Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bonfire Bright

This one I suspect many (if not most) USians became familiar with the name Fawkes from the character in Harry Potter. I recall one English friend of mine being very surprised to discover that Bonfire Night isn't celebrated in the US. So for those of you who don't know what Bonfire Night is all about, here's a really quick, dirty, rundown:

In the early 1600s, Guy Fawkes was involved in what was called the Gunpowder Plot. It was basically a failed assassination plot to kill James I of England VI of Scotland (the guy who was King of England after Elisabeth I). He was caught on 5 November, and  people lit bonfires in celebration. The tradition continues to this day as Bonfire Night. 

There's a couple things I've heard about both the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes, that I'll tackle here:

1) Guy Fawkes was a lone conspirator. 

2) He piled barrels of gunpowder in the Parliament basement.

3) The gunpowder was old, so there was actually no danger. 

So are those true?

1) Guy Fawkes was a lone conspirator. 

Guy Fawkes was just the most famous conspirator. Other known conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot were  John WrightThomas WintourThomas Percy, Robert KeyesThomas BatesRobert WintourChristopher WrightJohn GrantSir Ambrose RookwoodSir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham* Fawkes was the guy in charge of the gunpowder, and the one caught in the Parliament building with the gunpowder, so he just got the most press. 

2) He piled barrels of gunpowder in the Parliament basement.

This one is a bit trickier. The Parliament building that stands in London today isn't the same Parliament building that Fawkes put the gunpowder in. It was remodeled in 1822. The room was actually on ground floor level, not subterranean. ** The gunpowder was hidden under firewood, which Fawkes claimed to be watching over.

3) The gunpowder was old, so there was actually no danger.

Gunpowder is tricky. Gunpowder can go "bad" but still be explosive. *** It's a mix of sulfurcharcoal, and potassium nitrate, and can be surprisingly resilient, even in some bad conditions.  The trick is that if the powder goes "bad," you need more of it to get the chemical reaction to take off. So even if it's been rated as bad for firearms use, you wouldn't want to throw a canister of old gunpowder into a fireplace. The Gunpowder Plot was using old powder, but they also had 36 barrels of it. ****

The question if it would have actually exploded has been debated for centuries. For the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, a documentary program decided to re-crate it and see if it would have worked. *****  They reconstructed the 17th-century Houses of Parliament, filled the appropriate area with the right amount of "bad" gunpowder, and lit it on fire. 

It looked like this:

And if for some reason that embedded video isn't working, you can see it HERE.

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