Gunpowder Plot in popular culture
The Gunpowder Plot was a failed assassination attempt against King James VI of Scotland and I of England by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby. Their aim was to blow up the House of Lords on 5 November 1605, while the king and the entire Protestant aristocracy and nobility were inside. The conspirator who became most closely associated with the plot in the popular imagination was Guy Fawkes, who had been assigned the task of lighting the fuse to the explosives.
The young John Milton, in 1626 at the age of 17, wrote what one commentator has called a "critically vexing poem", In Quintum Novembris. The work reflects "partisan public sentiment on an English-Protestant national holiday", 5 November. In the published editions of 1645 and 1673, the poem is preceded by five epigrams on the subject of the Gunpowder Plot, apparently written by Milton in preparation for the larger work. Milton's imagination continued to be "haunted" by the Gunpowder Plot throughout his life, and critics have argued that it strongly influenced his later and more well-known poem, Paradise Lost.
William Harrison Ainsworth's 1841 historical romance Guy Fawkes; or, The Gunpowder Treason, portrays Fawkes in a generally sympathetic light, although it also embellishes the known facts for dramatic effect. Ainsworth's novel transformed Fawkes into an "acceptable fictional character", and Fawkes subsequently appeared in children's books and penny dreadfuls. One example of the latter is The Boyhood Days of Guy Fawkes, published in about 1905, which portrayed Fawkes as "essentially an action hero".
The main character in the comic book series V for Vendetta, which started in 1982, and its 2006 film adaptation, wore a Guy Fawkes mask.[nb 1] In the comic and in the film, "V" succeeds in blowing up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November (1997 in the comic, 2021 in the film). Its film adaptation opening shows a dramatised depiction of Fawkes's arrest and execution, with Evey narrating the first lines of the poem of Guy Fawkes Night.
In the Doctor Who Virgin Missing Adventures novel "The Plotters", the First Doctor and his companions Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright and Vicki become involved with the Gunpowder Plot when the Doctor visits to investigate, learning that the plot was aided by a member of the king's court—who intended to expose the plot and thus impose more stringent anti-Catholic measures—and a brotherhood of self-styled warlocks who hoped that they would gain power in the ensuing chaos if the plot succeeded. During their investigation, Guy Fawkes is killed before November 5, but a member of the court who was part of the brotherhood is tried as Fawkes, thus preserving history. The Eleventh Doctor, Amy Pond and Rory Williams also become involved in the Plot in the Doctor Who: The Adventure Games computer game, where the Plot was manipulated by rival aliens the Sontarans and the Rutans to recover a Rutan spaceship that had crash-landed underneath the location where Parliament would be built in the twelfth century, the Doctor managing to recover and disarm the Rutan weapon hidden in the ship so that neither side can use it.
In the novel Martin Chuzzlewit it is said that a member of the Chuzzlewit family was "unquestionably" involved in the Gunpowder Plot, and that Fawkes himself may indeed have been a scion of the family's "remarkable stock."
By the 19th century, Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot had begun to be used as the basis for pantomimes. One early example is Harlequin and Guy Fawkes: or, the 5th of November, which was performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on 16 November 1835. After the Plot is discovered, Fawkes changes into Harlequin and Robert Catesby, the leader of the Plot, into Pantaloon, following which "pure pantomime begins". Fawkes also features in the pantomime Guy Fawkes, or a Match for a King, written by Albert Smith and William Hale and first performed in 1855. The opening scene shows an argument between Catesby and Fawkes over the fate of Lord Monteagle, the man who raised the alarm after receiving an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on 5 November 1605. Catesby wants to save his friend Monteagle, but Fawkes, who regards him as an enemy, wants him blown up with the rest of the aristocracy. The two fight, at first with "doubtful" swords and then with bladders, before Fawkes is "done". The remainder of the pantomime consists of clowns acting out various comic scenes unrelated to the Gunpowder Plot.
