“Remember, remember the fifth of November, gun powder, treason and plot.”
The English remember each year with bonfire parties in every town and village throughout the country. There are firework displays, beers and barbeques and children staying up late but on all those bonfires burn ragged human effigies of Guy Fawkes.
Year 2005 marked the four hundredth anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ attempt at one of the greatest and earliest acts of political terrorism. He would try to assassinate the king along with the whole Parliament in one mighty blast of gunpowder as they gathered for the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament of 1605.
Fawkes and his fellow plotters were Roman Catholics, a community that had had been excluded from government and much of mainstream society for seventy years, since the Protestant Reformation.
When James I came to the throne in 1603 they had hoped for greater tolerance, as the new king had quietly promised before
his accession. They had reason to believe him. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had died for her faith, beheaded at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire.
He was a pragmatist and continued to persecute the Catholics, knowing that many of the English regarded the Pope as a foreign puppet and a threat to English independence. His refusal to improve Catholic rights in England disappointed and enraged the conspirators.
Their leader, Robert Catesby came from a minor gentry family in Lapworth in Warwickshire, not far from Stratford-upon-Avon.
They had refused to follow the flood at the Reformation and remained loyal to Rome.
Catesby had joined the Earl of Essex when he attempted a coup four years earlier against James’ predecessor, Elizabeth I.
Guy Fawkes himself had been brought up a loyal Protestant but at some point in his youth decided to swap faiths and became a mercenary for His Most Catholic Majesty the King of Spain. During this period he became an expert in artillery and explosives.
His advice to Catesby was to hire a house next door to the Palace of Westminster. The old palace was more like a small town, a great sprawl of connected buildings beside the river.
The kings had moved out centuries before but the two Houses of Parliament, Lords and Commons, still had premises among the slightly battered mediaeval architecture. Members of the Lords and Commons would meet the king in the chamber of the House of Lords for the State Opening.
The unused parts of the palace were put to commercial advantage. The empty cellars were rented out for private use, often as warehouses convenient for the Thames. All the plotters needed do was hire the basement immediately under the House of Lords. Fawkes made the arrangements under the unimaginative alias of John Johnson.
Then they dug a tunnel to the house they’d hired next door in the modern Parliament Square. They worked for eight months as casks of gunpowder were delivered to the house, trundled along the makeshift passage and stacked in the cellar.
About twenty barrels of powder were smuggled right under Parliament. Fawkes with his knowledge of explosives layered iron bars on the top of the pile for greater impact, and the whole thing was hidden under the innocent but very flammable cover of coal and firewood.
When finally some of the king’s closest advisors got wind of the plot, two search parties were dispatched to explore the cellars. The first found good old John Johnson sitting beside his pile of coal and firewood. They wished him good day and passed on, looking for somebody who seemed suspicious. The second party discovered the powder and arrested Fawkes. Parliament was safely opened the next morning.
Modern security is more sophisticated, though the threat is not so different. Every autumn the Queen ceremonially opens Parliament with members of both houses gathered in the chamber of the House of Lords. Every autumn the Yeoman of the Guard, Beefeaters from the Tower of London, ceremonially perform two searches of the basement. Guy Fawkes was tortured to name his fellow conspirators. The signature on his confession is torn and broken like the hand that wrote it. Catesby and five other plotters fled to their stronghold in the Midlands but were eventually tracked down at Holbeche House in Staffordshire.
After a short skirmish Catesby and three fellow conspirators died from their wounds while the rest were captured. In all eight plotters joined Fawkes in the horrible death of a traitor, not beheaded but hanged, drawn and quartered.
But Guy Fawkes Night still sends sparks into the autumn skies four centuries later to remember the failure of gunpowder, treason and plot.
Ightham Mote is supposedly a key location that lead to the downfall of Guy Fawkes in his gunpowder plot. It cannot be chance that Phoenix Fireworks is not more than a mile away in Wrotham, Kent. Ightham Mote is a beautiful fourteenth century manor house, situated in Sevenoaks, Kent. Over the years it has been home to many famous families and from 1591 it was the home of the Selby’s.
Some time in 1872, or so one version of the story goes, workmen were called in to deal with an unexplained draught in the tower at Ightham Mote. Try as they might, the owners had never been able to overcome the coldness of the air in that part of the property. It was, according to those who felt it, an unearthly chill, which normal heat could not affect.
Behind a panel, the workmen were to make a discovery that would chill them to the bone. For as they removed it, they uncovered a small sealed-up space, just large enough to accommodate a chair and the skeleton of a woman seated in it.
The skeleton was reputed to be that of Dame Dorothy Selby, whose family owned Ightham Mote from the end of the Elizabethan era through to Victorian times. The Selby family were diehard Catholics and it was said that in November 1605 they knew of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Dame Dorothy was supposed to have sent an anonymous letter to her cousin, Lord Monteagle, warning him not to go to Parliament on 5 November. The letter was intercepted, however, the plot revealed and the conspiracy thwarted. Subsequently, Dame Dorothy’s role in betraying the conspiracy came to light and friends of the plotters resolved to punish her. According to the story, she was seized and walled up in the tiny space in Ightham Mote’s tower.
Even after her body had been discovered (and presumably reburied), the strange chill continued to haunt the tower. The local bishop was supposed to have been brought in to carry out an exorcism all to no avail. The ghost of Dame Dorothy is said to continue to haunt the tower to this day.