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Remember, remember ...

November. British Summer Time has ended. 'Tis dark by 5p.m. and this year in 2020 our autumn celebrations of harvest and the promise of renewal are disrupted by measures to control the Covid-19 epidemic. No large bonfire night parties will be held this year - but we still have to obey the instruction to remember, remember the fifth of November.

In this the first of a two-parter for November, we'll retell the story of the Gunpowder Plot and later this month we'll be describing how Denham came to play a significant part in the events which, on 5th November 1605, found the mercenary soldier Guy Fawkes sneaking around the cellars of Westminster with terrorist intent.

Hot on the heels of Halloween celebrations is Great Britain's annual festival of Bonfire Night celebrated since 5 November 1606 when the date was declared a day of thanksgiving following the events of the previous year.

Guy Fawkes joined twelve other conspirators (four more than are shown in the print here) in 1604 to help devise their plan to assassinate King James 1 and to blow up the British Parliament originally scheduled to open in February 1605. Strangely coincident with some of our experiences of 2020, the opening of the 1605 Parliament was twice delayed, first until October and then again, to the date we know so well: Tuesday, 5 November 1605.

The 13 major players in the Gunpowder Plot were all ‘recusants’ who had rejected the Church of England established in the preceding century and with their intended destruction of the King and all parliamentarians, they intended to return England to Catholic rule.

Taking a look at the 5-Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why should help to understand the background of this celebration that has lasted for over 400 years.

When Henry VIII became king in 1509, he was a Catholic like others in England at that time who recognised the Pope in Rome as the supreme head of the church. However, when King Henry asked the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, the Pope refused.

In 1533, King Henry VIII not only rejected his first wife, but he also broke away from the Pope and the Vatican when it became clear that Pope Clement VII would not annul the marriage. Henry's advisors and ministers, such as Thomas Cromwell, began to close the monasteries, abbeys, and convents taking their wealth to finance Henry's military adventures. In 1534 Henry made himself head of the Church in England and Wales. In many ways Henry's church remained Catholic at least at first, the King arguing that his divine right as ruler gave him more right to lead the church in his own realm than the Pope. But his break with Rome allowed the tide of Protestantism sweeping Europe to enter England, soon making it near impossible for the adherents to what they considered true Catholicism to practise their faith without fear of persecution.

Of course, Henry VIII was no longer King in 1604 when the devout Catholics of the Gunpowder Plot were conspiring. In the intervening years after Henry VIII’s death in 1547, the Protestant nobility began to strengthen their influence, often through arrests and persecution of Catholics. Decades of turmoil, death and destruction paved the way for competing factions to change the course of history.

In 1547-1553 King Edward VI was 9 years old when he became king and 15 years old when he died of tuberculosis. Edward was King Henry VIII's only legitimate son; his mother, Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, died 12 days after his birth. Edward VI’s short reign was dominated by nobles using their powers as Regents to strengthen their own Protestant positions.

During Edward's reign, the Church became more explicitly Protestant - Edward himself was fiercely so. The Book of Common Prayer, which replaced Latin services was introduced in 1549, after which Roman Catholic statues and stained glass were often destroyed and the marriage of clergy allowed.

But before long the pendulum of religious politics swung rapidly to the opposite extreme. After Edward’s death in 1553, his half-sister Mary became Queen. The daughter of Catherine of the Spanish royal house of Aragon, Mary was staunchly and as events proved, aggressively Catholic.

During Mary's short reign from 1553 to 1558, it was Protestants who were persecuted, the most famous incident being the burning in Oxford of three Anglican bishops: Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley. All three were Protestants tried for heresy (beliefs contrary to accepted Catholic teachings) and burned at the stake in 1555. Hostile reactions and Queen Mary’s deadly purges earned her the nickname of Bloody Mary amongst Protestant opponents as she tried to return England to Catholicism.

As the first Queen of England who reigned in her own right, Queen Mary I died in 1558. She was succeeded as sovereign by Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife. Elizabeth was 25 when she ascended the throne in 1558. Remarkably she retained it until her death in 1603 at age 69. The Gunpowder Plotters of 1605 were only successors of several serious attempts to destroy Elizabeth during her reign aiming to return the balance of power to followers of the Catholic faith.

Elizabeth ruled with a combination through a carefully designed religious pragmatism and a network of espionage agents headed by Sir Francis Walsingham, probably Britain's greatest and surely most successful spymaster. During her 45-year reign, Elizabeth neither married nor had any children. As Queen, she formally established the Church of England in 1558, made the Roman Catholic Mass illegal - but attendance at Anglican Church services compulsory. After 12 years of her reign, Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I in 1570, thus releasing Catholics from their allegiance to her, but paving the way for numerous secret plans to replace her.

