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Britain Celebrates Its Favorite Terrorist

Revellers in costume hold burning torches through Lewes, England, Friday, Nov. 5, 2004, as part of a centuries old festival tied in the with anniversary of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. (AP Photo/John D McHugh)

This week, millions of people will throw a party for the man who once tried to blow the British Houses of Parliament to smithereens.

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated every year on Nov. 5 throughout the United Kingdom and in many commonwealth countries. This year marks the 400th anniversary.

The holiday is named for Britain's most famous traitor and co-conspirator of the Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to destroy London's governmental palaces and assassinate everyone inside.

Religion was the driving force behind the terrorist plot, explains Mark Nicholls of St. John's College at Cambridge University.

"Fawkes belonged to a small, extremist group of Roman Catholics who wished to restore a Catholic England, and who saw no room to compromise with a ruling protestant regime," Nicholls told LiveScience. By 1605, when even the Catholic King of Spain had made peace with England, "Fawkes and his friends reasoned that they would have to act for themselves."

36 barrels of gunpowder

King James I, the royal family, and all of his protestant aristocracy were scheduled to attend the official opening of the parliament on Nov. 5. Fawkes' gang planned for months, rolling in a total of thirty-six barrels of gunpowder they placed in a rented cellar beneath the House of Lords.

 "The Plott was to blowe up the kinge with all the Nobillity about him in Parlament," Fawkes would later write in his confession, a document now held by the British National Archives. Officials ultimately caught whiff of the plot on the day it was to be carried out, and Fawkes was executed for treason on January 31st, 1606, after several days of royally-sanctioned torture.

If the plotters had succeeded, England could have easily descended into civil war, Nicholls says.

"They planned to draw on discontent over a Scottish monarch to form an army and grab the throne. The explosion was, in other words, only the first blow in an attempted military coup," Nicholls explained.

Fire and fireworks

Today, Guy Fawkes Night celebrations involve fireworks displays and large bonfires, with schoolchildren decorating Guy Fawkes effigies to toss on the flames. The day is supposed to mark England's deliverance from extremism, but Nicholls guesses the political history of the event has been lost on most people.

"Now, it is more an excuse for a party," he admitted.

Guy Fawkes is even considered a kind of folk hero by some. In 2002, he was voted No. 30 by the public in a list of the "100 Greatest Britons of All Time," alongside other national heroes Winston Churchill and David Beckham.

Nicholls has an explanation for Fawkes' modern popularity. In a country known for tearing its politicians apart, Fawkes is seen as a kind of rogue revolutionist with the moxie to do what some disgruntled Britons only fantasize about.

"Guy Fawkes has become in a sense the typical English anti-hero, 'the only man to enter parliament with good intentions' as the flippant commonplace goes."

Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.