Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. This evening, we continue in the vein of last week’s episode of St. Thomas Becket, and delve into the author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People – Venerable Bede, Saint, Doctor of the Church, and, to many, the father of English history. There are some Latin terms in here, and I will be applying my elementary language skills to pronounce them. Please bear with me if I make a few mistakes.
Bede was born in approximately 673 at Tyne in County Durham, England. At the age of seven, he was taken to the monastery at the abbey of Saints Peter and Paul at Wearmouth. He was soon moved to become one of the first members of the monastic community at Jarrow. This was only 5 or 6 miles from Wearmouth, and the two were meant to function under one abbot – for this reason, many sources cite Bede as entering the monastic life at Wearmouth-Jarrow. He was ordained a deacon at the age of 19 and became a priest at age 30. He never left this area, and yet he was one of the most learned men of the time throughout all Europe.
Very little of Bede’s actual life and the events therein are known – the best source of such knowledge is an addition to his Ecclesiastical History that he wrote after finishing the book when he was 59. The main concern of Bede is his writings – and he was well-written. He wrote over a wide range of topics, from natural history and science to Biblical commentary. His most famous work is that which has already been mentioned several times here – The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, or Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum as Bede originally titled it in Latin. It covers events from the arrival of Julius Caesar in 55-54 BC to the arrival of Augustine, the Roman missionary, in 597. It originally spanned over five different books and took up about 400 pages. Bede’s reasons for making such a record are seen clearly in his own words: “For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked men, the good, religious reader or listener is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse, and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.” Historia Ecclesiastica has been called the finest historical work in the early Middle Ages, and rightfully so. Also, aside from the history it provides, Bede’s writing contributed greatly to dating the time from the birth of Christ – he commonly used the terms anno ab incarnatione Domini (in the year from the incarnation of the Lord).
Aside from Historia, Bede put pen to paper and created texts offering commentary on many books of the Bible – he lists these works at the end of Historia and they dominate the list of his writings. He also wrote a history of the abbots of Wearmouth-Jarrow. He lists several other books in the end pages of Historia, and in his own words they are:
“A martyrology of the festivals of the holy martyrs, in which I have diligently tried to note down all that I could find about them, not only on what day, but also by what sort of combat and under what judge they overcame the world…A book of hymns in various metres and rhythms…A book of epigrams in heroic and elegiac metre…Two books, one on the nature of things and the other on chronology: also a longer book on chronology…A book about orthography arranged according to the order of the alphabet…A book on the art of metre, and to this added another small book on the figures of speech or tropes, that is, concerning the figures and modes of speech with which the holy Scriptures are adorned.”
It is quite easy to see that Bede was well-learned and well-written.
Bede is thought to have been writing even upon his deathbed. This account of his last days, written by Cuthbert (one of Bede’s contemporaries), describes it quite beautifully. As with the writing we encountered with St. Thomas, this excerpt is lengthy, but the writing is powerful and I think it most definitely bears listening to:
“On Tuesday before the Ascension he began to be much worse in his breathing, and a small swelling appeared in his feet; but he passed all that day pleasantly, and dictated in school, saying now and then, 'Go on quickly; I know not how long I shall hold out, and whether my Maker will soon take me away.' To us he seemed very well to know the time of his departure. He spent the night awake in thanksgivings. On Wednesday morning he ordered us to write speedily what he had begun. After this, we made the procession according to the custom of that day, walking with the relics of the saints till the third hour, (or nine o'clock in the morning;) then one of us said to him: 'Most dear master, there is still one chapter wanting. Do you think it troublesome to be asked any more questions?' He answered: 'It is no trouble. Take your pen and write fast.' He did so. But at the ninth hour (three in the afternoon) he said to me: 'Run quickly; and bring all the priests of the monastery to me.' When they came, he distributed to them some pepper-corns, little cloths or handkerchiefs, and incense which he had in a little box, entreating every one that they would carefully celebrate masses and say prayers for him; which they readily promised to do. They all wept at his telling them, they should no more see his face in this world; but rejoiced to hear him say: 'It is now time for me to return to him who made me, and gave me a being when I was nothing. I have lived a long time; my merciful Judge most graciously foresaw and ordered the course of my life for me. The time of my dissolution draws near. I desire to be dissolved, and to be with Christ. Yes; my soul desires to see Christ my king in his beauty.' Many other things he spoke to our edification, and spent the rest of the day in joy till the evening. The above-mentioned young scholar, whose name was Wilberth, said to him: 'Dear master, there is still one sentence that is not written.' He answered, 'Write quickly.' The young man said: 'It is now done.' He replied: 'You have well said; it is at an end: all is finished. Hold my head, that I may have the pleasure to sit, looking towards my little oratory where I used to pray; that while I am sitting I may call upon my heavenly Father, and on the pavement of his little place sing, Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.' Thus he prayed on the floor, and when he had named the Holy Ghost, he breathed out his soul. All declared that they had never seen any one die with such great devotion and tranquillity…”
Certainly, Bede went forth from this world according to the wishes he wrote at the very end of Historia: “And I pray thee, merciful Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously granted me sweet draughts from the Word which tells of Thee, so wilt Thou, of Thy goodness, grant that I may come at length to Thee, the fount of all wisdom, and stand before Thy face forever.” Bede has most certainly gotten his wish, and his remains now lie at Durham Cathedral.
One legend as to how Bede acquired the title Venerable is that a monk sat down to write the epitaph for Bede’s tomb and came out with “Hac sunt in fossa Bedae . . . . ossa,” or “Here are in this tomb Bede’s bones.” He wanted to add another word to complete the line, but could not think of one and went to bed to sleep on it. When he awoke the next morning, the paper he was writing on said, “Hac sunt in fossa
Bedae Venerabilis ossa,” or “Here are in this tomb Bede the Venerable's bones.” According to the fable, angels had written the extra word in during the night. Most likely, the term actually entered usage in reference to Bede at the Council of Aachen in 835. Over a thousand years later in 1859, English bishops petitioned the Vatican to make Bede a Doctor of the Church. This request wasn’t granted until 1899, when Pope Leo XIII declared that the Feast of Venerable Bede be celebrated on 27 May (the feast has since been moved to the 25th May) and he was officially made a Doctor of the Roman Church. This title is conferred on those who exhibit both brilliant witness of faith and skilful articulation and defence of Catholic doctrine. Bede is one of 33 Doctors of the Church and the only English Doctor. Venerable Bede is also the only Englishman in the Paradiso part of Dante’s Commedia Divina.
Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica is valued as the best source of knowledge concerning early English history, and has shed light on incredible amounts of information that undoubtedly would have gone unknown if not for this monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow. I know that I as an amateur historian am personally indebted to Bede and grateful for his life’s work.
That’s the end of this week’s episode. I am reluctantly announcing in advance that I am suspending production of British History 101 next week in light of the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. It is a time for me to see family and friends that I rarely get to spend time with, and with as much work as I am required to do over the break anyway, I want to maximize that time with them. I hope you will forgive me for this hiatus, and I assure you I will be back the following week.
A transcript of this and past episodes of my podcast can be found at Send questions, comments, rants, and raves to If I am at my computer, I can also be reached via Skype by the name britishhistory101, all in lowercase letters. Our music tonight is “Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin,” performed by O Fickle Fortune and available on Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. I very much appreciate everyone taking time out of their week to learn with me, and my best to you all. If you are in the United States, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and for those of you outside of my country I convey my warmest regards. Thanks again, and we’ll meet again soon.

