Gunpowder, treason and a thwarted plot 

Conspirators of 17th century Gunpowder Plot

Conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot - Credit: Getty Images

Bonfire night may have passed but do you remember Bengal Matches?

Growing up in the early 1970s, they were popular at this time of year, in the weeks leading up to bonfire night.

Although they came in a  matchbox, Bengal Matches were slightly larger and chunkier than normal matches.

They were a bit like sparklers because, when lit, they burned bright green or red for around 15 seconds, thanks to the barium or strontium nitrate they contained.

Even when I was just nine or ten years old, back then the lady in our local newsagents was happy to sell me Bengal Matches, along with bangers and jumping jack fireworks. Different times!

I used to love bonfire night. One of the popular ways to raise pocket money to buy fireworks for our November 5 back garden display was “penny for the guy”, when we would fill out an old pair of trousers and a shirt with newspaper, and using a balloon for his head, covered with a Guy Fawkes mask that came free with that week’s Whizzer & Chips comic.

We would sit with “Guy” on a busy street corner, asking passing adults to give us money.

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I recall one late October Sunday evening, around the corner from East Street Church in Worcester, passing a group of lads, with one of them dressed up with a Guy Fawkes mask on, trying to look motionless, as his mate said to my dad: “Penny for the guy, mister. And if you give me ten pence, I’ll even make him talk!”

Of course, back then, I had little to no understanding of the specific events in history that our annual firework celebrations commemorated.

“Remember, remember the fifth of November” was the rhyme we recited, but why?

For many centuries the power of the Pope and the Roman Catholic church had held sway throughout much of  Europe.

But that changed in the early 1500s due to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

In this country back then, as one monarch was succeeded by another, so the religious power fluctuated from Catholic to Protestant and back to Catholic.  

When James I became King of England in 1603, it was Protestantism that held sway – people could be fined for refusing to attend Protestant church services.  

Guy Fawkes was one of  a group of Catholic dissidents, led by Robert Catesby who, in 1603, began to plan an assassination attempt on the king.

The complex plot was more than two years in the planning, and included an uprising in the Midlands, the kidnapping of a princess and the blowing up of the largely Protestant Parliament, which if successful, could have led to James’ daughter Elizabeth becoming a puppet queen who would have been married off to a Catholic, resulting in the installation of a Catholic monarchy.

When the gunpowder, along with Guy Fawkes, were discovered in an undercroft beneath the Houses of Parliament, late on Monday, November 4, 1605, the night before the state opening of parliament, 36 barrels were found – a shocking amount.

A 2003 report by the Centre for Explosion Studies at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales determined that if Fawkes had been able to ignite those barrels of gunpowder, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey would have been completely destroyed, with damage done to structures as far as a third of a mile away.

The plotters' plan, which was hours away from achieving its goal and seemingly unstoppable, was thwarted because of an anonymous letter, sent the previous week to Catholic Lord Monteagle, warning him not to attend the opening of parliament on November 5.

Instead of heeding the warning in the letter to burn it, Monteagle turned it over to the king’s men.

Although sceptical of the letter’s warning, those in authority ordered a search of the palace of Westminster, just in case.

How different our history might have been, but for that letter.

As I sat and reflected on these events, an Old Testament verse, found in Proverbs 19:21, came to mind: “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”