Guy Fawkes: Terrorist in Tights

"Please to remember, the fifth of November: gunpowder, treason and plot."

That's what children in Britain chant on Guy Fawkes Night, as fireworks spiral into the sky and an effigy of Guy Fawkes burns on a fire. It's been like that since the night, in 1606, when Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In celebration, we present a timeline of the activities of Britain's very first terrorist.

Henry VIII did not just have a weight problem. He also had a problem with Pope Julius II, who would not give him a divorce, which would enable him to marry Anne Boleyn. So, Henry simply separated the Church of England from the rule of Rome and gave himself a divorce, instead.

After Elizabeth I - a Protestant - came to the throne in 1558, Catholics were persecuted. This drove the faith underground and created a lot of bad feeling between Catholics and Protestants.

Guy Fawkes, born in 1570, leaves England in his early twenties for Flanders, Belgium. There he joins the army of the Catholic King of Spain, who aims to rid England of Protestant heresy. In Flanders he meets up with other English Catholic exiles and dissidents.

1603 - one sunny day in Spain
As Elizabeth I, the Protestant Queen of England, is dying, Guy Fawkes travels to Spain with some friends to try and get Spanish support for an invasion of England after the death of the Queen. He fails.

1603 - one rainy day in Britain
The planned invasion never happens. Instead,
the even-more-Protestant-than-Elizabeth James V of Scotland comes to London to take the British throne, becoming James I of England. He brings with him lots of Calvinist Scots, who want to get rich while in his service.

May 1604 - one evening during Happy Hour
Guy - who now likes to call himself by the romantic, Italian, and much more Catholic version of his name, Guido - is now back in England and very discontented. He meets with three other members of his bloody and fearless terrorist band at the Duck and Drake pub - right in the centre of London's fashionable Strand district.

Over a few beers, they swear an oath before God to blow up the King and the Parliament, thus ridding England of Protestants in general and Scottish Protestants in particular. After they have done this, they proceed to a little room at the back of the pub to celebrate mass.

May 1604 - October 1605 - over several rainy months in England
The terrorists cleverly manage to rent a cellar under the Houses of Parliament. They try to build a tunnel down into the cellar. But it's too difficult for them, so they have to hire lots of other people to help. Eventually, they finish the tunnel and begin to fill up the cellar with barrels of gunpowder. They cover the gunpowder with iron bars and faggots (no, not gay men! In this case the word refers to sticks of wood.)

October 18th - 26th 1605
The conspirators begin to feel sad as they realise that, after they blow the place apart, covert Catholic members of Parliament are going to be killed along with the infidel Protestant members. So they decide to send an anonymous letter to one of their Catholic friends, a member of the House of Lords, telling him to stay away from Parliament on November 5th. Somewhat predictably, the letter written to the Catholic Lord Monteagle reaches the Protestant King James.

November 4th 1605
King James has the cellars under the Houses of Parliament searched. Unfortunately, Guy Fawkes is in the cellar at the time. The King's soldiers decide that Fawkes is "A very bad and desperate fellow." Fawkes runs for his life.

November 5th, during the night
Guy Fawkes warns his fellow terrorists that he has been discovered. Meanwhile, the King sends lawyers and members of the government to check the cellar again. When Guy Fawkes comes back (silly Guy!) they arrest him.

Between November 5th and 31st January 1606
All the members of the Gunpowder Plot are rounded up, tortured, tried and, on 31st January, finally executed in the old palace yard.

Fair enough, you might say, for those days. After all, in the 17th century, torture and sadistically painful public executions were quite normal practices among all the states of Europe, and very popular as a spectator sport with the general public.

Modern day Britain
From that historic event to this very day, Britons have continued the yearly practice of burning Catholics, every November. Yes, it's true. Well, okay then - not quite true. We don't actually burn real Catholics - just pretend ones; but still, in this day and age, that's primitive and brutal enough.