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Friday, November 10, 2006


Musings on the podcast

I've been playing around with a few ideas over the past several weeks (I actually slipped one into this week's episode but forgot to mention it!) and I wanted to post them to the blog to get some feedback.

I'm fairly sure most people have noticed that each episode of BH101 is completely scripted - I post a transcript to the blog after recording, and it's pretty much verbatim what I've said in the 'cast. I've been considering making the 'cast a bit form, perhaps? Maybe I could just have a general set of show notes and just kind of talk as I make each point, rather than read from a script? I'm really not sure either way, as I know that if I write it all out I'll know exactly what I want to say before I start recording, but then again I really like podcasts that are a bit more relaxed. Now is the time for the listeners of British History 101 to make a change if they want it! Please let me know your thoughts/feelings on this, and email me with them!

For whatever reason, I just now realized that even though I use music in each episode and announce the work and artist, I've never included the whole song! The episode I released last night ended with the work in its entirety, and unless there's sentiment against it I'll probably continue to do so - that way, everyone can hear a bit more of the artist I'm playing and can maybe check them out on Magnatune. (On a side note - in case anyone is wondering, I don't make any money from British History 101, and Magnatune doesn't pay me to include the line at the end. It's part of my agreement with them so I can play music from their collection of artists.)

I'm thinking about perhaps implementing a "guest intro" segment to BH101. How well would that go over? I think it'd be great if each week a listener could send in an audio file with an opening line, introducing who they are and where they are from, before transitioning into the show proper.

