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The literary fortunes of the Gunpowder Plot

On the evening of 5 November English people commonly mark Guy Fawkes Day by burning him in effigy. There is, however, at least one place where this does not happen. I discovered when living in York many years ago that no effigy was burnt in the bonfire at St Peter’s School, because it seemed an inappropriate way to treat an Old Boy of the School.

The conspirators in what we now know as the Gunpowder Plot failed in their aspiration to blow up the House of Lords on the occasion of the state opening of parliament, in the hope of killing the King and a multitude of peers. Why do we continue to remember the plot? The bonfires no longer articulate anti-Roman Catholicism, though this attitude formally survived until 2013 in the prohibition against the monarch or the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic.

One way of tracking how the plot is remembered is through literature. I discovered, for example, a sermon preached on 5 November 1606 by Lancelot Andrewes, who appears to have been the first literary figure to embed the idea of a tunnel dug under parliament by the conspirators into his account. Such a tunnel is improbable, and is unsupported by any archaeological evidence, but good conspiracies benefit from villains digging a tunnel! And this one allowed writers to indulge in the metaphor of undermining the government.

In a note to the first of John Milton’s gunpowder poems, the editor observes that Thomas Cooper prefixed gunpowder epigrams to his Nonæ Novembris Æternitati Consecratæ (Oxford, 1607).

The discovery of the Popish Plot in 1678 gave a fresh intensity to Guy Fawkes Day, so in Thomas Otway’s The Atheist, the epilogue by ‘Mr Duke of Cambridge’ refers to the rockets “on Queen Besse’s Night.” As Queen Elizabeth’s accession fell on 17 November, I needed a little scholarly assistance to understand this allusion. The scholarly note helped me out, explaining that “with the object of keeping aflame the anti-papist feelings of the London mob, the Whigs brought out their first Pope-burning pageant in 1679, having altered the date to the 17th of November, the day of Queen Elizabeth’s accession.”

My final example of the Gunpowder Plot in literature is a Latin poem by Thomas Gray. A helpful note in this edition informs me that it “was not uncommon for students at the universities to contribute Latin verses as part of the ceremonies of thanksgiving for the delivery of the nation.”

'Gordon Riots' by John Seymour Lucas. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: ‘Gordon Riots’ by John Seymour Lucas. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The genre of Gunpowder poems lived on, occasionally stimulated by anti-Catholic episodes such as the Gordon Riots of 1780, but in the wake of Catholic emancipation, the celebration came to centre on bonfires and fireworks, with no religious overtones — except, perhaps, in the bonfires at Lewes, in Sussex.

Now, great poets no longer write about the Gunpowder Plot, but at many bonfires around the country half-remembered lines from a traditional rhyme can still be heard:

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 Parliament.

I shall try to remember the lines as I stand with my grandchildren in the drizzle, watching a Guy being thrown onto a bonfire.

Featured image credit: The cellar underneath the House of Lords, as drawn by William Capon. Public domain Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    That’s “Nonæ Novembris Æternitati Consecratæ”

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