As these plots were uncovered, Queen Elizabeth I’s government executed and exiled conspirators as well as strengthening already harsh anti-Catholic laws. Catholics who defied the laws were denied any responsible position in society and could hold no office.[1] From as early as 1582 all recusants were listed by the county sheriffs and bishops and their names were known to the government. Fines for non-attendance at the Anglican Church were heavy. The heads of Catholic families (including Throckmorton, Catesby and Talbot – all names of people implicated in the Gunpowder Plot) were frequently imprisoned in castles, and in 1593, an Act Against Popish Recusants’ limited their mobility to a 5-mile radius of their homes.

Catholics, however, continued to practise their religion in secret. Jesuits (Catholic priests who had trained in Europe and who often came to England illegally) administered the sacraments in secret chapels in the homes of prominent Catholics.[2] It was in this tradition of recusancy that the Gunpowder Plotters grew up, supported and led by prominent Catholic families, many of whom were related to each other. As the end of Elizabeth’s reign grew closer, the Gunpowder Plotters began to devise their plan to place a Catholic monarch back on the throne.

They were to be disappointed. As Elizabeth ruled in England her cousin Mary reigned in Scotland, then a separate independent state. Mary Queen of Scots' paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor was King Henry VIII's sister. Since Catholics did not recognise the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon and his remarriage to Elizabeth's mother they considered Mary to have a legitimate claim to the English throne in line of succession.

Mary had become Queen of Scotland only six days after her birth in 1542 on the death of her father King James V of Scotland. As Mary was an infant when she inherited the throne, Scotland was ruled by regents until she became an adult. Scotland's royalty remained true to the Catholic faith - for the time being..

Things then got very complicated. After losing her first husband, King Francis II of France, to a severe infection in 1560, Mary married her half cousin and leading Catholic, Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley) in 1565. Darnley was also a direct descendant of Henry VIII's sister, Margaret with a claim to the English throne.

Mary gave birth to a son James in June 1566. A period of extraordinary tumult within the Scottish royal family followed, characterised by jealousy, murder, abduction, betrayal, an unpopular and possibly forced third marriage and civil war amongst Scotland's nobility leading to the enforced abdication of Mary in 1567. Her one year old son became King James VI of Scotland.

Mary's troubles didn't end there. As she fought to regain her throne, her infant son passed into the care of Regents and was raised as a Presbyterian. In 1568 Mary crossed the border into England seeking refuge from her enemies and hoping for the support of Elizabeth her cousin. Elizabeth had wiser councillors. Mary was accused in complicity in the murder of Lord Darnley. She was subjected to a trial without a verdict but nonetheless kept in custody, though custody befitting of a queen, at Elizabeth's pleasure for 19 years.

However for Elizabeth's spies and advisers there were just too many plots with Mary at their centre and in 1587 as Elizabeth continued to dither about the possible treason and execution of her royal cousin, ten members of her Privy Council took matters decisively into their own hands. Mary was executed for treasonous complicity in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth on 8th February 1587.

Queen Elizabeth I of England survived her by 16 years dying childless in 1603. The next available heir was none other than Mary's son, James VI, King of Scotland. For the first time, England and Scotland came to share the same monarch under what was known as a union of the crowns. As a result of this union, James VI King of Scotland became also King James 1 of England (and incidentally Lord of Ireland by right of succession from Henry VII), ruling England and Scotland from 1603 -1625.

The kingdoms remained separate until 1707 but James did order that a new flag be designed combining the emblems of his kingdoms, the Crosses of St. George and of St Andrew, resulting in the Union Jack; Jack being a shortening of Jacobus, the Latin version of James.

Some of the Catholic Plotters hoped that despite his Protestant upbringing, James, as Mary's son, would show greater religious tolerance than his predecessor. They were disappointed when the treatment of Catholics did not improve. And so the stage was set for the Gunpowder Plot to proceed. Hoping to end the years of Catholic suffering, and believing that God was on their side, the plotters carried on.

The Plan:

As conditions for Catholics worsened, in 1604 the instigators swore a secret oath to quit talking and DO something. Thomas Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland rented a house near Parliament from a man who was the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe. Percy moved in with Guy Fawkes as his servant. A plan was devised to obtain and move 36 barrels of gunpowder to the Westminster cellar under the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes was to ignite it. Steadily, during the next months, barrels of gunpowder were ferried across the River Thames to the Westminster cellar normally used to store firewood and coal.

The plotters gathered their supporters, descendants of Catholics who had suffered at the hands of the Protestant rulers, others with great Catholic houses in the English Midlands. They volunteered to provide horses, horsemen, armour, gunpowder, arms, ammunition, and sanctuary for the plotters when they needed to return to safety.

Guy Fawkes was a Catholic soldier of fortune who had fought for the Catholic King of Spain for seven years against the Protestants in the European Lowlands. During that time, he gained expertise in using gunpowder and adopted the Spanish version of his name – Guido. For the purposes of the plot however, he adopted the alias John Johnson.

Relays of horses on the road from Westminster to no fewer than eight Midland castles of supporting Catholics were made ready for 5 November 1605. Priests were waiting in these residences to celebrate a victory Mass.

