Today is Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating the day in 1605 when police foiled the so-called Gunpowder Plot by seizing Guy Fawkes before he could blow up the English Parliament. Fawkes was a British soldier who had converted to Roman Catholicism at a time when the British government was making it a crime to be a Catholic. Catholic Masses were held in secret chapels, clergy had to go into hiding and sleep in closets, and families that refused to attend Protestant services suffered crippling fines.
Fawkes became so disgusted by British Protestantism that he left England and enlisted in the Spanish army in the Netherlands. He became known as a soldier of great courage. At that time, a small group of Catholics were secretly planning to assassinate the Protestant King James I, and they enlisted Fawkes to help them execute the plot, and he agreed.
They rented a cellar under the Parliament building, and Fawkes planted more than 20 barrels of gunpowder there, in the hopes of blowing up the king. The rest of their plan included an uprising in the Midlands, and the crowning of a puppet queen: the king’s young daughter, Elizabeth. But an anonymous tip gave up the plot to the authorities and Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed, ready to light the fuse. He managed to withstand torture on the rack for two days before giving up the names of his co-conspirators.
For Catholics, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot only worsened their oppression. They could no longer practice law, serve as officers in the army or navy, nor vote in local or parliamentary elections. Some British authorities even suggested that Catholics should have to wear red hats in public.
November 5th came to be celebrated as a holiday in England and in the early American Colonies. People would build bonfires, light off fireworks, and burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. But even in England, the holiday has been overshadowed by the American import of Halloween, and British adults often lament how no one really celebrates Guy Fawkes Day anymore.