Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

For kids growing up in England, The Fifth of November limerick is as well known as any other nursery rhyme, and rolls off of their tongues every year on what is traditionally known as Bonfire Night. But what many people forget is that the rhyme was born from a truly horrific moment in British history, one steeped in bloodshed and fire.

The history of the rhyme stretches back to November 5, 1605. You see, it was on this day all those centuries ago, that Warwickshire-born Catholic Robert Catesby and his friends planned kill the King of England, James I, his ministers and any unfortunate nearby nobles by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament, which had been delayed due to the plague.

Among Catesby’s chief conspirators was one Guido ‘Guy’ Fawkes, a former Mercenary for the Spanish army who was drafted into the plot because of his knowledge of explosives. History has painted Fawkes as the ringleader of the entire ‘Gunpowder Plot’, but in reality he was nothing more than the unlucky fool who had to light the fuse.

Between them, the conspirators packed the cellars beneath Westminster Palace with 36 barrels – that’s 2 and a half tons – of gunpowder. For almost 4 months, the gunpowder remained in situ, awaiting its flame. A great plague was sweeping the nation at the time and, as a result, the opening of Parliament was delayed. Had it opened on July 28th as planned, history may have been very different.

The plot to kill the King was discovered only hours before the planned detonation. Guy Fawkes and his fellow schemers were arrested on the spot, and hence forth would experience tortures they could never have comprehended.

Although the exact methods utilized to abstract Fawkes’ confession have never been fully verified, we can expect that he was familiarized with the favored techniques of the day. These included the torture rack (excruciating stretching of a body), the Scavenger’s Daughter (unbearable compressing of a body), and suspension by manacles, which would break your hands and wrists, and would explain the change in Fawkes’ handwriting as he signed his confession.

Confessing to his crimes would not be enough, though. Now a guilty man in the eyes of the Crown, Guy Fawkes would be sentenced to death. The traditional traitor’s death of the time was to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and then for your entrails to be sent to the four corners of the kingdom as a reminder to anyone thinking of assassinating the King that crime doesn’t pay.

Perhaps fortunately for Fawkes though, he avoided the later stages of his punishment by throwing himself off the hangman’s scaffold, breaking his neck instantly. None the less, his body would be hacked down from its rope, his testicles ripped from his body, and his guts spilled out from his stomach in a truly gruesome sight. They don’t teach you about this bit in school.

In the centuries that followed, Fawkes became the boogeyman of British history. Fact was replaced by legend, and he quickly became a ghost story to terrify young children in their beds. These days though, if you ask children who Guy Fawkes is they will simply reply that he’s the man they burn on their bonfire every year. They’ll repeat his rhyme and cheer as he sets alight, blissfully unaware of the true horrors that inspired this enduring image.

Maybe that’s for the best though? We wouldn’t want them to have nightmares now, do we?

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November. Gunpowder, Treason and Plot. We see no reason why gunpowder and treason, should ever be forgot.


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