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Bonfire Night 5th November
Guy Fawkes and the Plot to Blow up Parliament!

November 5th is a significant day in the history of England. It is the date of the opening of Parliament. On this day, in 1605, now known as Bonfire Night, a plot to blow up the King of England and his entire Parliament was thwarted with the capture of a man called Guy Fawkes.

Ever since this day, on 5th November, all over Britain, people remember the plot by lighting bonfires and letting off fireworks. Effigies of Guy (also known as Guido) Fawkes, called "Guys" are made and thrown on the bonfires.

This tradition began when thirteen Catholic men who were tired of religious persecution decided to take drastic action, and assembled 36 barrels of gun powder in a cellar under the Houses of Parliament.

So what is the significance of the Gun Powder Plot to the gem world?

Well if the plot had been successful some of the oldest known gemstones in the world would have been lost forever. Today, they are part of the Crown Jewels.

King James 1st, who reigned at the time of the Gun Powder Plot, wore a big blue sapphire pendant which is now known as the Stuart Sapphire.

Imperial State Crown with the Stuart Sapphire

The Stuart Sapphire has been part of the royal household for 800 years and has been owned by various kings and queens of Scotland and England. It measures 38 mm by 24 mm and weighs 104 carats. It is an oval shaped cabochon that it is not completely flawless. It also has a hole drilled in one end, as it would have been worn as a pendant during James' reign.
The source of the Stuart Sapphire was most probably Sri Lanka. A quite remarkable distance for the 13th century. Sri Lanka was the only known source in the world for large blue sapphires at this time.

Since it is a sapphire it has a Mohs hardness of 9. Its hardness has helped it to survive since at least 1214 when it was used in the coronation of Scottish King, Alexander 2nd.

Today the Imperial Crown is on display with other Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. The Crown also holds the Black Prince's Ruby, (which is actually a spinel) and the famous St Edward's Sapphire.

Stuart Sapphire
Stuart Sapphire

So the sapphire survived and the historical legacy continues. But what became of Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters?

Guy Fawkes' and his team of plotters had met in a pub called "The Duck and Drake Inn" in The Strand, London. The other men were Thomas Wintour, Christopher Wright, Robert Catesby, John Wright and Thomas Percy.

Since Fawkes had served as a mercenary in Spain, he was chosen to manage the placement of the gunpowder barrels in the cellar and 36 barrels were hidden. However, the crown became aware of the plot and Guy Fawkes was found in the cellar guarding the gunpowder on November 4th. He was promptly arrested.

Even King James himself was involved in questioning Fawkes. Fawkes said his name was John Johnson and refused to confess to anything. On November 6th, King James gave permission for the torture of Fawkes to progress from "gentler tortures" to "the worst". It is thought that he was at least subjected to the "rack".

Signatures by Guido Fawkes
Signatures by Guido Fawkes

On 7th November Fawkes broke and confessed. Here you can see two signatures by Guido Fawkes. The latter was written after his torture. By November 9th, after 4 days of torture, he had named the other 5 conspirators. All of the conspirators were either captured or killed.

On January 27th, 1606 the trial of the conspirators began. All were found guilty. Four days later, on Friday 31st, Guido Fawkes was executed in the garden of St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster. He was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.

A nursery rhyme that appeared at this time goes like this:
"Remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot." It is still being remembered and recited in British schools today.

So what other gems would have been lost if Guy Fawkes had been successful in assassinating the King?

The Black Prince's Ruby
The Black Prince's Ruby

The Crown also holds the Black Prince's Ruby (which is actually a spinel), mentioned above. It is one of the world's most famous rubies and dates back to at least 1366. It was probably mined at the Afghanistan border. It measures 5.08 cm in length and is about the same in width. The weight is estimated at about 170 carats. As is common in ancient stones, it was drilled at one time to be worn as a pendant and the hole was later covered up by a small ruby.

The other sapphire on the Crown, St. Edward's Sapphire, is perhaps even older than the Black Prince's Ruby. It was originally set in the coronation ring of Edward The Confessor, (1042 AD). It was worn on the ring of Edward when he was buried. His body was exhumed 200 years later and his jewelry was recovered. Since he was thought to have been a saint, his sapphire is given pride of place and appears right at the top of the crown. This is to protect the wearer.

St. Edward's Sapphire
St. Edward's Sapphire

St. Edward's Sapphire is set in the centre of the cross and is a rose cut blue sapphire, of unknown weight. It measures 17 mm by 17 mm.

The four surrounding pearls were worn by Elizabeth 1st as earrings.

Today, due to the actions of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, the reigning monarch only enters Parliament once a year. Amazingly, before the monarch enters Parliament, the cellars are still searched by the Yeoman of the Guard prior to the visit.

After the criminals had been executed, King James passed a law making the celebration on 5th November an annual event. Such is the infamy of the plot that even the birth name of Guido Fawkes, "Guy" is now used as a term for a male. This stems from the effigies made of Guy Fawkes, called "Guys" by the people of England.

Today, you can see the Stuart Sapphire in the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. The crown also holds 3,000 diamonds, 277 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and four rubies.

We hope you've found this article interesting. Why not email us with your thoughts or any questions? We always like to hear from our customers.

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  • First Published: November-02-2011
  • Last Updated: August-16-2017
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