Though fireworks existed long before the date we remember as Bonfire Night, we didn’t celebrate it until after 1605 when an assassination attempt on the king was foiled.

How much do you really know about the origins of Bonfire Night? Here is a brief run down of the events that we still remember today.

What was the Gunpowder Plot?

The Gunpowder Plot is the name given to a failed attempt at assassinating the king by blowing up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder. The date of the assassination was set for 5th November 1605, hence why Bonfire Night is celebrated on the 5th.

The plot was discovered the night before and no harm came to the king or any politicians.

Who were the plotters?

Guy Fawkes is the most famous of the conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot, but he wasn’t even the ringleader!

The main plotters were: Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Guy Fawkes and Robert Keyes. All the conspirators, except for Robert Winter, were killed or arrested and taken to the Tower of London. Those that survived, we subjected to extensive torture and were tried for high treason. The heads and other portions of the conspirator’s bodies were set up at different points around London.

Let’s take a look at the individuals who were involved.

Robert Catesby
Catesby is widely believed to have been the ringleader behind the plot. He was born in 1572 in Warwickshire into a Roman Catholic family. The Gunpowder Plot wasn’t his first foray into rebellion, he was also involved in a rebellion in 1601 against the dominance of Robert Cecil, the chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I. He was imprisoned following this and on release was involved in a discussion with the Spanish government about instigating a further rebellion.

He ended up in prison again in 1603 after the death of Elizabeth I and it was around this time that he started masterminding the Gunpowder Plot. He came to the decision that the Spanish Catholics would not be helpful in the plight of the English Catholics and recruited other plotters throughout 1604 and 1605.

When the plot was discovered, Catesby fled London. He tried to get some of the Catholic gentry in the Midlands to join him, however the authorities caught up with him in Staffordshire where a fight broke out. Catesby and several of the conspirators were injured. Both Catesby and Thomas Percy were hit with the same musket ball and died soon after, saving them both from an interrogation and trial. That didn’t stop the government cutting off his head and sticking it on the roof of the House of Commons.

Thomas and Robert Winter
The Winter brothers were born in Worcestershire into a Catholic family. Robert the elder was born in 1566, while Thomas was born in 1571. They were cousins of Robert Catesby and Thomas, along with Catesby,  was part of one of the earlier rebellions.

Thomas was said to be one of the first drawn into the Gunpowder Plot, but did travel to Flanders to see if there would be any help from the Spanish, which is where he met and recruited Fawkes.

Robert was one of the later plotters to get involved and was mostly brought in to help with the digging of the tunnel under parliament. Thomas was the one to discover their betrayal and tried to unsuccessfully persuade the others to abandon it. He fled to the Winter family home after Fawkes was arrested and then joined Catesby and the others in Staffordshire, where he was captured. Robert however didn’t stay with the others in Staffordshire and was captured the following year in January 1606.

Both brothers were tried and executed, Robert at St Paul’s Churchyard on 30th January 1606 and Thomas the following day in Old Palace Yard.

Thomas Percy
Born in 1560, Thomas Percy was the most unpredictable of the plotters. He had previously served time for killing a Scottish man in a brawl in the 1590s, however did come from an aristocratic family and was employed by his cousin who was the Earl of Northumberland.

Unlike many of the others, Thomas was a convert to Catholicism, after marrying the sister of fellow conspirators, Christopher and John Wright.

As well as being related to the Wrights through marriage, Percy was also a friend of Catesby’s and joined the plot in the early stages. It was he that initially rented the house next to the House of Lords and would go on to secure the basement. He was also part of the King’s bodyguard thanks to his association with the Earl of Northumberland, which put him in a good position to plan the intricacies of the plot.

He dined with his cousin on 4th November hoping to find out whether the plot had been discovered after Fawkes’ arrest, as he had rented the house, he was immediately identified as one of the plotters and fled to Staffordshire where he was killed in battle.

Like Catesby, his head was cut off and stuck on the roof of the House of Commons.

John and Christopher Wright
The Wright brothers were related through marriage to Thomas Percy and attended the same school as Guy Fawkes, St Peter’s School in York.

John was born in 1568 and Christopher in 1570, the pair were seen as being dangerous Catholics, though it isn’t thought that John converted to Catholicism until the early 1600s.

Alongside Catesby, they were involved in the rebellion in 1601 and were arrested on two separate occasions on charges relating to Elizabeth I.

John was the first to join in the plot, with Christopher joining at a later date, the two fled with Catesby to Staffordshire once Fawkes had been arrested and both were killed in the battle that followed.

Francis Tresham
Tresham was Catesby’s cousin and a friend of the Wright brothers, he was born in 1567 and was the eldest son of Sir Thomas Tresham, a Catholic who lived at Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire and was known for his architectural designs.

