“A Terrible Blow”: The Dark Side of Bonfire Night

Jo Romero

Bonfire Night

Each November we wrap up in gloves and scarves and watch fireworks fizz and bang across the star-speckled night sky. We build bonfires in our gardens and toast marshmallows. We remember a cartoon-like Guy Fawkes in his floppy hat and leather boots, caught guarding a stack of gunpowder barrels in a gloomy, musty cellar. But November 5th has a far darker side that is less well known, involving plans for the abduction of a child, and the destabilisation of the country as well as terrifying torture and brutal executions. We all know the basic story of the Gunpowder Plot. Thirteen men conspired to blow up the Houses of Parliament, with the royal family and leading politicians inside it. They had hoped that James I’s reign would bring in more sympathetic treatment of Catholics in England than they had experienced under Elizabeth I, but were left feeling frustrated since the new king came to power. It was time, they decided, for a Catholic monarch to rule, in a move that conspirator Robert Catesby would call “so sharp a remedy”. The first part of the plan was to kill the king. The second was to place a new, Catholic ruler on the throne. The plotters decided on the king’s nine-year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth. The conspirators planned to kidnap Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire. On the night of the 4th November 1605, the princess slept, oblivious to the presence of the plotters who had stationed themselves nearby, waiting for the signal to act. It’s inconceivable to imagine how traumatic this would have been for Elizabeth if the plan had been successful. She would have been taken in the darkness and frantically bundled onto a horse, later learning of the death of her family. She would then be crowned, with the conspirators ruling through her, perhaps even one day forcing her into marriage with a Catholic husband to secure influence. As we know however, the plot was discovered and Elizabeth was never kidnapped, but was visibly shaken by the thought of it. Lord Harington later reported that “this poor lady hath not yet recovered from the surprise, and is very ill and troubled.”
“A Terrible Blow”: The Dark Side of Bonfire Night
Gunpowder Plot conspirators hanged, drawn and quartered

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The physical consequences of the Gunpowder Plot, had Fawkes not been discovered, would have been huge

According to research by the Centre of Explosion Studies at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, the explosion would have been felt in varying degrees up to 900 metres away from the blast. The Houses of Parliament and anything within 40 metres of it would have absorbed the worst of the blow, affecting hundreds and maybe even thousands of lives. Surrounding buildings such as inns, shops and dwellings would have also been lost, along with the lives of any innocent people unfortunate enough to have been inside them. Businesses would have been destroyed and razed to the ground. And psychological shockwaves would have continued to ripple, as word of the attack carried from London to other towns and cities, and on into Europe and the rest of the world. We often remember the Gunpowder Plot as an attempt on the life of King James, but it’s clear that in reality, the explosion would have had a much wider impact on the people of London, leading to political, personal, economic and cultural losses. This is something the conspirators must have known, but they pressed ahead regardless. As well as physical devastation, the plotters wanted political destruction, too, and the king knew it. In a speech to Parliament James acknowledged that the plot wasn’t designed as an attack on just him and his family, but “of the whole body of the State in general.” The physical headquarters of the state’s power, The Houses of Parliament, where political decisions were made, would be left a pile of smouldering rubble. This physical base of power would be gone. There would be no ruling monarch and the aftermath of the explosion would have created panic, grief, loss and uncertainty, under which the plotters could have hoped to build a new foundation. The plot has since been criticised for how successful it might have been in the long term, but it doesn’t make the actions behind it any less chilling. The king was active in the case from its discovery, and listened in on the trial. He personally advised the use of torture when Fawkes showed initial defiance in revealing information. We know that at some point in the interrogation, Fawkes was tortured and most likely strapped to the rack - a machine that when turned, resulted in the stretching of muscles and tendons and the agonising dislocation of joints. The scrawl of his post-torture signature and visible frailty at his execution demonstrate the effect of this torture on the 35-year old Fawkes.
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As expected for such a significant threat to order, the government made a public example of the conspirators

None of them would die peacefully. Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were among those shot and killed at Holbeache House in Staffordshire, where some of the plotters had retreated after the plot failed. But their early deaths didn’t save them from grisly humiliation: they were later exhumed and decapitated. The others, who had been captured and imprisoned, awaited a public hanging. It was announced that they would also be cut down, still alive, and their ‘privy parts’, bowels and hearts would also be removed. By now hopefully unconscious, they would then have their heads cut off. The brutality of the conspirators’ deaths - their hanging, drawing and quartering - was, even though barbaric to us today, the legal punishment for treason in the early Stuart period. Catesby, Tresham, Digby and the others would have known that they risked this outcome. But in some ways these carefully-planned executions were symbolic, too. With crowds watching, James was able to show that he was no soft touch. He had restored order to his kingdom - and from the view of the people it was done swiftly, efficiently and brutally. The sites of the executions are also significant. Some were executed at the religious centre of St Paul’s - but the remaining men were executed at Westminster’s Old Palace Yard. As Antonia Fraser notes in her book The Gunpowder Plot, the men may have looked up at the towers and chimneys of the building they had plotted to destroy standing solidly in the London skyline, as they trudged to their deaths. The violent executions were also a deterrent. Watching these men hanged and disembowelled, some while they were still alive - and then beheaded - would, the state hoped, make you think at least twice before trying something similar yourself. But executions, over the years, can be forgotten. And so it was important to James that the plot be permanently marked in some way. His emphasis was not on the conspiracy itself but on its discovery: what he called this “joyful day of deliverance”. And like the executions themselves, these celebrations sent a subconscious message from the king: evil deeds and plots against the Crown, no matter how secret they were, would be uncovered. People duly lit bonfires, burned effigies - mostly of Guy Fawkes, but also the Pope - and chanted rhymes relating to the plot. Some of these rhymes are still repeated today, while fireworks sprinkle the sky and marshmallows on sticks melt and smoulder on flames. So, Bonfire Night. It isn’t just about sparklers, fireworks and eating hot comfort food gathered around a crackling, flickering bonfire. Next time you write your name with a glowing sparkler in the smoky sky, remember the Fifth of November, 1605. The men who planned to kidnap a nine year old girl; wreak devastation, terror and murder and dismantle the establishment of power in England, and the king who restored order. The thud of feet on hangman’s steps and the creak of the rack. This is the dark side of Bonfire Night.
“A Terrible Blow”: The Dark Side of Bonfire Night

Jo Romero

Jo is a historian who wrote for Edition 4: Terrible Tales from Time.
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