Who is that man? What is his story?
He is darkly dressed. Only his face, frowning, is in the light, the rest is hidden in shadows. He is being pushed and pulled as his right hand reaches for his sword. A soldierly-looking man is reaching for his right arm, as if to prevent him drawing it; that man’s sword is already drawn and flashes in the light.
The man reaching out is richly dressed in red and blue, and his breastplate protects him from attack. There are flashes of gold embroidery on his clothes, and the hilt of his sword is richly decorated – marks of power. His face is tense, his body poised for action.
The man in the doorway, also dressed in rich colours, is pulling the darkly frowning man toward the outside. We see tension and urgency in his body as he looks back, leans forward. He wants to get them outside, away from there.
Through the doorway we glimpse a dark city, the beginnings or ends of light in the sky. A soldier’s helmet gleams in the shadows, and the hilt of his sword glitters; he guards another man who looks out from the shadows, seemingly caught by surprise.
The title of the painting tells the story. “The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot” actually happened on November 5, 1605 in London, England. It was the culmination of a failed attempt to replace the Protestant king, James I, with a Catholic monarchy led by his nine year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth. The man being pulled away is Guy Fawkes, who was in charge of thirty-six barrels of gunpowder that had been hidden under the Parliament buildings. Those plotting James I’s overthrow intended to ignite them while he was there to open Parliament – the explosion would have leveled the buildings and killed many people.
Guy Fawkes was one of the leaders of this horribly violent conspiracy. A military man, he had the knowledge and ability to carry out the deed, to guard the gunpowder as it lay hidden and to light the fuse at the right time so that it would explode as James I was declaring Parliament open above.
The plot was discovered when someone tried to warn a Catholic member of parliament to stay away, for his own safety. That warning was passed along to others in authority, and the area under the parliament buildings searched. Guy Fawkes was found guarding the gunpowder, and caught. Other conspirators fled. There was a fight and some were killed. Those who were caught were tortured, tried, convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes managed to escape that very painful death by jumping off the scaffold to his death before his sentence was carried out.
The parliamentary records of the time give us the names of some of the people we see. The man with the sword is Sir Thomas Knyvett, nobleman and sheriff and a man loyal to King James I. The man pulling Guy Fawkes through the door is Edward Doubleday. The man in the corner, confronted by the soldier, is likely the man who moved the gunpowder. His name was Johnson, servant to Mr. Thomas Percye, one of the conspirators.
Henry Perronet Briggs painted this record of the event more than two hundred years later. What we see in this picture is his idea of how the scene might have been. It is designed to catch the tension of the times and our attention.
And we are drawn in. Even if we do not know the history he is painting, we know that there is a story here. And we can see who is on the side of right, and who of wrong – the heroes look brave and resolute (and well-dressed), the villains lurk in the shadows, frowning and confused by the failure of their plot.
Today the story continues in the tradition of Guy Fawkes Night, in the bonfires and fireworks and the burning of scarecrow-like figures that represent Guy Fawkes. And in the nursery rhyme below, part of which I still remember from childhood:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By god’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.
And what shall we do with him?”
Perhaps the answer is: we shall tell his story in picture and rhyme, and keep this little part of history, this story of a long ago struggle, alive.