Tresham joined his cousin and friends in the rebellion against Robert Cecil and was imprisoned, but much like Catesby, got involved in the discussions with the Spanish once he was released. Despite his closeness with Catesby and the Wrights, Tresham wasn’t let into the plot until right at the very end, possibly even as late as October 1605, as they didn’t trust him. They were right to doubt him, Tresham was the mostly likely culprit of the Monteagle Letter, which was delivered to Lord Monteagle, his brother in law, warning him not to attend parliament on 5th November.

He feigned innocence when the plot was uncovered, but was named by Fawkes and arrested. He died in the Tower of London of natural causes in December of 1605.

Robert Keyes
Robert Keyes was the son of a Protestant clergyman, though his mother’s family were prominent Catholics. Through his wife, he was connected to Ambrose Rookwood, another plotter.

He was drawn into the plot in October 1604 and was instructed to look after the gunpowder and other equipment which was being stored at Thomas Percy’s house in Lambeth.He left London on the morning of 5th November but was not present at the battle in Staffordshire. He was captured soon afterwards though and was executed in Old Palace Yard on 31st January 1606.

John Grant
John Grant, like Catesby, was also from Warwickshire. He owned a large house near Stratford on Avon, which was regarded by the plotters as a valuable stronghold.

He was related through marriage to the Winter brothers and was another conspirator involved in the rebellion against Robert Cecil. He was brought into the plot around the same time as Christopher Wright and Robert Winter and was known to buy a lot of weapons over 1605. He was with the others in Staffordshire and was blinded in an accident involving gunpowder during the fight. He was captured and tried, eventually being executed in St Paul’s Churchyard on 30th January.

Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes was born in 1570 and though his father was a protestant, his step father came from a strongly Catholic family. He went to St Peter’s School in York, like the Wright brothers and went on to become a soldier in the Spanish army.

In 1604, he was recruited by Thomas Winter to join the conspiracy and came to London, where he met the others. Once Percy had rented the house next to Parliament, Fawkes posed as his servant and lived there under the name John Johnson and was heavily involved in the digging of a tunnel under the House of Lords and procuring the gunpowder.

When the basement was searched on 4th November, Fawkes was found looking after a large pile of firewood and gunpowder, leading to his arrest. He was interrogated several times but admitted almost nothing until he was tortured. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where his signature can still be seen scratched into the wall of his cell. He was executed on 31st January.

Thomas Bates
Bates was Catesby’s servant. He claimed to have known about the plot and to have confessed the details to a priest. On the plot’s discovery he rushed with Catesby to the Midlands but was not with the others for the shoot out at Staffordshire. He was captured and executed on 30th January 1606.

Ambrose Rookwood
Rookwood was born in 1578 into a Catholic family in Suffolk but was educated in Flanders, where he was brought up as a Catholic. He would also marry into a prominent Catholic family and would be recruited by Catesby in September of 1605 after inheriting his father’s estates.

He was useful to the conspirators because he was wealthy and owned many good horses, he fled with the others to the Midlands and was captured the following day. He was tried and executed with the others.

Sir Everard Digby
Sir Digby was born in about 1578, into a Roman Catholic family, though wasn’t a follower of Catholicism until much later in life. Like Tresham and Rookwood, he seems to have been recruited because he had money. It is said that he had doubts about the plot, but remained with Catesby and the others for some time. He left before the shoot out in Staffordshire and was captured, while in prison, he wrote a series of letters to his family, which were published in 1675.

Digby was tried separately from the others and because he pleaded guilty, was allowed to make a speech before his execution. He also died in St Paul’s Yard on 30th January.

What was the plot?

At the time, there had been decades of persecution against Catholics. The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605, while the king was in session. This would then go on to a revolt in the Midlands, in which King James’ daughter, Elizabeth, who was just nine years old at the time, would be instated as monarch as she was Catholic. The plotters hoped that this would secure greater religious tolerance.

The discovery

The plot was discovered thanks to an anonymous letter that was written to Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend the State Opening. It is believed that Francis Tresham was the one to write the letter, though he denied this.

Because of the letter, a search was made of the cellar next to parliament, where Fawkes was discovered with the gunpowder, which led to his arrest and the others fleeing the city.

So why do we celebrate?

An Act of Parliament was passed which appointed 5th November as a year of thanksgiving for the “joyful day of deliverance”. The Act remained in force until 1859, when it was no longer illegal to not celebrate the day, though it is still custom in Britain to let off fireworks and effigies of Guy Fawkes on or around 5th November.

The only places excluded from taking part in Bonfire Night are located in York and are associated with Guy Fawkes.

To this day, the Houses of Parliament are still searched before the State Opening. They are searched by the Yeomen of the Guard, though it is now seen as more of a custom than a serious anti terrorism investigation. The original cellar was destroyed by fire in 1834 when the original parliament buildings were razed. So, the search takes place in the modern cellars.

If you’re planning on attending a firework display this November, make sure to remember the Gunpowder Plot – after all, it should never be forgot!




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