Please feel free to email me and let me know what you think!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Thomas Becket was born in 1118, most likely on 21 December, to a middle class Norman family in London. Although he was from the middle class, Thomas was able to associate with those in the upper strata of society, spending much time with his father Gilbert’s rich friend Richer de L’aigle from whom he learned to hunt, ride, and behave as a gentleman – in other words, Thomas was well educated in social matters. At the age of 10, Thomas was sent to the Merton Abbey, where he learned to read. He completed his early education at the University of Paris. After university, Thomas entered into secretarial work for Richer de L’aigle, which it is probably safe to assume was due to his earlier connections with de L’aigle. Becket also worked for Osbert Huitdeniers, who was King Stephen’s Justiciar, a term which we would associate with prime minister in modern times. Around 1141, Becket earned the attention of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, served as a clerk to the archbishop, and became Theobald’s most trusted man. Robert of Clicklade gives us a pretty good idea of Thomas at that point in his life:
“To look upon he was slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose, and a straightly featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and loveable in his conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment and understanding that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.”
Theobald was very impressed with Becket, and trusted him with important work. He sent Thomas off to Bologna and Auxerre for a year to study civil and canon law. After his time on the Continent, Theobald ordained Becket a deacon in 1154 and then appointed him archdeacon of Canterbury.
Right about this time, King Stephen died, and Henry II took the throne. On Theobald’s advice, Henry appointed Thomas to be his chancellor. Thus, at the age of only 36 or 37, Thomas Becket became one of the most powerful subjects of King Henry II, falling behind only the justiciar of London. Henry was charmed by Thomas, and the two immediately became great friends, even though Thomas was 12 years older than Henry. Many history texts will cite the opinion of the time that the two men “had but one heart and one mind.” Theobald, having played a large part in Thomas’ rise to power, expected Becket to support the clerical faction whenever disputes arose between the Church and the sovereign, but more often that not Thomas sided with Henry – there is no doubt that he was fiercely loyal to his king. The two were extremely close, and Thomas was most assuredly one of, if not the, most trusted advisor of Henry. Becket is credited with reorganizing the imposition of a scuttage – a fee that could be paid in lieu of military service. He even accompanied Henry on a military expedition to Toulouse in 1159 – and Thomas certainly wasn’t known to shrink from battle.
It should be pointed out that Thomas shared another bond with King Henry – both lived in extravagance, and Thomas loved to show off his station in life. When traveling to France in 1158, Becket displayed such magnificence that it is thought the French said “"If this be only the chancellor what must be the glory of the king himself?"
Worldly though his behavior seemed to be, hardly any man dared to doubt Thomas’ piety – privately, it would seem he was devoted to God and Church, and worked very hard to maintain the Church’s power in England. Although he usually agreed with Henry, Thomas was not afraid to stand up and speak for the benefit of the Church.
Thomas saw the conflict this would cause when, in 1161, Archbishop Theobald died, and the Archbishopric of Canterbury was open. Over the course of the next year, Henry saw this as a way to strengthen his own power and position when conflict would arise with the Church – if he could install Thomas as Archbishop, he would have his own man inside the Church, and therefore could push his own reforms against the Church more easily – after all, Henry saw himself as supreme master of the land, and did not want to yield any authority to the Roman Church.. Dedicated as Thomas was to the Church, he felt obligated to tell Henry “I know your plans for the Church…you will assert claims which I, if I were archbishop, must needs oppose.” Henry pressed forward anyway and convinced Thomas to take the position. Thomas Becket was ordained a priest and consecrated bishop on 3 June 1162.
Becket’s consecration marked the end of his worldly life – he immediately changed his ways, and his private piety was brought to the public forefront. In modern terms, it could be said that he performed a complete 180 degree turnaround. He rid himself of his previously lavish lifestyle (along with his chancellorship) and became devoted to the interests of the Church – which, of course, conflicted with why Henry had made him Archbishop of Canterbury in the first place. Sir Winston Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, illustrates this change by saying “But whereas hitherto as a courtier and a prince he had rivaled all in magnificence and pomp, taking his part in the vivid pageant of the times, he now sought by extreme austerities to gather around himself the fame and honour of a saint. Becket pursued the same methods and ambitions in the ecclesiastical as previously he had done in the political sphere; and in both he excelled. He now championed the Church against the Crown in every aspect of their innumerable interleaving functions. He clothed this aggressive process with those universal ideas of the Catholic Church and the Papal authority which far transcended the bounds of our Island…”
One of the biggest issues causing distress between king and bishop was that of “criminous clerks.” At the time, men in holy orders who were accused of committing crimes would be charged in ecclesiastical, rather than secular, courts. Seeing people wriggle out from under his control, Henry strongly opposed this protection of the Church, and at the Council of Westminster in 1163 he demanded that those men tried and convicted in ecclesiastical courts also be punished by civil courts. The next year, Henry codified this demand, among other complaints against Church authority, in the Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket gave his oral assent but refused to sign the Constitutions. However, when Pope Alexander III voiced his opposition to the Constitutions, Becket openly refuted them. He was summoned to the Council of Northampton and accused of misappropriating funds when he was chancellor. Becket sealed his position against the king by refuting the council’s jurisdiction over himself, and the resulting hostilities led to Thomas’ flight to and exile in France. Although the subject of criminous clerks is only one among several major injuries Thomas saw against the Church, it was quite clear that Becket and Henry would never agree on relations between Church and State, and the Archbishop fled the country for fear of what would happen to him after his latest and loudest opposition to Henry’s power. Thomas left from Sandwich on 2 November and headed for France, where he was cordially welcomed by Louis VII. Three weeks after he left England, the Archbishop of Canterbury presented himself to the pope at Sens. The pope welcomed him warmly, but refused to accept his resignation from the Archbishopric of Canterbury. At the time, Frederick Barbarossa had placed an antipope on the papal throne in Rome, and Alexander feared that supporting Thomas too strongly would cause Henry to unite against him with Frederick.