What traditionally happens on firework night is that children make dolls out of old stockings stuffed with paper, put faces and clothes on them, and then sit the doll in a wheelchair, or a pushchair, and push "the Guy" around the streets, shouting:

"Penny for the guy!"
That is, they take "the Guy" out for a walk as an excuse to go begging. Adults are supposed to give the children money, which the children then go and spend on fireworks. In the evening parents and children light a fire, set off the fireworks and burn the Guy.

Guy Fawkes Night
Actually, nowadays, as parents grow less and less willing to let their children out on the streets alone, the practice of making a Guy and going begging is fast dying out in Britain.

But Guy Fawkes Night itself is still going strong. Many British families arrange Guy Fawkes Night celebrations in their own back garden (most British families live in houses with gardens, rather than in flats) to which they probably invite a few friends, or neighbours. A proper Guy Fawkes celebration involves lighting a big fire, in which you cook sausages and potatoes in their jackets, and setting off all sorts of different fireworks.

Since the whole thing takes place in early November, it's a chilly affair. I remember preparing for Guy Fawkes Night as a child by putting on as many as seven pairs of socks. But my feet were still cold all the same.

Favourite Fireworks
Guy Fawkes Night traditionally involves burning a Catherine Wheel - a firework with as grim and barbaric an origin as Guy Fawkes Night itself. A Catherine Wheel is a kind of firework in the shape of a wheel, which you're supposed to nail onto a tree loosely enough so that it can still spin round. Then you set it on fire, which - for reasons better known to physicists than to me - sets the wheel whirling round and round as it burns. The name Catherine Wheel is a reference to the martyrdom of St Catherine, who was allegedly killed by being tied around a wheel and rolled to her death. Funny that such a militantly Protestant occasion such as Guy Fawkes Night should choose to honour a Catholic saint - but hey, that's just one of history's little ironies.

Apart from Catherine Wheels, there are Roman Candles, so called because they, unlike other fireworks, don't leap in the air, but stay planted in the ground, while different coloured flames and sparks seem to fizz and pour out of them onto the ground.

Then there are Rockets - the (somewhat simplistic) fireworks that shoot high up into the air and then go "bang" with a deafening noise. Needless to say, these are the fireworks boys love most, while girls find them annoying and entirely uninteresting.

And then there are the "ooh-aaahs" - the ones that go up and up and up, pause for suspense, and then burst out into shooting flowers of colour, causing all spectators to go "Aaaah!"


gunpowder - explosive substance (proch strzelniczy)
treason - betrayal, disloyalty (zdrada)
effigy - doll, figure (kukła)
(to) persecute - oppress or harass (prześladować)
underground - clandestine, hidden, concealed (podziemie)
(to) rid - free from (pozbyć się, wytępić)
oath - promise, vow (przysięga)
(to) hire - rent or engage the services of sb/sth (wynająć)
covert - not openly practicing (potajemny, zakonspirowany)
infidel - an unbeliever (niewierny)
predictably - as expected, unsurprisingly (jak można się było spodziewać)
wheelchair - a chair mounted on wheels for the use of sick or disabled people (wózek inwalidzki)
pushchair - chair or cot mounted on wheels for the use of babies or small children (wózek spacerowy)
(to) beg - ask for charity (żebrać, prosić)
potatoes in their jackets - vegetable that is baked in its skin (kartofle w mundurkach)
chilly - cold (zimny)
affair - occasion (wydarzenie, impreza)
grim - sinister, ghastly, gloomy (ponury)
(to) spin - rotate, roll (obracać, kręcić)
(to) whirl round - spin quickly in circles, swivel (wirować)
martyrdom - martyr's pain or death  (męczeństwo)
militantly - aggressive, especially in the cause of politics or religion (wojujący, gwałtowny)
(to) leap [ - jump, dive (wystrzelić, wyskoczyć)
(to) fizz - bubble, sparkle (musować, syczeć)
suspense - anticipation, tension (napięcie, suspens)