The Powder Treason

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…

A beautiful, bright and sunny day dawns in Virginia for what I’ll refer to as Bonfire Night, November 5th, 2009.  If you’ve never heard the above poem before (or only seen it in the context of the movie V for Vendetta) then you’ve probably no idea why much of Britain celebrates tonight with fireworks and bonfires, and the burning in effigy of a certain Guy Fawkes

A contemporary engraving of the Gunpowder conspirators

A contemporary engraving of the conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder

In 1605 a Catholic plot to overthrow the British monarchy was prevented when on November 5th, Guy Fawkes was trapped in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with several barrels of gunpowder.  His intention had been to blow up the building, killing the Government and King James I.  He was tried, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to death.  He was to be hung, drawn, and quartered but cheated the executioner by jumping from the gallows and breaking his neck, ensuring a far speedier death than that handed down to him by the Judge.

In 1606, a tradition was started whereby the King and Parliament would commission a sermon to commemorate the event.  Over the years, the sermon, and the above rhyme have ensured that the traitorous event, and what happens to traitors, has not dimmed from the collective British memory.

If you want to read more about why the persecuted Catholics of Protestant Britain decided to take such extreme steps I suggest the brilliant book The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser.  If you prefer the information in a condensed format, you can also read about The Gunpowder Plot on Wikipedia.

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