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Remember, remember the fifth of November!

Portrait of Guy Fawkes published in Arthur Wilson's "The history of Great Britain being the life and reign of King James the First, relating to what passed from his first access to the crown, till his death"

Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, deserves special attention in this series of posts as the only contemporary holiday  that commemorates an historical event within the scope of EEBO-TCP: the infamous event known as the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament, which took place on November 5, 1605.

In an earlier post, we looked at Michaelmas, and noticed that this celebration of an epic battle among angels seems to have been as abstract and symbolic to the English half a millennium ago as it is to us today. November fifth hit much closer to home. When Guy Fawkes, his colleagues, or the Gunpowder Plot turn up in EEBO-TCP, we see not just a day on the calendar, but a deep engagement with history in the making.

In a full-text search of EEBO-TCP, “Fawkes” appears 198 times in 36 records. Five of these hits are false, referring to other Fawkeses (Richard, Michael, and Thomas). All the rest refer to Guy (or Guido) Fawkes, a participant in the Gunpowder Plot, and one of a few plotters to be captured and executed.

The earliest work to mention him, printed in 1606, contains a summary of the plot in verse, “Fit for to instruct the simple and ignorant heerein: that they be not seduced any longer by papists.” The excerpt below describes the capture of Guy Fawkes:

Fawkes at midnight, and by torch light,
there was found:
With long matches and deuises,
vnder ground.
Hauing found him, there they bound him,
and then sought:
For the Powder and prouision
in the vault.
This perceiued,
Fawkes bereued,
of his sence.
Said the Deuill, did that euill,
for our defence.
Yea this dreamer, and blasphemer,
Sathans Sonne:
Oft relented, and repented,
deede not done.

The rest of the plotters scattered and were pursued:

Some roade North-ward, some North-westward
there to showe:
That their treachery, and their butchery,
State did knowe.
Then like Wilde-men, and most vilde-men,
in strange fashion:
They got Armor, Shot and Powder,
for commotion.
Horse in Stable, strong and able,
they stole out:
Thus the compn’y, roade the country,
all about.
In the meane time, thus their foule cryme,
was proclaymed:
And so Papists, with vilde Atheists,
made ashamed.
Thus confounded, some were wounded,
as they fled:
Some are taken, all forsaken,
some are dead.

In the final stanza, the author places this most recent plot in the context of other conspiracies with which the audience would presumably have been familiar:

Eighty eight yere, wee in Gods feare,
may remember:
Gowries August, Pereyes vniust,
fift Nouember.
  • “Eighty eight yere,” alludes to the 1588 battles against the Spanish Armada and corresponding suspicion surrounding English Catholics
  • “Gowries August,” or the mysterious conspiracy of John Gowrie to assassinate King James I, attempted August 5, 1600 [1]
  • “Pereyes vniust,” likely refers to William Parry’s 1585 attempt on the life of Queen Elizabeth I [2]

The poem closes with a prescription for an annual Bonfire Night celebrated much as it is today in the UK:

These thinges require, Bels and bonfires,
on this day:
Musicke moste sweete, now were as meete,
to shew ioy.
Louely feasting, without wasting,
once a yeare:
Almes deedes giuing, with good liuing,
let appeare.
And take heede still, that the selfe will,
of this swarme:
Growe not desperate, to exasperate,
some new harme.

In fact, such an annual celebration was legislated in a bill introduced to Parliament in January 1606. [3]

To our TCP colleagues at Oxford, and to all our friends who celebrate it, have a safe and festive Guy Fawkes night!

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[1] Amy L. Juhala, “Ruthven, John, third earl of Gowrie (1577/8–1600),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, Oxford: OUP, , http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24371 (accessed October 28, 2011).

[2] Jacques-Auguste de Thou, The histories of the gunpowder-treason and the massacre at Paris together with a discourse concerning the original of the Powder-Plot; proving it not to be the contrivance of Cecill, as is affirmed by the Papists, but that both the Jesuits and the Pope himself were privy to it. As also a relation of several conspiracies against Queen Elizabeth., Early English Books Online (London : printed for J. Leigh at the sign of the Blew Bell near Chancery Lane end in FLeetstreet, 1676., 1676).

[3] Richard Cust, ‘Montagu, Edward, first Baron Montagu of Boughton (1562/3–1644)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19007, accessed 28 Oct 2011]

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