Written by Louise Kettle.
Every year, on 5th November, the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. Local communities hold bonfires, place a “Guy” effigy on top and set off a spectacular array of fireworks. But what is all about?
The tradition dates back to a Parliamentary Act passed in 1606 (the Observance of 5th November 1605 Act) which called for an annual celebration and thanksgiving. The event was introduced to commemorate the successful thwarting of a terrorist attack against King James I of England and IV of Scotland – perhaps the most famous counter-terrorist operation in British history.
The year before, on 5th November 1605, a group of English Catholics had attempted to assassinate the King by blowing up the House of Lords at the state opening of Parliament. The objective was to remove King James, a Protestant, from the throne in order that he would be succeeded by his daughter Princess Elizabeth, a Catholic.
Even in 1605, the assassination of a state leader by a terrorist group was not a new phenomenon. Tyrannicide has existed since antiquity, whilst the Sicarii Zealots assassinated top targets – including a high priest – to try to expel Roman rule from the Holy Land in the 1st century. Even the term “assassin” derives from an 11-13th century Persian group who murdered crusaders.
Although the definition of terrorism is debated the gunpowder plotters followed the four most commonly agreed features. Firstly, they were using violence to achieve a political objective by installing a monarchy they believed would change repressive Catholic laws and be more sympathetic to their religious plight.
Secondly, the attack was designed to create fear beyond those who were immediately affected. The assassination attempt – although aimed at a particular individual – was focused upon what the King represented as a Protestant, leading to an increased concern by all those from the same denomination for their own safety and security.
Thirdly, the target selection was pertinent and poignant with huge propaganda intent. Not only was the body responsible for creating repressive legislation attacked as a symbol of that repression, but it was planned to be completed during a large, lavish, ceremonial state event. Hence it adhered to the idea of “propaganda by the deed” to create widespread awareness to the cause and inspire others to act similarly.
Finally, the tactic of bombing was chosen. As such the attack was indiscriminate and would have killed many Catholics and Protestants, as well as innocent civilian workers nearby and within the Palace of Westminster.
Thirteen conspirators were involved in the 5th November plot and in the run-up to the terrorist attack a number began to express their concerns over the fate of their fellow Catholics who would be in Parliament on the day of the explosion. On 26th October Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend. Concerned, he chose to share the letter with others, including, eventually, the King.
The night before the state opening the cellars of the House of Lords were thoroughly searched by authorities. Guy Fawkes, who was an experienced military fighter, had been given the responsibility of managing the explosives and lighting the fuse. The terrorist group had illegally amassed 36 barrels of gunpowder which they stored in an undercroft directly below the Palace of Westminster. Just after midnight Guy Fawkes was discovered with the explosives. Since then 5th November has been celebrated as a day of successful counter-terrorism, and should be remembered as such.