason Plot or the Jesuit Treason, was a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby. It is celebrated in England and some Commonwealth countries as Bonfire Night, sometimes Guy Fawkes. But in popular culture the plot is poorly understood. Guy Fawkes was the explosives expert and so gets a prominent role. But he was not a major player otherwise.
The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was to be installed as the Catholic head of state. Catesby may have embarked on the scheme after hopes of securing greater religious tolerance under King James had faded, leaving many English Catholics disappointed. English Catholics were severely repressed under Elizabeth. James, who followed her, had a Catholic background (his mother was Mary Queen of Scots). But he continued Elizabeth’s policies of Protestant supremacy in England.
Catesby’s fellow plotters were John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham. Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting in the Spanish Netherlands in suppression of the Dutch Revolt, was given charge of the explosives.
The plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, on 26 October 1605. During a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4 November 1605, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder and arrested. Authorities differ as to whether that would have been enough explosive to do the job. Most of the conspirators fled from London as they learned of the plot’s discovery, trying to enlist support along the way. Several made a stand against the pursuing Sheriff of Worcester and his men at Holbeche House; in the ensuing battle Catesby was one of those shot and killed. At their trial on 27 January 1606, eight of the survivors, including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged.
Although anti-Catholic legislation was introduced soon after the plot’s discovery, many loyal Catholics retained high office during King James’s reign. The thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot was commemorated for many years afterwards by special sermons and other public events such as the ringing of church bells, which have evolved into the Bonfire Night of today. The general principles of the celebration of Bonfire Night are the same, namely, light a big bonfire and let off fireworks. But there are many variations. Sometimes families build a bonfire in the back yard with their own store of fireworks, but with increasing regulations more towns have one bonfire with a public display. I always did the backyard kind with my son in New York even though fireworks are illegal there and we had to be a bit creative some years.
Our custom was always to cook over the fire – fat sausages roasted on sticks, potatoes baked in the coals, followed by baked apples. The potatoes should by scrubbed, split partly open, filled with butter, then wrapped a couple of layers of foil. The apples should be cored and the core slot filled with butter, brown sugar and sweet spices of your choice such as clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Wrap them in foil too. The main thing to be careful is to check the potatoes and apples frequently given the heat of the fire. Potatoes can take as little as 30 minutes, and I have had apples done in 15.