In the UK tonight we’re celebrating what has become known as ‘Bonfire night’ or ‘Fireworks night’ but traditionally it is Guy Fawkes Night. Guy Fawkes was a member of a group of provincial English Catholics who were part of the planned and failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
The plot was part of a ruse to assassinate King James I in a plan to restore a Catholic monarch to the English throne. The plotters secured a lease to a building beneath the House of Lords and the building was stockpiled with gunpowder. However, an anonymous tip off led authorities to search the building and Fawkes was caught, charged with treason and eventually hanged, drawn and quartered in Westminster in the following January, aged just 35 years old.
Fawkes’ name became synonymous with the plot and the failed attempt has been commemorated in the UK ever since. While today, we may set off fireworks and go to displays, traditionally and in fact right up to my own childhood the day was celebrated with a community bonfire where an effigy of Fawkes himself would be burned.
Guy Fawkes’ attempted plot also gave us the often used UK phrase when discussing politics that ‘Fawkes was the last person to enter parliament with honest intentions.’
Any UK readers are likely to know all of the above but for those who would like to know a little more about this fascinating time in history, there are a ton of books on the subject. Here are some book recommendations for the historical books we believe give the best account of this time, of Fawkes’ life and of the failed gunpowder plot.
Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot – Antonia Fraser
In a narrative that reads like a gripping detective story, Antonia Fraser has untangled the web of religion, politics, and personalities that surrounded that fateful night of November 5. And, in examining the lengths to which individuals will go for their faith, she finds in this long-ago event a reflection of the religion-inspired terrorism that has produced gunpowder plots of our own time.
God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England – Jessie Childs
In God’s Traitors, Jessie Childs tells the fascinating story of one Catholic family, the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall, from the foundation of the Church of England in the 1530s to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and their struggle to keep the faith in Protestant England. Few Elizabethans would have disputed that obedience was a Christian duty, but following the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth by Pope Pius V in 1570 and the growing anti-Catholic sentiment in the decades that followed, it became increasingly difficult for English Catholics to maintain a dual allegiance to their God and their Queen. Childs follows the Vauxes into the heart of the underground Catholic movement, exploring the conflicts of loyalty they faced and the means by which they exerted defiance.
Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes – James Sharpe
James Sharpe’s colourfully told story has wide implications. The plot of 1605 has powerful resonances today, in a time of heightened concern about ideological conflict, religious fanaticism, and terrorism. And his account of the festivities marking the momentous event comments on the role of rituals in constructing national histories.
Pity for the Guy: A Biography of Guy Fawkes – John Paul Davis
John Paul Davis, the author of Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar returns with the first biography of the man behind the infamous Gunpowder Plot. For hundreds of years he has been portrayed as an extreme figure,a rabid Catholic who not only tried to blow up Parliament but threatened the English way of life early in the reign of James I.In this absorbing study Fawkes is revealed as far more than a shadowy conspirator with an axe to grind against the Protestant cause. Full of intrigues and insights into the policital age, it also ultimately reveals Fawkes the husband,soldier, lover,adventurer – and perhaps the most misunderstood of English villains.
God’s Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot – Alice Hogge
Alice Hogge follows “God’s secret agents” from their schooling on the Continent, through their perilous return journeys and lonely lives in hiding, to, ultimately, the gallows. She offers a remarkable true account of faith, duty, intolerance, and martyrdom — the unforgettable story of men who would die for a cause undone by men who would kill for it.
Gunpowder: The Players Behind the Plot – James Travers
Gunpowder tells the story of the events of Oct 1605 to May 1606 through its key players and the original documentary evidence in which they appear. Illustrated with contemporary portraits, engravings and original, unpublished documents, this perilous and fragmented world challenges our perception of the past.
It seems a shame that traditions that have lasted hundreds of years are dying in just in my lifetime as bonfires are replaced with whizzbangs, and many people are combining Halloween with Guy Fawkes Night. Thankfully literature will always be there to retain the history for those who want to hear it.
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!