Negotiations continued between the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the King of England for four more years, never with much change being made. Finally, Henry came to France and made a tenuous peace with Thomas, under threat of a papal interdict – under which Mass could not be celebrated, sacraments could not be given unless absolutely necessary, and Christian burials would be forbidden. The threat of an interdict was issued after Henry had his son crowned by the Archbishop of York – something that, at the time, was an enormous insult to Thomas. It had long been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prerogative to perform the crowning, and having York do it was the ultimate slap in the face to Thomas.
The crowning of Henry’s son had taken place in June of 1170. In December of that year, Thomas Becket returned to England, and promptly excommunicated the bishops who had taken part in the coronation. This enraged Henry, and his response has several different variations – I have heard at least five or six myself, but we’ll turn again to Winston Churchill for his take on Henry’s statement. Flying into a fit of rage, he purportedly yelled “What a pack of fools and cowards I have nourished in my house that not one of them will avenge me of this turbulent priest!” Henry probably said this only out of anger and didn’t actually mean much by it, but four knights who heard what Henry had said - Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton – took this as their call to action, and mounted their horses for Canterbury. When they arrived at the cathedral, they tracked down the archbishop and demanded the absolution of the excommunicated bishops. When Thomas refused, the knights left, only to return a short time later with a gang of armed men. They demanded “Where is the traitor?” Thomas replied “Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God.” The men tried to drag Henry from the Church to no avail, and so they murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury in his cathedral, supposedly in front of the main altar, before the eyes of astonished monks. The monk who supposedly carried the Archbishop’s cross, Edward Grim, was also wounded in the attack, and he gave one of the most detailed contemporary accounts of the assassination. Here’s an excerpt; it’s a bit long but I assure you it is an excellent account of the event:
“With rapid motion they laid sacrilegious hands on him, handling and dragging him roughly outside of the walls of the church so that there they would slay him or carry him from there as a prisoner, as they later confessed. But when it was not possible to easily move him from the column, he bravely pushed one [of the knights] who was pursuing and drawing near to him; he called him a panderer saying, "Don't touch me, Rainaldus, you who owes me faith and obedience, you who foolishly follow your accomplices." On account of the rebuff the knight was suddenly set on fire with a terrible rage and, wielding a sword against the sacred crown said, "I don't owe faith or obedience to you that is in opposition to the fealty I owe my lord king." The invincible martyr - seeing that the hour which would bring the end to his miserable mortal life was at hand and already promised by God to be the next to receive the crown of immortality - with his neck bent as if he were in prayer and with his joined hands elevated above - commended himself and the cause of the Church to God, St. Mary, and the blessed martyr St. Denis. He had barely finished speaking when the impious knight, fearing that [Thomas] would be saved by the people and escape alive, suddenly set upon him and, shaving off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God, he wounded the sacrificial lamb of God in the head; [my] lower arm was cut by the same blow. Indeed [I] stood firmly with the holy archbishop, holding him in his arms - while all the clerics and monks fled - until the one he had raised in opposition to the blow was severed…Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death." But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow he shattered the sword on the stone and his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church with the colors of the lily and the rose, the colors of the Virgin and Mother and the life and death of the confessor and martyr. The fourth knight drove away those who were gathering so that the others could finish the murder more freely and boldly. The fifth - not a knight but a cleric who entered with the knights - so that a fifth blow might not be spared him who had imitated Christ in other things, placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, ‘We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again.’ But during all these incredible things the martyr displayed the virtue of perseverance. Neither his hand nor clothes indicated that he had opposed a murderer - as is often the case in human weakness; nor when stricken did he utter a word, nor did he let out a cry or a sigh, or a sign signaling any kind of pain; instead he held still the head that he had bent toward the unsheathed swords.”
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was dead, murdered by agents of the King of England.
Canterbury cathedral immediately became a place of pilgrimage, and people began praying to him and vying just to touch pieces of his clothing or bits of his bones in the hope of being healed of various ailments. Pope Alexander canonized Thomas in 1173, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury became St. Thomas of Canterbury. The following year, King Henry did public penance, walking to Canterbury barefoot and allowing the monks there to whip him as he prayed at the site of the saint’s murder. The shrine of Canterbury remained a place of prayer and veneration until Henry VIII brought it down in 1538. St. Thomas Becket’s feast day is 29 December, the day he was murdered in 1170.
Some have placed an “a” between the names Thomas and Becket, turning his name into Thomas à Becket, probably in an attempt to compare the archbishop with Thomas à Kempis, the theologian who wrote “Imitation of Christ”. Although it is a nice touch, it isn’t exactly correct, and the more accepted form of the name is simply Thomas Becket.
In an interesting side note, readers of BBC Magazine voted Thomas Becket the second worst Briton in a thousand years, ranking behind Jack the Ripper and before King John (of Magna Carta fame). Those readers apparently saw Becket’s piety as phony, and thought of him as a greedy hypocrite. Regardless of how you feel about the saint, it is unquestionable that he stuck to his principles and carried out the duties of his office with gusto – he performed extremely well as Henry’s chancellor, and the ambition seen in his secular office transferred exactly into his office as Archbishop. He refused to compromise in the face of opposition and died for what he believed in.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Take a listen and I'll fix the facts for James I !

