It's difficult to “remember, remember the fifth of November” when you're uncertain what makes it so memorable. Guy Fawkes Day? Guy Fawkes Night? That guy with the beard from “V for Vendetta”? You need a primer on the Gunpowder Plot and a crash course in Catholic-Protestant history. Then all the bonfires and effigies will make sense.
Before we get into Guy — make that Guido — Fawkes, let's set the stage.
When Henry VIII, possessor of rotund belly and six wives, ruled England, the country was Catholic. At first. Henry's then-wife, Catherine of Aragon, could not bear him a male heir to the throne, and Henry could not bear to stay in an unfruitful union. Because the Catholic Church wouldn't grant him a divorce, he left the church. Then he got that divorce he needed.
Following (and Not Following) in Their Father's Footsteps
All of this was incredibly confusing for Henry's three children, who retained some Catholic religious beliefs but became politically opposed to the church's doctrine and did not look kindly upon Catholics in their kingdom.
After Henry's death, his son Edward took the throne, followed by Mary, who led a Catholic reign. But when Elizabeth became queen in 1558, England identified once again as a Protestant nation, and Catholics were forbidden from holding Mass, having Catholic marriage ceremonies and observing other religious rites.
Catholics living in England were hopeful when James of Scotland became king. His mother, Mary, was Catholic. Wouldn't he be sympathetic to members of her faith? This line of thought helped him garner support from the people of England, but ultimately, he also identified as Protestant — and was even less tolerant of Catholics than Elizabeth had been.
Frustrated and moved to action, many Catholics plotted to rid their country of the king. Of all the plots conceived to eliminate James, the Gunpowder Plot was the most notorious.
The Plot Begins
If you can imagine the cast of the "Ocean's Eleven" trilogy in breeches and broad collars, you've got an inkling of the crew Robert Catesby assembled to take down James and leaders of Parliament. They reasoned: kill James, and when his daughter takes the throne, she could be married off to a Catholic and redefine England's religious identity. To pull off his plot, Catesby initially recruited John Wright, Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy and, the most recognizable name among them, Guy Fawkes.
Fawkes was born in 1570 to Protestant parents but later became Catholic when his widowed mother remarried. He fought for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch Republic in the Eighty Years' War. He'd long carried a grudge against James and asked Spain's King Philip III to aid him in a rebellion against the Protestant king. Philip said no.
So when Catesby and his crew came knocking, Fawkes, now going by Guido (that's Italian for “Guy”) was eager to get involved. An accomplished military captain, Fawkes had experience using — and more importantly — acquiring gunpowder.
The plotters spent nearly 18 months organizing their death sentence for the king. They sourced 36 barrels of gunpowder and rented a building close to Parliament so they could tunnel underground and transfer the supply to Parliament's cellars. Unfortunately for them, the River Thames reliably flooded and thwarted their efforts.
On to Plan B
While they cobbled together an alternative plan, Thomas Winter's employer, Lord Monteagle — a Catholic who'd earned his title by spying on Catholics for the government — tipped off Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, that these men were plotting against James. No one loved plots quite as much as Cecil. As we mentioned, there were plenty of plots brewing during this time, and he took full advantage of them.
Cecil was a marketing genius. He'd allow plotters to plot until the last minute, then foil their plans and show the people of England how close they'd been to losing their leader. He thought James' near-assassinations endeared them to the king and repeatedly proved just how fanatical Catholics could be. When Cecil got word that the Gunpowder Plotters were having trouble with their tunnels, he brazenly opened up a rental space below Parliament, knowing they'd snap it up. And they did.
Fawkes oversaw the transfer of gunpowder to the space beneath Parliament, and he would be personally responsible for igniting the explosion.
But at midnight on Nov. 4, 1605, Cecil sprang into action. Fawkes was apprehended and arrested.
Fawkes' Final Days
Torture wasn't legal in England, but James made a special exception for Fawkes' questioning. Fawkes held up for two days, submitting himself to excruciating pain, before confessing and naming his co-plotters. When he signed the confession, his signature was crudely formed, suggesting that the torture had left him little control over his limbs and digits.
Fawkes was sentenced to a traitor's death, meaning that he'd be hanged, drawn and quartered (dragged by a horse to the gallows, hanged almost to the point of death, then taken down to have his testicles, bowels and head removed, his body effectively being cut into four quarters). Fawkes wasn't having it. At the gallows, he leaped to the ground and broke his neck. As for the rest of the crew, they were also executed on Jan. 30 and 31, 1606.
Nothing really changed for the Catholics. They kept carrying on quietly, and some historians suspect they'd have been worse off if the Gunpowder Plotters had succeeded. Catholic extremists only made their fellow countrymen more suspicious of the religion and its adherents.
As for those fellow countrymen, they're still celebrating the king's spared life. Every year on Nov. 5, the date when the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, the British light bonfires and raucously cheer on the health of the nation. The celebration, interchangeably called Guy Fawkes Day, Guy Fawkes Night and Bonfire Night is no longer anti-Catholic. While people used to burn effigies of Fawkes and the pope, it's more common now to burn effigies of celebrities and politicians. Fawkes lives on as a near-mythic figure. He's come to symbolize anti-authority movements and indubitably takes top billing in the Gunpowder Plot story, despite his role as a supporting cast member.
Do you love history as much as we do? Then be sure to check back in to HowStuffWorks Now every week. We'll be publishing a new (old) ridiculous history article every Monday.