Britain Celebrates Its Favorite Failed Terrorist

This week, millions of people will throw a party for the man who once tried to blow the British Houses of Parliament to smithereens.

Guy Fawkes Night (search) is celebrated every year on Nov. 5 throughout the United Kingdom and in many British Commonwealth countries. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the events behind it.

The holiday is named for Britain's most famous traitor and co-conspirator of the Gunpowder Plot (search), a failed attempt to destroy London's governmental palaces and kill everyone inside.

Religion was the driving force behind the terrorist plot, explains Mark Nicholls (search) of St. John's College at Cambridge University.

"Fawkes belonged to a small, extremist group of Roman Catholics who wished to restore a Catholic England, and who saw no room to compromise with a ruling Protestant regime," Nicholls told LiveScience.

By 1605, when even the Catholic king of Spain had made peace with England, "Fawkes and his friends reasoned that they would have to act for themselves," Nicholls added.

Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder

King James I, the royal family and most of the Protestant aristocracy were scheduled to attend the official opening of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605.

Fawkes' gang had planned for months, rolling in a total of 36 barrels of gunpowder they had placed in a rented cellar beneath the House of Lords (search).

"The Plott was to blowe up the kinge with all the Nobillity about him in Parlament," Fawkes would later write in his confession, a document now held by the British National Archives.

Officials caught whiff of the plot on the day it was to be carried out, and Fawkes was executed for treason on Jan. 31st, 1606, after several days of royally-sanctioned torture.

If the plotters had succeeded, England could have descended into civil war, Nicholls says.

"They planned to draw on discontent over a Scottish monarch" — James I was the first King of England to belong to the Scottish House of Stuart — "to form an army and grab the throne. The explosion was, in other words, only the first blow in an attempted military coup," Nicholls explained.

[Civil war did break out in England 35 years later between two Protestant factions, culminating in the execution of James I's son, King Charles I, in 1649.]

Fire and fireworks

Today, Guy Fawkes Night celebrations involve fireworks displays and large bonfires, with schoolchildren decorating Guy Fawkes effigies to toss on the flames. The day is supposed to mark England's deliverance from extremism, but Nicholls guesses the political history of the event has been lost on most people.

"Now, it is more an excuse for a party," he admitted.

Guy Fawkes is even considered a kind of folk hero by some. In 2002, he was voted No. 30 by the public in a list of the "100 Greatest Britons of All Time," alongside other national heroes such as Winston Churchill and David Beckham.

Nicholls has an explanation for Fawkes' modern popularity. In a country known for tearing its politicians apart, Fawkes is seen as a kind of rogue revolutionary with the moxie to do what some disgruntled Britons only fantasize about.

"Guy Fawkes has become in a sense the typical English anti-hero — 'the only man to enter Parliament with good intentions,' as the flippant commonplace goes," said Nicholls.

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