Remember, Remember. Mark Bryant Looks at the Rich Tradition of Cartoons and Caricatures Inspired by the Gunpowder Plot

By Bryant, Mark | History Today, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Remember, Remember. Mark Bryant Looks at the Rich Tradition of Cartoons and Caricatures Inspired by the Gunpowder Plot


Bryant, Mark, History Today


The 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill James I, his family and most of Britain's politicians and aristocracy also occasioned one of the country's first ever political prints, more than 70 years before the birth of William Hogarth. The surname of its best remembered protagonist, Guy Fawkes, led to many pictorial puns on 'fox' and the plot itself, together with effigies, masks and bonfires, continues to be used as a satirical tool by cartoonists.

One of the earliest popular images of the 'Powder Treason' (as it was originally called) was a four-panel engraving by the Dutch artist Crispijn van de Passe the Elder (c. 1564-1637) published on January 30th, 1606. The top panel features the main Catholic conspirators; the second has them being dragged through the streets of London; the third shows their disembowelling; and the fourth pictures their heads stuck on poles.

Ten years later came Francis Herring's Latin verse history of the incident, translated by John Vicars (1582-1652) as Mischeefes Mysterie: or, Treasons Master-Peece, the Powder Plot (1617), which includes a woodcut of an eagle delivering a letter to the Secretary of State, Lord Salisbury, as King James looks on. The allusion is to the warning note that the Catholic Lord Monteagle received from his relative Francis Tresham (one of the conspirators) which he passed on to Salisbury, thereby exposing the plot.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A scene featuring Fawkes is shown in 'Guy Vaux the 2d' (December 16th, 1756), lampooning the wily Secretary of State Henry Fox shortly after his resignation from the Cabinet (which hastened the collapse of the Duke of Newcastle's government). Drawn literally as a fox (complete with bushy tail), he is dressed as Fawkes walking towards the Houses of Parliament beneath the watchful Eye of Providence. The caption reads: '"The Wicked is snared in the Work of his own Hands, thou hast seen it" Psalm 10th'.

Henry Fox's son, the statesman Charles James Fox, received the same kind of treatment at the hands of lames Gillray (1756-1815). In 'Guy Vaux' (c. June 1782) George III (with the head of an ass) is asleep on his throne--beneath which is a barrel of gunpowder--as Fox (as Fawkes, with a fox head and holding a lantern) appears at the door with his fellow conspirators. Two years later came 'Guy Vaux or F-Blowing up the Par-t House!!!' (January 30th, 1784), with Fox blowing up William Pitt's India Bill, and 'Guy-Vaux, discovered in his attempt to destroy the King and the House of Lords--His Companions attempting to Escape' (May 14th, 1791) featuring Edmund Burke discovering Fox and R. …

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