The play Guido Fawkes: or, the Prophetess of Ordsall Cave was based on early episodes of the serialised version of Ainsworth's 1841 novel. Performed at the Queen's Theatre, Manchester, in June 1840, it portrayed Fawkes as a "politically motivated sympathiser with the common people's cause". Ainsworth's novel was translated to film in the 1923 production of Guy Fawkes, directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Matheson Lang as Fawkes.
In August 2005, a play called 5/11 which (slightly inaccurately) explains the social and political climate up to, and including, the attempt to blow up Parliament was launched at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Its cast included Hugh Ross as Cecil, Stephen Noonan as Catesby and Alistair McGowan as King James. It received largely positive reviews, which noted it's relevance to today's society and its ability to enlighten its audience.
The Gunpowder Plot is the central motif in the 2009 play Equivocation written by Bill Cain, which explores the dangers of telling the truth in difficult times. It considers a scenario in which the British government commissions William Shakespeare to write a definitive history of the plot in the form of a play.
In 5 November 1945, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in an episode of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes entitled "The Gunpowder Plot", in which their client James Stuart (who claims to be a descendant of King James I) is terrified that his cousin Guy Fawkenby is planning to kill him on Guy Fawkes Day by recreating the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Their investigation does turn up many parallels to the original Gunpowder Plot, but takes a sudden and unexpected twist at the end. This episode is available for download on many sites.
On 6 November 2005, to mark the 400th anniversary of the plot, BBC Radio 3 broadcast The Gunpowder Plot written by Jonathan Davidson and directed by David Hunter, with David Calder as Cecil, Sean Arnold as Lord Popham, Cal Macaninch as King James I, John Henshaw as Father Henry Garnet, Hugh Dickson as Father Oldcorn and Helen Longworth as Anne Vaux.
In 2005, BBC Radio 4 presented a series of five 15-minute plays, each written by a different playwright, entitled Gunpowder Women. Each play dealt with a woman who was somehow connected with the events of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plays are linked by the interrogation of Anne Vaux, cousin of conspirator Robert Catesby. The series was rebroadcast in November 2014 on BBC Radio 4 Extra:
- The Pilgrim - written by Theresa Heskins, with Carolyn Pickles as Ann - Could Anne Vaux, cousin of the Gunpowder Plot conspirator Robert Catesby, be involved?
- The Mother - written by Deborah Catesby (an actual descendant of conspirator Robert Catesby), with Tina Gray - Robert Catesby's mother is concerned about her son's plans. But could she be a conspirator too?
- The Sister - written by Kate Shaw, with Suzanne Cave - Lord Monteagle is warned not to go to Parliament. Did his sister Mary send him the letter?
- The Princess - written by Louise Ramsden, with Elizabeth Wofford - The plot has failed. Is the King's nine-year-old daughter now the target?
- The Wife - written by Stephanie Dale, with Peter Meakin and Deborah McAndrew - Thomas Bates, the servant of conspirator Robert Catesby, faces execution and his wife is desperate to speak with him before he meets his fate.
On film and television
On 22 October 2014, BBC Two broadcast Gunpowder 5/11: The Greatest Terror Plot written/produced/directed by Adam Kemp. The story is a dramatization, using the actual words of Thomas Wintour (Jamie Thomas King), Guy Fawkes and state interrogators, of the events from Wintour's recruitment of both Fawkes and his own brother to his capture on 8 November and of the final days of the conspirators after 5/11.
Several traditional rhymes have accompanied the Guy Fawkes Night festivities. "God Save the King" can be replaced by "God save the Queen" depending on who is on the throne.
- Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
- The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
- I know of no reason
- Why the Gunpowder Treason
- Should ever be forgot.
- Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
- To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
- Three-score barrels of powder below
- To prove old England's overthrow;
- By God's providence he was catch'd (or by God's mercy*)
- With a dark lantern and burning match.
- Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.
- Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
- And what should we do with him? Burn him!
In more common use the "bonfire cry" is occasionally altered with the last three lines (after "burning match") being supplanted by the following;
- A traitor to the Crown by his action,
- No Parli'ment mercy from any faction,
- His just end should'st be grim,
- What should we do? Burn him!
- Holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring,
- Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King!
Some of the Bonfire Societies in the town of Lewes use a second verse reflecting the struggle between Protestants and Roman Catholics. This was widely used, but due to its anti-Roman Catholic tone has fallen out of favour.
- A penny loaf to feed the Pope
- A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
- A pint of beer to rinse it down.
- A fagot of sticks to burn him.
- Burn him in a tub of tar.
- Burn him like a blazing star.
- Burn his body from his head.
- Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
- Hip hip hoorah!
- Hip hip hoorah hoorah!
A variant on the foregoing:
- Remember, remember the fifth of November
- Gunpowder, treason and plot.
- I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
- Should ever be forgot.
- Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
- Gunpowder, treason and plot!
- A stick or a stake for King James' sake
- Will you please to give us a fagot
- If you can't give us one, we'll take two;
- The better for us and the worse for you!
Another piece of popular doggerel:
- Guy, guy, guy
- Poke him in the eye,
- Put him on the bonfire,
- And there let him die
Or, today used frequently, instead of "Put him on the bonfire", "Hang him on a lamppost".
...and another variant, sung by children in Lancashire whilst begging "A Penny For The Guy":
- Remember, remember the fifth of November
- It's Gunpowder Plot, we never forgot
- Put your hand in your pocket and pull out your purse
- A ha'penny or a penny will do you no harm
- Who's that knocking at the window?
- Who's that knocking at the door?
- It's little Mary Ann with a candle in her hand
- And she's going down the cellar for some coal
The following is a South Lancashire song sung when knocking on doors asking for money to buy fireworks, or combustibles for a bonfire (known as "Cob-coaling"). There are many variations, this is a shorter one:
- We come a Cob-coaling for Bonfire time,
- Your coal and your money we hope to enjoy.
- Fal-a-dee, fal-a-die, fal-a-diddly-i-do-day.
- For down in yon' cellar there's an owd umberella
- And up on yon' cornish there's an owd pepperpot.
- Pepperpot! Pepperpot! Morning 'till night.
- If you give us nowt, we'll steal nowt and bid you good night.
- Up a ladder, down a wall, a cob o'coal would save us all.
- If you don't have a penny a ha'penny will do.
- If you don't have a ha'penny, then God bless you.
- We knock at your knocker and ring at your bell
- To see what you'll give us for singing so well.
From Calderdale: The Ryburn Valley Gunpowder Plot Nominy Song
- Here comes three jolly rovers, all in one row.
- We're coming a cob-coiling for t' Bon Fire Plot.
- Bon Fire Plot from morning till night !
- If you'll give us owt, we'll steal nowt, but bid you goodnight.
- Fol-a-dee, fol-a-die, fol-a-diddle-die-do-dum !
(Repeated after each verse.)
- The next house we come to is a sailor you see.
- He sails over the ocean and over the sea,
- Sailing from England to France and to Spain,
- And now he's returning to England again.
- The next house we come to is an old tinker's shop,
- And up in one rook there's an old pepper-box-
- An old pepper-box from morning till night-
- If you'll give us owt, we'll steal nowt, but bid you good-night.
Use of "Guy Fawkes" mask in anti-establishment protests
Since the release in 2006 of the film V for Vendetta, set in a dystopian United Kingdom, the use of the "Guy Fawkes" mask that appears in the film has become widespread internationally among anti-establishment protest groups. The illustrator of the comic books on which the film was based, David Lloyd, has stated that the character V decided "to adopt the persona and mission of Guy Fawkes – our great historical revolutionary".
- [quoting a handwritten note by Dave Lloyd] Why don’t we portray him as a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those papier-mâché masks, in a cape and a conical hat? He’d look really bizarre and it would give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved all these years. We shouldn’t burn the chap every Nov. 5th but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament! [end of handwritten note] (...) [due to Dave's idea] All of the various fragments in my head suddenly fell into place, united behind the single image of a Guy Fawkes mask.
- Demaray 1984, pp. 4–5
- Demaray 1984, p. 17
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