The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot”
I well remember that poem from my childhood, reciting it by a bonfire on which an effigy of a man named Guy was burning. It marks a notable event in British history: the foiling of a plot to kill the King and all of Parliament.
For those not so familiar with British politics, even today, the State Opening of the British Parliament is a grand affair. The members of the House of Commons are summoned to the House of Lords to hear the monarch give a speech announcing the legislative programme for the forthcoming year. The programme will have been decided upon by the Ministers these days, of course.
On 5th November, 1605, the King was due to speak at the State Opening of only the English Parliament, England and Scotland at that point still being formally separate countries. That King, James I of England, had been James VI, king of Scotland, for well over 35 years and yet was still below the age of 40! He had been King of England for less than two years following the death of Elizabeth I and had proclaimed himself King of Great Britain only months before as an early step toward unification.
Matters were pressing. England and Spain were at war. James was a Protestant but the Spanish wanted to see a Catholic on the newly united British throne. Although James was known to be more tolerant of different religious views than his English predecessor, Catholics at home felt oppressed and in the English heartland some formed a plot to kill James and the assembled parliamentarians at the State Opening and then install James’s nine-year old daughter on the English throne as a Catholic Queen.
To cut a long story short, after hearing rumours, the authorities searched the Parliament building late at night on November 4th and in the basement was discovered one Guy Fawkes, with a fuse and a pocket watch and 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden under faggots and coal. Fawkes, of course, was not alone, but merely the front man of the plot. Many of the plotters left London and were killed in Staffordshire. Others were captured and soon suffered the rather gruesome fate of being hanged, drawn and quartered at the hands of public executioners in London.
Shortly afterward, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605 which required church services and sermons annually on that day. The bonfire and firework tradition started virtually immediately too and obviously continues throughout much of Britain over 400 years on, being known as Guy Fawkes Night, Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night. Early American records apparently show too that Guy Fawkes Night was popular in the colonies.
And, even to this day, no State Opening of Parliament takes place without a ceremonial search of the House of Lords basement!
So, what does all this have to do with the Guild?
Well, it turns out that no fewer than three of the thirteen plotters had surnames presently under study: Thomas BATES, Sir Everard DIGBY and Thomas PERCY.
We spoke with Nic Pursey, the owner of the PURSEY/Percy One-Name Study in connection with this piece. He has been studying the two names for over five years now and has his own website. Given the grand history of the Percy clan as Earls of Northumberland it appears that many more humble members of the Pursey tribe have over the years changed the spelling of their name, but Nic has yet to find any solid connection in lineage between the two names. Pursey appeared first in Hertfordshire and has another centre in Somerset, far from Northumberland! Nic has also written a recent piece on Thomas Percy, which you can see here: http://www.npp.me.uk/purseyproject/category/percies/. He tells us too that a Robert Percy, a relative of Thomas, married in Wiveliscombe, Somerset in 1615 and had four children in Taunton, adding to local spelling confusion. If you have Purseys in your study, Nic would be pleased to hear from you. You can send him a mail by clicking here.
This is the second in an occasional series. If you are a Guild member reading this, does your study have a special day for remembering your name, like 5th November or Trafalgar Day? Would you like us to publicize your study on that day? If so, send us an email by clicking this link.
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