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Sunday, November 05, 2006



A huge THANK YOU to Ashleigh in Toronto for pointing out a HUGE glaring error in the Guy Fawkes episode of British History 101. I stated that Elizabeth I was James I/VI's mother; in reality, and what I intended to say, was that she was his predecessor. I'll let Ashleigh explain for me here:

James Stuart was NOT the son of Elizabeth Tudor, the "Virgin Queen" who died unmarried and childless. James was the son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (a cousin of Elizabeth), and her second husband Lord Darnley of England. When Elizabeth died in 1603 without an heir, the crown passed to James VI, who was one of her closest living relatives.

Again, thanks, Ashleigh!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. In this week’s episode, we’ll take a look at an upcoming date that is traditionally a day of celebration in England – 5 November, known throughout the country as Guy Fawkes’ Day.
In 1605, King James I of England (IV of Scotland) had recently arrived from Scotland. His predecessor, Elizabeth I, had made the English Church’s break from Rome even more concrete than her father Henry after his power struggle with the pope in the Vatican, but many Catholics still remained in the country and obviously wanted to continue worshipping as they had for centuries. It became clear that James wasn’t going to offer any more toleration for Catholicism than his mother, and Roman Catholics throughout the land became understandably upset at this.
Enter the Gunpowder Plot. The Gunpowder plot refers to the conspiracy and failed attempt to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament on the State Opening of Parliament in 1605, when the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons would all be together. The primary minds behind the Plot were Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, John Wright, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, and (later) Robert Keyes, and these men began to formulate their assassination in 1604. The band intended to decapitate the English government in one fell swoop, destroying King and Parliament both at once. Furthermore, the conspirators wanted to capture the king’s children, Prince Charles and Princess Elizabeth, so that after the attack they could install one as monarch and force them to allow Catholics the rights they felt they deserved.
The Plot originally began by renting a house attached to Westminster below the Prince’s Chamber. A tunnel would then be dug underground to the massive foundations of the House of Lords, through which kegs of gunpowder that were in storage at Lambeth across the Thames from Westminster would be smuggled in. However, a better opportunity soon cropped up. A chamber under the House of Lords was being rented out for storage, and when the tenant left his lease on 25 March 1605, Thomas Percy took it up and found himself in possession of the perfect hiding spot for all the gunpowder. The tunnel plan was abandoned. Throughout the summer and fall of 1605, details were worked out, and the date for the act was set for November 5. Guy Fawkes, who would operate under the alias John Johnson, servant of Thomas Percy, was designated the man to light the slow fuses that would detonate the barrels of explosive powder. He was to set sail for the European Continent as soon as he had completed his task.
With the complexity of the Plot, it was impossible to keep the secret among just those few men listed earlier, and the network grew considerably. Some of the less prominent conspirators began to get worried about members of Parliament who were Catholic themselves would die should the Plot go through to completion at the State Opening. Lord Monteagle, Member of the House of Lords and a known Catholic, received a letter bearing the following text on Saturday, 26 October:
My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care for your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance of this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow, the Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them.. This counsel is not to be contemned, because it may do you good and can do you no harm, for the danger is past as soon as you have burnt the letter: and I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.
