Remember, remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.
This children’s nursery rhyme describes the biggest planned, albeit unsuccessful, incident of terrorism ever attempted in England and shows what long memories the British people have.
On November 5, 1605 in London, England a group of disaffected individuals, including the infamous Guy Fawkes, were caught attempting to detonate thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellar of the Parliamentary buildings during the State Opening. If these barrels had been successfully detonated, they would have likely obliterated all the Members of the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Royal Family, including the heir, and the Bishops of the time. Guy Fawkes was arrested and sent to the Tower of London where he was reportedly tortured to name his co-conspirators and confess to his crime – a copy of his confession can be seen online via the UK National Archives.
After a trial, Guy Fawkes and some of his associates were sentenced to death by being hung, drawn, and quartered, a particularly nasty form of capital punishment that has been most notably depicted by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart. This brutal mode of death that involved dragging the persons on wooden boards to the place of execution, then hanging them, but without a drop so their necks did not break and they remained alive whilst they choked. The convicted persons were then taken to a bench, still alive, where they were disemboweled and emasculated. They were then beheaded and cut into four pieces, with their heads placed on spikes in London as a warning to others.
The anniversary of this event is celebrated each year across the UK (and New Zealand, as fellow blogger Kelly Buchanan informs me) and is commonly referred to as “Bonfire Night” or “Guy Fawkes Night.” Children make effigies of Guy Fawkes who is then burned on top of large bonfires. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “penny for the Guy” (say it with a thick cockney accent and it may ring a bell) this is where it originates – in the days before Bonfire Night, children make Guys (I have to be honest, they do look a little like deformed scarecrows) and then take them around the towns asking for a “penny for the Guy.” As a child I did not do that, but I do think that the phrase should take into account inflation. We’re seriously short-changing British children now.
Perhaps I’m a little macabre, but I frequently refer to this case when describing how the laws of the UK have evolved with regard to addressing threats of terrorism. The Guy Fawkes case was fairly quickly resolved – it took less than two months from the time of discovery to his execution. The anti-terrorism laws have changed considerably since that time, as have the methods of punishment.