Gunpowder Plot in popular culture

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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. The conspirators' aim was to blow up the House of Lords at the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605, while the king and many other important members of the 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.

In literature[edit]

The old 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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".[5]

With the phrase "A penny for the Old Guy", Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot acknowledges Fawkes (and the straw-man effigy burned every year on 5 November) in an epigraph to his 1925 poem "The Hollow Men".

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.[a][7] 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 5 November while protecting Barbara after she tells him the truth about her presence, 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 thirteenth century, as the ship contained weapons that could wipe out the Sontarans. Making contact with Fawkes and the others to confirm the plot's progress, the Doctor later manages to recover and alter one of the Rutan weapons hidden in the ship so it will instead wipe out the Rutans, then gives one weapon to each side, not telling them which is which, meaning that neither side can use them for risk of wiping out themselves. Before the TARDIS crew depart, the Doctor pays one last visit to Fawkes, and tells him that the world will remember what he did this day without revealing that he is destined to fail.

In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore, the school's headmaster, has a phoenix called Fawkes, named after Guy Fawkes.[8] According to tradition, a phoenix burns when it reaches the end of its life.

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."[9]

In theatre[edit]

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".[10] 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.[11]

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".[12] Ainsworth's novel was translated to film in the 1923 production of Guy Fawkes, directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Matheson Lang as Fawkes.[13]

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.[14] It received largely positive reviews, which noted its relevance to today's society and its ability to enlighten its audience.[15]

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 music[edit]

Cyberpunk band Pitchshifter's Un-United Kingdom, a song heavily critical of the United Kingdom government, features the line "and we could [all/still] learn a thing or two from Guy Fawkes" just before the refrain. John Lennon refers to the plot in his song Remember.

"Blow It Up, Start Again" is an orchestral piece composed by Jonathan Newman, premiered by the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras in 2012. In his composer's notes, Newman references Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the House of Lords. Carolina Crown Drum and Bugle Corps utilized the piece in their 2018 production, "Beast".

"Guy Fawkes Vs Che Guevara" was released on YouTube by Epic Rap Battles of History on 4 May 2019. The video poses the failed revolutionaries against each other in a rap battle.

On radio[edit]

On 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 1 November 1980, BBC Radio 4 broadcast Gunpowder Treason and Plot, written by A. J. Walton and directed by Margaret Etall and featuring Michael Spice as Guy Fawkes, Christopher Scott as Thomas Wintour, Anthony Hyde as Robert Catesby, Fraser Kerr as James I, Robert Lang as Walter Raleigh and John Moffatt as Robert Cecil.[16]

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.[17] 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:

  1. The Pilgrim - written by Theresa Heskins, with Carolyn Pickles as Ann - Could Anne Vaux, cousin of the Gunpowder Plot conspirator Robert Catesby, be involved?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. The Princess - written by Louise Ramsden, with Elizabeth Wofford - The plot has failed. Is the King's nine-year-old daughter now the target?
  5. 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 5 November 2009, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a slightly historically inaccurate special Afternoon Drama about Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot written by and starring the comedic group The Penny Dreadfuls with Kevin Eldon as Fawkes.[18] The special was repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra on 6 November 2011.

On film and television[edit]

The Gunpowder Plot is the central theme of the second part of Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, a 2004 TV miniseries, with Robert Carlyle as King James and Michael Fassbender as Guy Fawkes.

On 22 October 2014, BBC Two broadcast Gunpowder 5/11: The Greatest Terror Plot written/produced/directed by Adam Kemp.[19] 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.

The plot and the rhyme were referenced in the BBC Sherlock episode "The Empty Hearse" aired on 1 January 2014. Sherlock and Dr. Watson must stop a planned terrorist attack against the House of Lords on 5 November, where a late-night hearing on an anti-terrorist bill is being held.

In October/November 2017, the BBC broadcast the 3-part drama Gunpowder, starring Kit Harington as Robert Catesby and Tom Cullen as Fawkes. Mark Gatiss, Peter Mullan and Liv Tyler also starred.[20]

In verse[edit]

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,
Poor old England to 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") 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.[21]

From Calderdale: The Ryburn Valley Gunpowder Plot Nominy Song

Calderdale had a plentiful store of rhymes and nominies, or short pieces of doggerel. Many of them were common to Yorkshire generally, where Gunpowder Plot rhymes were numerous.[22]

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.[23]

Guy Fawkes mask in protests[edit]

Since the release of the 2006 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".


The public ranked Fawkes 30th in the BBC's 100 Greatest Britons,[24] and he was included in Bernard Ingham's list of the 50 greatest people from Yorkshire.[25]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ [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.[6]


  1. ^ Demaray (1984), pp. 4–5
  2. ^ Demaray (1984), p. 17
  3. ^ Quint, David (1991), "Milton, Fletcher and the Gunpowder Plot", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 54: 261–268
  4. ^ Harrison Ainsworth, William (1841), Guy Fawkes; or, The Gunpowder Treason, Nottingham Society
  5. ^ Sharpe 2008, p. 128
  6. ^ Moore & Lloyd (1989), p. 272
  7. ^ Alan Moore (10 February 2012), "Viewpoint: V for Vendetta and the rise of Anonymous", BBC
  8. ^ MuggleNet | The World's #1 Harry Potter Site – Deathly Hallows Movie, The Wizarding World, JK Rowling, and much more Archived 25 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Dickens, Charles (1844). Martin Chuzzlewit. Chapman & Hall.
  10. ^ Sharpe 2008, p. 118
  11. ^ "Olympic Theatre", The Musical World, vol. 33, p. 221, 7 April 1855, retrieved 13 May 2010
  12. ^ Sharpe 2008, p. 120
  13. ^ Gunpowder Plot Society Library, Gunpowder Plot Society, retrieved 29 April 2010
  14. ^ 5/11, Edward Kemp, retrieved 5 November 2014
  15. ^ 5/11 Reviews, Edward Kemp, retrieved 5 November 2014
  16. ^
  17. ^ Gunpowder Women
  18. ^ Afternoon Drama
  19. ^ Gunpowder 5/11: The Greatest Terror Plot
  20. ^ Gunpowder, BBC, retrieved 21 December 2017
  21. ^ Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 4, No. 6 (December 1945), p. 258
  22. ^ Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, Volumes I-IV (1902). Published by the Society, p. 9
  23. ^ Marsde, F.H. Some Notes on the Folklore of Upper Calderdale Folklore, Vol. 43, No. 3 (30 September 1932), pp. 249–272, Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
  24. ^ Top 100 Greatest Britons,, 24 October 2007
  25. ^ Wainwright, Martin (24 October 2007), "The 50 greatest Yorkshire people?", The Guardian, retrieved 4 May 2010


  • Demaray, John G. (1984), Simmonds, James D. (ed.), "Gunpowder and the Problem of Theatrical Heroic Form", Milton Studies 19: Urbane Milton: The Latin Poetry, University of Pittsburgh Press, ISBN 978-0-8229-3492-9
  • Moore, Alan; Lloyd, David (1989), "Behind the Painted Smile", V for Vendetta, Titan Books, ISBN 978-1-84576-227-8
  • Sharpe, J. A. (2008), Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-01935-5