Obviously, the receipt of such a letter (which was shown to Lord Cecil, England’s Secretary of State) was cause for much concern, and so on 4 November Lord Monteagle and Lord Suffolk, the Lord Chamberlain, conducted a search of the cellars below the Lords Chamber and spotted Fawkes, along with coal and wood that Thomas Percy had supplied in order to hide the barrels of gunpowder. At midnight, Sir Thomas Knyvett, one of the Court’s retainers and Justice for Westminster made a more thorough search with a group of men and found Fawkes again. This time, he posed as a Mr. John Johnson, servant of Thomas Percy. The men found Fawkes to be in possession of a watch, slow matches, and touchpaper – all essential elements to setting off the massive explosion that would have leveled Westminster. While being arrested, Fawkes offered no denial of his intentions and made it clear he was there to blow up the King and Parliament. He was taken to the King’s bedchamber and presented to King James, where he maintained his defiant attitude, saying that the King had been excommunicated and that dangerous diseases required desperate remedies. Guy Fawkes soon found himself on the way to the Tower of London, where torture awaited him.
The Clerk of the House, Ralph Ewens, made a marginal note of the event as part of the day’s business, saying, “This last night, the Upper House of Parliament was searched by Sir Thomas Knyvett, and one Johnson, servant to Mr. Thomas Percy, was there apprehended, who had placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the vault under the House with a purpose to blow [up] it and the whole company when they should here assemble.” King James made an emotional speech at the State Opening, saying that it would have been an honor to die among his own Commons (as the House of Commons would have been in the Chamber for the opening ceremony). He claimed that kings were subject to perils that mere mortals would never face, and that only his own cleverness had saved them all from death. James was surely flabbergasted when Parliament responded to his speech by more or less ignoring his speech and turning to the business of the day, specifically to discuss one Member of Parliament’s petition to be relived of his duties due to an attack of gout. James’ relationship with his Parliament was clearly shaky at best, but those details will be saved for a future episode. 5 November was a day of great rejoicing in London, and the following Sunday (10 November) was set as a day of Thanksgiving.
Most of Fawkes’ co-conspirators were caught within a week, tortured, and killed (if they weren’t shot on sight when they were found). All were set to be hanged, drawn, and quartered – they would be hung by their necks until almost dead (hanged), and then they would be disemboweled (drawn). Their genitalia would be cut off and burned before their eyes, along with the entrails recently removed from their bodies. They would then be cut into pieces (quartered). The chunks of their bodies would then be posted at prominent and visible locations around the city. The men were given a trial, which took place on 27 January 1606 in Westminster Hall. All but 1 pleaded not guilty. The executions were set for four days later. The lesser conspirators were to be executed at St. Paul’s Churchyard, while the so-called “leaders” of the Plot were to be killed at Old Palace Yard at Westminster, in front of the place they had planned to destroy. Although he had already been subjected to excruciating pain in order to extract a confession, Guy Fawkes managed to escape further suffering on his execution day. Immediately prior to being hanged until almost dead, Fawkes simply jumped off the scaffold – doing so would guarantee enough force on the noose that his neck would snap as soon as the rope fell as far as its length allowed. Fawkes died instantly. One of his co-conspirators, Robert Keyes, tried to same tactic, but to no avail – when he jumped, the rope simply broke, and he went straight to the drawing portion of execution.
A few months later, in May 1606, another person was executed in connection to the Gunpowder Plot – Father Henry Garnett, a Jesuit priest who acted as confessor to the conspirators. Father Garnett claimed that what he was told during the Sacrament of Reconciliation was protected by the Seal of the Confessional, and that he had tried to talk the men out of the act. He was killed anyway for protecting treasonous information.
5 November immediately became a national day of commemoration. An Act of Parliament was passed to make 5 November a day of thanksgiving for the “joyful day of deliverance”, and the Act remained in effect until 1859. People began to celebrate the event with bonfires, and soon the fiery festivities became tradition. Children began making effigies of Guy Fawkes, stuffing old clothes with newspapers or any other appropriate filling, and burning them – in essence, “burning the Guy.” In modern times, some places such as Lewes and Battle in Sussex hold large processions and public bonfires to celebrate. Bonfires in back gardens and fireworks can be found in most towns on the night of 5 November, and children show off their homemade “guys” for weeks before the event, raising money to buy fireworks. Many children have committed to memory a chant to remember why they are celebrating:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
We see no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow:
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!

