Guy Fawkes & The Gunpowder Plot - Guide for Kids
Updated: Aug 21
We all know the rhyme:
“Remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
In Britain, we often sing this rhyme on the 5th of November every year, as a pretend Guy Fawkes is hoisted up on top of a bonfire and fireworks fill the skies with colour and noise.
But with all the excitement of “Bonfire Night” (or “Guy Fawkes Night”), it can often be easy to forget the real story behind this unusual festival. What are the gunpowder and treason referred to in the rhyme? Who is Guy Fawkes and what did the poor chap do that was bad enough to deserve to be ceremonially burned on a bonfire every year?
Let’s begin at the beginning…
Catholics VS Protestants:
Way back in the year 1533, King Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry another woman, Anne Boleyn. But the religion that England followed at the time, the Catholic religion, didn’t allow for this to happen. So Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and established a new Church of England. He divorced his wife and married Ann Boleyn instead. Problem solved.
But after Henry’s split from the Catholic Church, the people of England were left divided. There were now two core religions that constantly fought against each other - the Catholics who followed the Catholic Church - and the Protestants who followed the new Church of England.
Each side was met with heavy persecution – violence, ill-treatment, and bloodshed – from the other party. This continued for many years, through the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Henry’s daughter), and into the reign of King James I in 1603.
Who Was Guy Fawkes?:
Guy Fawkes was born in 1570 and was raised as a Protestant. But he converted to the Catholic Church after his father died and his mother re-married a Catholic man. Around the age of 21 years old, Fawkes went to Europe and fought in the army for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch forces in the “Eighty Year War”. It was during his time in the Spanish army that Fawkes became an expert at using explosives. He also took on the name “Guido”, meaning “Guy” in Italian.
After he left the Spanish army, Fawkes travelled to Brussels. It was here that he met a man called Thomas Wintour. Both followers of the Catholic Church, Fawkes and Wintour talked about the idea of killing King James I to try to stop the persecution of Catholic people in England.
What Was The Gunpowder Plot?:
Thomas Wintour introduced Guy Fawkes to Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, and John Wright. Robert Catesby shared a plan with the four gentlemen. His plan was to kill King James I and members of the King’s government by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. The plotters were later joined by Robert Keyes and many other accomplices.
Catesby, Fawkes, and their fellow plotters hired a cellar underneath the House of Lords. They filled it with 36 barrels of gunpowder. Their plan was for their expert on explosives, Guy Fawkes, to light the gunpowder with a slow fuse and make a quick escape. After the explosion, the group would then go their separate ways and flee from London as quickly as possible.
What Went Wrong?:
The plotters were concerned about fellow Catholics being killed in the explosion. They wrote a letter to Lord Monteagle, who was the brother-in-law of one of the plotters. In the letter, they warned him not to go to the parliament building on the 5th of November. This turned out to be a mistake, as the letter ended up in the hands of James I’s Chief Minister who ordered searches of the parliament buildings for any danger.
Just hours before the attack was due to take place on 5th November 1605, Fawkes and the barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the cellars. Fawkes was found to have matches and slow fuses in his pockets.
Fawkes was quickly arrested. At first, he pretended to be called “John Johnson”. But James I gave permission for the authorities to torture Fawkes and he soon revealed the true nature of the Gunpowder Plot and the names of the other plotters.
What Happened to Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters?:
King James I ordered the arrest of all of the plotters named by Guy Fawkes. Robert Catesby and three other accomplices were killed when trying to escape from the authorities. The remaining plotters, including Guy Fawkes, were imprisoned and put on trial for High Treason.
All of the plotters were found guilty and sentenced to death by being Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered. This was a gruesome way to die: the person was first dragged along behind a horse to the place where they were to be put to death. Then they were hanged by the neck until almost dead before being removed from the noose to have their intestines hacked out of their torso. The person would then have their head chopped off and the remains of their body cut into four quarters that would be displayed around the city for all to see.
Fawkes’ death was due to take place on 31st January 1606. But to avoid this grisly form of punishment, it is said that Fawkes jumped from a ladder on the way up to the gallows to break his neck and kill himself.
Guy Fawkes Night:
The year after the failed Gunpowder Plot, British Parliament declared November 5th as a public day of thanksgiving. Over 400 years later, we still hold celebrations on Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night) on November 5th every year to remember how the plotters nearly killed the King and his government. We put a dummy on the bonfire to represent Guy Fawkes and set off fireworks.
Fun bonus fact: After the Gunpowder Plot, the royal guard started doing checks for explosives underneath the Houses of Parliament before any Kings or Queens made a visit, to make sure it was safe. This is a tradition that still continues to this day.