As Halloween has passed and Bonfire night is nearly upon us, I was interested to know why we throw a ‘guy’ onto the bonfire!
On 5th November every year, the effigy of Guy Fawkes is still burned on bonfires across England in recognition of his part in the failed ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of 1605.
Fawkes didn’t devise or lead the plot to assassinate James I, so why is he still singled out as one of British history’s greatest villains more than 400 years after his death?
Guy Fawkes was in born in April 1570 in York. Fawkes was described as an imposing man; his former school friend Oswald Tesimond, who had become a Jesuit Catholic priest, described him as “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife….loyal to his friends.”
Tesimond also claimed Fawkes was “a man highly skilled in matters of war”, while his historian Antonia Fraser described him as “a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, a flowing moustache in the tradition of thee time, and a bushy reddish-brown beard…a man of action…capable of intelligent argument as well as physical endurance, somewhat to the surprise of his enemies.”
It was while on campaign fighting for Spain in Flanders that Fawkes was approached by Thomas Wintour, one of the plotters, and asked to join what would become known as the Gunpowder Plot, under the leader.
His expertise with gunpowder gave him a key – and very perilous – role in the conspiracy, to source and ignite the explosive. But 18 months of careful planning was foiled with just hours to go, when he was arrested at midnight on 4 November 1605 beneath the House of Lords. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found stacked in the cellar directly below where the king would have been sitting for the opening of parliament the next day. The foiling of the plot had been expertly engineered by James I’s spymaster, Robert Cecil. Fawkes was subject to various tortures, including the rack. Torture was technically illegal, and James I was personally required to give a licence for Fawkes to endure its ravages.ship of Robert Catesby.
While just the threat of torture was enough to break the resolve of many, Fawkes withstood two days of the most terrible pain before he confessed all. His fortitude throughout had impressed James I, who said he admired Fawkes’ “Roman resolution”. Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death – to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’ and his lifeless body was hacked into quarters and his remains sent to the “the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to others.”
The burning of the ‘guy’
Guy Fawkes instantly became a national bogeyman and the embodiment of Catholic extremism. It was a propaganda coup for the Protestant English and served as a pretext for further repression of Catholics that would not be completely lifted for another 200 years.
It is perhaps surprising that Fawkes and not the charismatic ring-leader Robert Catesby is remembered, but it was Fawkes who was caught red-handed under the Houses of Parliament, Fawkes who refused to speak under torture, and Fawkes who was publicly executed. Catesby, by contrast, was killed evading capture and was never tried.
Through the centuries the Guy Fawkes legend has become ever-more entrenched, and by the 19th Century it was his effigy that was being placed on the bonfires that were lit annually to commemorate the failure of the plot.
Remember: Fireworks are not toys. They are explosives and the injuries they can cause can be devastating.
Here are some facts about fireworks and potential risks of not using them properly.
- Sparklers get five times hotter than cooking oil
- A rocket can reach speeds of 150 mph
- A firework shell can reach as high as 200 metres
- Three sparklers burning together generate the same heat as a blowtorch
- You see the explosion of a firework before hearing it because sound travels at 761 mph, but light travels at 671 million mph
- The majority of firework-related injuries happen at family or private parties
- Around half of all injuries are to children under the age of 17
- The most common injuries are to hands, followed by the eyes and face
- Fireworks are safer now than they have been in the past thanks to safety standards. Make sure your fireworks comply with British Standard 7114 or its European equivalent. Instructions should be in English.
Source: NHS Choices website
Message from Prof Smartypots…stay safe this firework night!