Remember Remember the 5th of November

By | 5 November 2014

Remember remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot


Taken from Statutes at Large

Taken from Statutes at Large

As it’s the 5th of November we thought we would write a quick blog post relating to Guy Fawkes Night (or as it was originally called Gunpowder Treason Day).  The events of the 5th November 1605 are fairly well-known in the UK, but the observance was actually set down in law right from the start in an act passed in 1606 called the Observance of 5th November Act 1605 (3 Ja 1  c 1).  This act (although repealed) laid the foundations for hundreds of years of celebration of the saving of King and Parliament (also many years of muddy fields and loud fireworks!).

Penny for the Guy?

1930s 'Penny for the Guy!' by Paul Townsend (used via Creative Commons)

1930s ‘Penny for the Guy!’ by Paul Townsend (used via Creative Commons)

For those with a curiosity about the gentleman behind the strange looking effigies being tossed onto bonfires around the country, you will be happy to know that the Bodleian has many works on Guy (Guido) Fawkes.   Some of these are online as well including  a 1902 book by Henry Hawkes Spink  on the Making of the Modern Law database (available to OU members) which entices readers from the start with the sentence:

One of the unsolved problems of English History is the question: “who wrote the Letter to the Lord Mounteagle?”


If that has wetted your appetite for more knowledge on the subject, a quick search on SOLO shows that there are 101 books available on the man and 360 books on the gunpowder plot.  A few of those books are sitting here in the Law Library.  There are 2 accounts of the trial, one published in 1934 titled Trial of Guy Fawkes and others (the gunpowder plot).

The second is a 1834 reprint of Les reportes del cases in Camera stellata, 1593 to 1609.  This work is a selection of cases including the trial of the gunpowder plot, (the trial begins on pg 251).

photo 1

High Treason?

Interested in the crime Guy Fawkes et al were executed for?  The Bodleian Law Library has 107 books on treason (mostly related to historical cases as you would imagine!).  The Treason Act 1351 outlines the offences that constitute treason (or high treason to distinguish it from petty treason) which were:

  • Compassing the death of the King, Queen or eldest son
  • Violating the Queen, or the King’s eldest daughter unmarried or the eldest son’s wife
  • Levying war
  • Adhering to the King’s enemies
  • Killing the chancellor, treasurer or judges in the execution of their duties

Various statutes have amended and added to this, notable legislation includes the Treason Acts of 1695, 1708, 1790 (repealed), 1975 (repealed), 1814, 1817 (repealed), 1842, and the Treason Felony Act 1948.  Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators faced a grisly punishment and even after 1965, when capital punishment was abolished, you could technically still hang for high treason.  However today (since the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, s.36  abolished the death penalty for treason and piracy) the maximum you would get is life imprisonment.

So happy Guy Fawkes night to those that celebrate but remember, if you are planning on a spectacular homemade display – check out the Firework Regulations 2004.

Firework by Gablif, reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence

Firework by Gablif, reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence