The 5th of November is known by a variety of names. Firework Night, Bonfire Night, Gunpowder Plot Anniversary (not as catchy), and most famously, Guy Fawkes Day. In England, the holiday is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires. However, this happy celebration is a far fetch from the political environment that brought about the Gunpowder Plot in the first place. How has such a tumultuous moment in British history come to be such a cheerful celebration? Let these five historical nonfictions tell you all about it!
What Was the Gunpowder Plot?
After years of buildup, culminating with Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, November 5, 1605, marked an attempt by Catholics to overthrow the Protestant government. To do this, they planned — and succeeded — in filling the storeroom beneath the House of Lords with gunpowder. They would then set it off, kill all inside, and install Princess Elizabeth, James I’s daughter, as a Catholic monarch.
However, like other Catholic plots before it, this one suffered from a betrayal. One of the conspirators sent a letter to Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend the State Opening. The suspicious letter prompted him to report it. An investigation was put together, and at midnight on November 4, Guy Fawkes was found in the cellar surrounded by gunpowder. He was arrested and tortured — naming other conspirators in the process — and was executed on January 31, 1606 (some of the other conspirators were executed the day before, January 30th).
To “celebrate,” James I passed an Act of Parliament that proclaimed November 5th as a “joyful day of deliverance.” The act was in force until 1859, but the day has become so entrenched in British society that it continues to be celebrated. Now, the day is marked with bonfires, fireworks, cooking popular dishes, and creating effigies.
All that said, the Gunpowder Plot was just a blip in British history, and the events that led to it had been building for years. And even with it being memorialized in films like V for Vendetta (2005), the conspirators have been all but forgotten, except Fawkes, who, for his claim to fame, lives his days out as a grinning white mask. To reinstate the history behind the infamous plot and understand its future relevance, five scholars have constructed and reconstructed those events.
1. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser
Untangling the webs of religion, politics, and strong personalities that were associated with November 5, Fraser presents a narrative that reads like a detective story. After examining the lengths that people would go for their faith, Fraser finds that our modern religious and political climate has produced gunpowder plot-like acts of terrorism.
2. The Gunpowder Plot: Terror in Shakespeare’s England by James Travers
Being one of the most well-documented events in British history, the Gunpowder Plot left behind thousands of written documents for scholars to explore. A subject specialist at the National Archive, James Travers, undertakes this task to exploit the treasure trove of documents. Removing the benefit of hindsight and the partisan views of Catholics and Protestants, Travers allows 17th-century voices to speak out. Tracing the lives of key figures, including the plotters, and using previously undisclosed documents, like the torturing of Guy Fawkes, this book reveals what drove subjects to undertake the biggest home-grown plot.
3. The Gunpowder Plot Deceit by Martyn R. Beardsley
Beardsley’s book calls into question everything that has been established about the Gunpowder Plot. Finding the impossibility of a secret plot forming under the literal noses of the House of Lords, and the lack of evidence to confirm the existence of the infamous tunnel, the book explores the idea that not only was the government fully aware of the Plot, but that key members may have provided a helping hand in setting it up — if not instigating it themselves.
4. The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word by Allan Metcalf
Tracing the history of the word “guy,” Metcalf takes readers through a bloody and thrilling journey through 17th-century England in his trademark breezy, readable style. Exploring religious controversies from the Atlantic to America, the disappearing “thou,” George Washington and the Revolution, and the revival of Guy Fawkes in V for Vendetta, Metcalf uncovers how such a simple word can evoke such deep insight into the evolution of the English language.
5. God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot by Alice Hogge
In 1588, as the defeated Spanish Armada limped home, two Jesuit priests landed in England. Their goal: bring England back under Catholic control. 18 years later, their mission would be defeated by the failure of the Gunpowder Plot — not by association, but because Jesuits would face the brunt of punishment that was doled out on the public. Hogge traces the lives of these gentlemen from their schooling on the continent, their dangerous journey back home, and their trip to the gallows. She offers insight into the unforgettable story of a group of men who would die for one cause but take the fall for another.
Modern interpretations of the Gunpowder Plot, and even the names used in place of it, have distorted its historical origins. Guy Fawkes usually takes the fall for the crime when in actuality, he never came up with the original plot — he just planted the gunpowder. Non-fiction is a slippery genre for many people, often considered too boring in contrast with the much popular Fiction. However, sometimes a step back from fantasy is needed in order to understand the future, present, and past.
To discover more nonfiction that explores modern conflicts, click here!