Every year, the Yeoman of the Guard search the Houses of Parliament before the State Opening, a traditional ritual performed not for security’s sake but to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot. It would be difficult for the Yeoman to find anyone in the original cellar, anyway – it was damaged by fire in 1834 and destroyed when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt in the 19th century.
To this day, there is confusion as to the actual origins of the Plot. Most believe that it was an earnest attempt by the conspirators to overthrow the English government and install one friendly to Catholics. However, some think that Secretary of State Lord Cecil set the plot into motion, making the conspirators believe they were working of their own accord. The Secretary could then use the Plot to discredit Catholics within the country. Some even go so far as to think that Guy Fawkes was one of Cecil’s men, paid to plan the Plot but eventually taking the fall for Cecil. This leads to further mystery as the letter written to Lord Monteagle warning him away from the Opening of Parliament – was it actually written by one of the conspirators, or did Cecil send it to him to expose the alleged Plot? We may, and most likely will, not ever know. What we can be certain of is that 5 November will continue to be celebrated for many years to come.
A bit before James’ time, the Tudor family ruled Britain, and my fellow podcaster and British history enthusiast Lara Eakins has the perfect resource for all things Tudor:
Thanks, Lara. That’s it for this episode. Check out my blog at for a transcript of this and past episodes. Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to I’m borrowing a page from Matt’s Today in History’s playbook and making myself available, should I happen to be at my computer, via Skype by the name britishhistory101, all in lowercase letters. Our music tonight is “Sir Watkins’ Delight,” performed by Cheryl Ann Fulton and available on Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Until next week, my best to you all, and thanks again for learning with me. Now that we’re done here, go out and make some history!

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