Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Gundpowder Plot - Guy Fawkes Night The Origins & Why It's Still Celebrated Today

Who remembers Guy Fawkes Night?  Back in the 1950's and 60's it became commonplace with the development of the quarter acre blocks of homes being developed. Every 5th of November families would gather around for the spectacular effects of the fireworks.

We used to have pinwheels shooting from the fence, roman wheels, penny bangers making lots of noise and was fun. Regulations regarding fireworks is a state issue. It got banned by most states in Australia in the 1980's by the governments of the country because too many people were getting injured by the fireworks. Currently, the only states to allow fireworks are the Northern Territory and Tasmania.

Fireworks in London 1952

But where did this all originate from and why did it remain such a tradition for families?

It became known as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  But in earlier centuries it was often called the Gunpowder Treason Plot or even the Jesuit Treason.  It came about as a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland. The group responsible for this failed attack were provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.

The group of plotters first met on the 20th May 1604. Robert Catesby was joined by some friends, Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright and Thomas Percy.  They met at the Duck and Drake, located in the Strand. A fifth person was Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was from York but he had been recruited by the group from Flanders, He had relevant experience, having already served in the Spanish army.

A plan was hatched to blow up Parliament House in Westminster and to this end they leased a small house located in the centre of Westminster, where Fawkes was placed as a caretaker, using the alias of John Johnson.

Parliament had been postponed to not sit again until the 5th November 1605.  In the meantime, the group had increased to a total of ten.  Robert Keyes, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Kit Wright were all related to the original members and one other was a servant of Catesby, Thomas Bates who was a very loyal servant and equally passionate to be involved.

In the March of 1605, the group proceeded to take out a lease of a ground floor cellar, which was located near the house they had rented earlier.  The cellar was positioned directly underneath the House of Lord.  They gradually moved in 36 barrels of gunpowder, which was enough to blow up everything in its vicinity, should it be ignited.

Guy Fawkes was rallying for support and went back to Flanders, where he was spotted by English spies, who reported his dealings.  A link was eventually made between Fawkes and Catesby. Still, more plotters were recruited, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby. The last two were of means and owned a large number of horses, which the plotters required to acquire for the plot to succeed.

The whole point of the uprising was to bring Elizabeth, daughter of King James I of England and VI of Scotland in as a puppet queen, to give the Catholics in England more empathy and religious tolerance. Which they felt had vanished during the reign of King James.

The plot was 'leaked' to the government via an anonymous letter on October 26th 1605. During a thorough search of the House of Lords, around midnight on the 4th November 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught 'red-handed' guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder and he was arrested. Others tried to flee from London as they became aware of the arrest of Fawkes.  They were captured, Catesby was shot and killed along with another, during an altercation with the Sheriff of Worcester. Eight of the surviving plotters were tried on the 27th January 1606.  All were convicted to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

By Unknown (printed for P. Brooksby, I. Deacon, I. Blare, I. Back.) -, Public Domain,

Following the thwarting of the plot, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King's escape from assassination, by lighting bonfires and this tradition continues today.

To read more about this fascinating story go here.  I hope you have enjoyed reading the story behind the tradition.


Fiona Tellesson
Sharing the passion of family history
Chief Genealogist
Experts In Genealogy


  1. I remember Guy Fawkes Day - loved the fireworks

    1. Thanks for your comment Jill! I have wonderful memories too...especially the Catherine Wheels Dad would light up on the old wooden fence...