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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Across the pond tonight and tomorrow, the United Kingdom and V for Vendetta movie fans are celebrating Guy Fawkes Day celebrations. Enjoying any excuse for celebration and fireworks I began wondering if the Smithsonian had any connection to the Gunpowder Plot and or Guy Fawkes.  To my delight, after searching in our SIRIS database I found it in the Archives. It always amazes me what can be found in this collection.
Thomas Percy, Gunpowder Plot Conspirator
Thomas Percy
Courtesy of the
Smithsonian Institution Archives

James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, was related to a man named Thomas Percy. Thomas Percy was one of the conspirators in the Gun Powder Plot.  The failed plot was an attempt to assassinate King James I of England and the House of Parliament by blowing up barrels of gunpowder hidden in a cellar below Parliament’s buildings. On November 4, 1605, authorities caught Guy Fawkes in the cellar with all the materials necessary for explosives. Guy Fawkes Day celebrates Fawkes capture on that fateful day.

This interesting revelation led me to think how little people know about James Smithson. In fact, Smithson is a man shrouded in mystery. His personal papers were lost in a fire in the Smithsonian Castle in 1865 and until Heather Ewing reconstructed his correspondence in The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution and the Birth of the Smithsonian, much of Smithson’s story remained unknown.  So who was this enigmatic man who left his inheritance to a country he never visited?

James Smithson
James Smithson
Courtesy of the
Smithsonian Institution Archives
Born in France, Smithson was the illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland, Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie. Originally named Macie, after his parents’ deaths he changed his name to Smithson. Smithson was a naturalized Englishmen and was educated at Oxford’s Pembroke College. He studied the natural sciences and became a skilled chemist and mineralogist. Smithson spent most of his life in pursuit of scientific knowledge desiring to make it on merit, not his inheritance. In 1826, Smithson drafted his will and left a unique clause stating that if his nephew Henry James Hungerford died without any heirs, that the whole of his property was to go to the United States of America “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion among men.” Three years later in Genoa, Italy Smithson died and the rest is history.

Thus, in honor of James and his more conspiratorial relative let’s take a note from the famous Guy Fawkes poem and …

Smithsonian Institution Castle
Smithsonian Institution Castle
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
                                           Remember, remember Smithson forever,
                                               The donor of the Smithsonian’s spot
                                       I know of no reason why Smithson was feeling,
                                                  To increase our knowledge a lot.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Courtney.

    Does the Smithsonian have any more details about the timing if the actual capture of 'Guido Fawkes'? From my history lessons whilst growing up in England I always remember being taught that whilst the initial search of the cellar took place on the 4th, Fawkes would not actually be apprehended until a second search of the undercroft in the small hours of the 5th.

  2. Hi Toby,

    I used outside sources to read up on Guy or Guido Fawkes. Here at the Archives we had the picture and the connection, however I did not have any material on the Gunpowder Plot. So I read up on it and what I can gather is that either on Nov. 4th or 5th Fawkes was caught lurking around Parliment. The reason why I say 4th or 5th is because it seems he was caught close to midnight. I am unsure if it was before, on or after the stroke of 12. Some sources have said on the eve of the planned attack others say on the night before the planned attack. Perhaps someone who speacializes in British history could clear this up. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Think you'll find it's called Bonfire Night not Guy Fawkes Day!

  4. My resident Brit says that while Bonfire Night is certainly more popular or colloquial know, Guy Fawkes Day is just as accurate. This may be a "potato potata" thing.

  5. In my research I saw it called both, but in order to highlight who the historical conspirator was I went with Guy Fawkes Day. Thanks for adding that in though.

  6. Yes! It is just as correct to use either term. Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes' Day. The celebration is worldwide these days. The largest concentration of bonfire societies is in Sussex, UK. They refer to the entire communal celebration as "Bonfire"
    Guy Fawkes was apprehended on midnight November 6. The date of the plot and subsequent celebration (an official government celebration in the prayerbook till late 19th century) was arrived at not by the consultation of celtic seasonal custom but by the repeated Perogation or cancellation of the meeting of parliament. The original date for parliament meeting was to be much earlier in the year.
    Guy Fawkes was born in York England where his baptismal records record him as "Guy Fawkes" Guido was a name used temporarily by Fawkes when he was representing the plotters in their negotiations with the king of Spain to invade England.
    These plans were thwarted just before the plot by a peace treaty between Spain and England but the involvement of secular politics reflects the fact that the plot was more political than religious. While the plotters were Catholics their interest was not so much with religion but with their own prosperity and social status. Many had taken part in the Essex rebellion after which they got off with fines and were allowed back to their important postitions at court.
    The plot is worthy of celebration in all democratic lands because had it gone forward the development of democracy in England would have been set back significantly as absolutism would have been strengthened. This would have impacted the timeline for the american revolution which owed much to the evolution of democracy slight as it was in England previous.
    Guy Fawkes Celebrations in Boston and New York lead to the stamp act protests with members of bonfire societies (see boston's north side south side) bringing established rituals for the fifth of november to the stamp act protests.

    Here in Linthicum Maryland the Center for Fawkesian Pursuits Bonfire Society (the only one of its kind in North America) conducted its 26th Celebration last saturday. We are absolutely traditional and are linked to Hastings Borough Bonfire Society in Sussex, UK. We exhange bonfire firewood and knowledge.
    For more information on our celebration which is FREE and open to the public go here
    We strive to make this a self-help community event. Next year we hold it on November 5 (always the nearest saturday)
    For more information on the plot and its celebration go here
    I can be contacted here
    Hopefully next year the first two volumes of my extensive study of the celebration will be out. At present we have in print the one and only collection of all of the bonfire prayers in existence along with celebration basics.
    You can get a copy here
    Publication sales keep our celebrations going.
    Thanks for this important information and for your innovative bonfire Prayer verse.

    Conrad Bladey