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.