But then…

In late October 1605, William Parker, a member of the House of Lords enobled as Lord Monteagle, intended to attend the opening of Parliament within a few days. But Monteagle received an anonymous letter a few days before Parliament opened. Presumably from a fellow Catholic, the letter warned Lord Monteagle to stay away from Parliament because “they shall receive a terrible blow and they shall not see who hurts them”. Monteagle shared the letter with Robert Cecil, Secretary of State who then shared it with King James I. Cecil, who had done much to ensure James' succession may well have had an inkling that a plot was afoot but Monteagle certainly confirmed it. Cecil incidentally belonged to the same family as Francis Bacon, ancestor of a well known Denham family whose name is found in Baconsmead.

On 4 November 1605, Monteagle joined in searching the basement of Parliament, where they found the stash of gunpowder and explosives, catching Guy Fawkes before he could set it ablaze.

Fawkes was immediately dragged to King James 1’s chamber for questioning. At first, Fawkes denied having any other companions, although he confessed that he intended to blow up the Upper House. After intense torture in the Tower of London, Fawkes confessed and named his fellow conspirators. All of the Gunpowder Plotters were eventually killed or died or captured. After a trial those who had been captured were found guilty of treason, Guy Fawkes and the remaining plotters were hanged, drawn and quartered in front of the crowds in London the following January.

And then… The aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot…

On 5 November 1605, Parliament met only briefly. The plot's discovery is recorded in the journal of the House of Commons for the day. To celebrate his own survival and members of the British Parliament, King James I allowed the people of London to celebrate with bonfires and revelry. Within a few months, the Parliament of England passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605, known as the Thanksgiving Act.

The originating Bill, drafted and introduced on 23 January 1606 called for a public, annual thanksgiving for the failure of the plot. As well as the ringing of church bells, it required church ministers to read the text of the Act aloud on 5 November. Everyone was required to attend the thanksgiving service.

The celebrations attendant to the thanksgiving service, in particular the burning of the Guy, owe much to the ancient pagan tradition of the burning of the Wicker Man as a sacrifice of a portion of the harvest to ensure the success of the following season's crops. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were mercifully saved from execution by burning.

Within a few decades Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was known, became the predominant English state commemoration, but as it carried strong Protestant religious overtones it also became a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment. As the anti-Catholic rhetoric and attitudes changed in the 1850s, the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed in 1859. The Act itself had enshrined in law the instruction to ‘remember’ the fifth of November, in line with the famous rhyme.[3]

With the religious requirements of the Act gone, Gunpowder Day observances were often accompanied by violence and destruction and drunken brawls. By the 20th century Guy Fawkes Day had become a social commemoration, lacking much of its original focus, although still an excuse to over imbibe. The present-day Guy Fawkes Night is sometimes celebrated at large organised events, focused on an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a flaming bonfire, extravagant firework displays, plentiful food and drinks.

Such were the celebrations of recent years sponsored by the Buckinghamshire Golf Club for local residents and guests. With COVID-l9 restrictions still in place in 2020, there will be few, if any, elaborate celebrations commemorating November 5, 1605, but celebrations nevertheless, giving us an excuse to “remember”.


Image of Conspirators - The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators after Heinrich Ulrich etching © National Portrait Gallery, London

Image of Queen Mary I - Unknown artist © National Portrait Gallery, London

Image of Mary Queen of Scots, Unknown artist

© National Portrait Gallery, London, Coughton Court

Sheenan, Bernie (2013), The Gunpowder Plot and the connections with the Throckmortons of Coughton Court, GB, Jarrold Publishing

Shrimpton, Colin, Alnwick Castle, Where History Lives, GB, Jarrold Publishing

Higgins, Rory Br, FSC (©2017), The Margaret Higgins Database of Catholics in England and Their Friends : 1607-1840



[1] The Throckmorton family of Coughton Court (since 1946 a National Trust property) led the campaign to remove these restrictions, and in 1831 Sir Robert Throckmorton, 8th Baronet became one of the first Catholic MPs to take a seat in the House of Commons. The practice of awarding baronetcies was originally introduced in England in the 14th century and was used by James I in 1611 as a means of raising funds. [2] Coughton Court, the home of the Throckmortons. Included the tower room to celebrate Mass in secret as did Alnwick Castle with its chantry. If necessary, the priest could hide in the “priest hole”, a secret hiding place built especially in Catholic houses in the Midlands. The precautions were essential, as poursuivants could arrive at any time to search the homes of known Catholics. Jesuit priests faced death if discovered. [3] This version from the 1920s of the famous English folk poem commemorating the events of November 5th experienced a rise in popularity after its use in the 2006 movie adaptation of the much-loved late ’80s comic book, V for Vendetta:

Remember, remember! The fifth of November, The Gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot! Guy Fawkes and his companions Did the scheme contrive, To blow the King and Parliament All up alive. Threescore barrels, laid below, To prove old England’s overthrow. But, by God’s providence, him they catch, With a dark lantern, lighting a match! A stick and a stake For King James’s sake! If you won’t give me one, I’ll take two, The better for me, And the worse for you. A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,A pint of beer to wash it down, And a jolly good fire to burn him. Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

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