Monday, 31 October 2005

400th Anniversary of Treason

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It may be the last day of October, but the fireworks of November the Fifth have already started. The build up is to next weekend when something peculiar happens across Britain. Everyone stands around outdoor fires as big as they can make, eating baked potatoes and looking into a sky illuminated by fireworks. On top of those fires and you'll see an effigy usually of Guy Fawkes who was accused of the plot to blow up Parliament.

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At the real centre of the conspiracy was the Warwickshire gentleman Robert Catesby. He wanted to blow up the King, together with the House of Lords and the House of Commons during the ceremonial opening of Parliament. He recruited Italian explosives expert Guido Fawkes to assist and then 400 years ago, on the night of Nov. 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes and 12 fellow conspirators prepared to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the state opening by James I.
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The conspirators had hoped that King James would be more tolerant of their Catholic faith than his predecessor Queen Elizabeth I and so they decided to assassinate the king by packing the basement of Parliament with 36 barrels of explosives. However, an anonymous tip-off letter foiled the plot and Guy Fawkes was found in the basement with a fuse in his pocket. He was imprisoned and tortured with his fellow conspirators before being executed on Jan. 31, 1606.

So for 400 years, Britain has celebrated the day the plot was foiled. The celebrations started in London on Nov. 5, 1605 the day after Fawkes' capture. Until 1859 they were supported by an Act of Parliament that made Nov. 5 a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of the king's deliverance."

But time moves on - The day is no longer a public holiday, though nearly all towns and cities still have some form of Bonfire Night celebration, as well as private events. The actual reason for Bonfire Night, though, has faded like the end of a Roman candle firework. For many years, it was a celebration of Fawkes' capture — a denunciation of popery and a rejoicing in the king's life being saved. Nowadays everyone just goes outside for a social evening and maybe to burn a few (un) popular political figures on the bonfire, just as much a Guy Fawkes.

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