The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot …
Why ever does the nursery rhyme tell us to remember this particular day? Today 5 November is all about bonfires, firework displays and toffee apples – and very enjoyable it is. But unlike the family fun we associate with it, the nursery rhyme spells out a different story – the story of a murderous plot.
Guy Fawkes was a key character in this plot. Born in 1570 he grew up in York with his Protestant father and Roman Catholic mother. When Fawkes was eight years old his father died and his mother remarried a Roman Catholic – so Fawkes was brought up in a Roman Catholic home in England, which was a Protestant country.
Fawkes attended a local grammar school in York and later joined the army, where he became an experienced but disillusioned soldier. With a group of Roman Catholic friends he tried to persuade the King of Spain to win religious freedom for Catholics in England by invading our country. But the King of Spain refused to help. So he and some friends decided to take matters into their own hands – by blowing up the House of Lords on 5 November 1605 during the opening ceremony. They rented a cellar beneath the chamber and smuggled in 36 barrels of gunpowder.
However, the plot was exposed when one of the conspirators wrote an anonymous letter to his friend, Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from Parliament that day. The letter was immediately forwarded to other lords who organised a group of soldiers to search the Houses of Parliament.
Guy Fawkes was found with the gunpowder, arrested and tortured. He was hung on 31 January 1606.
Why should Christians remember?
If Fawkes and his fellow conspirators had succeeded, England might well have turned from being a Protestant land to one dominated by Roman Catholicism. There would have been less religious freedom and Roman Catholic traditions and beliefs would have been forced upon the people.
This would have caused serious problems because Roman Catholic doctrine differs from Protestant teaching and makes the RC Church the final authority in matters of religion instead of the Bible.
Most importantly, the Church of Rome teaches the doctrine of justification by works – which means that to get to heaven we must ‘serve Jesus’ by trying to live up to God’s standards.
On the other hand, the Bible says that people are sinners and always fail to reach these standards, no matter how hard they try (and we know that, don’t we?) Christians, therefore, ‘are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ (Romans 3:24). As soon as we have trusted in Christ we ‘are not under law, but under grace’ (Romans 6:14).
Of course the Bible also teaches that we should live a life of ‘good works’ but it makes clear that our good works are a consequence of our salvation, not its cause (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The failed plot had several lasting effects. Because it was discovered, the Bill of Rights of 1689 states that no king or queen of England can be Roman Catholic or marry a Roman Catholic. This was passed by Parliament 83 years later and is still in force today.
Therefore it is a good thing for Christians to remember the 5 November. By God’s grace and providence, the Gunpowder Plot failed, the Bill of Rights became law and England was kept from becoming a Roman Catholic country. Instead, our country became a society moulded by the Bible – an inheritance we benefit from even today.