"Remember, remember the fifth of November...Gunpowder, treason and plot."
A Traitor Is Born
“Remember, remember the fifth of November…” Guy Fawkes was born around the 13th April 1570 in the English city of York. He was the only son of Edward and Edith Fawkes. Edward died when Guy was nine years old. Edith married Denis Bainbridge from Harrogate, he was a devout Catholic. His influence and that of Guy’s teachers at St. Peter’s School formed and solidified his devotion to the faith. Fellow students from St. Peter’s were implicated in the Gunpowder Plot with Guy Fawkes. St. Peter’s was unwittingly a terrorist hub in the late 1500’s.
Meeting With Fate
During the 1590’s and early 1600’s Guy participated in the Eighty Years War between Spain and the Low Countries, on Spain’s side. In Spain he was known as Guido Fawkes and aside from the fighting he attempted to generate interest in a Catholic rebellion in Protestant England but he met with little success at the Spanish court. In spring 1604 Guy’s comrade Hugh Owen introduced him to Thomas Wintour. Wintour set up a meeting between Guy and Robert Catesby who revealed his plot to assassinate King James I of England/VI of Scotland by blowing up the Houses of Parliament as the king carried out the State Opening of Parliament in July 1605. He intended to place James’ Catholic daughter Princess Elizabeth on the throne to ensure a Catholic succession and an end to the widespread persecution of Catholics. Their meeting was the start of Guy’s involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.
The Gunpowder Plotters Proceed
Back in London, the main conspirators gathered at the Duck and Drake Inn on the 20th May 1604. Fawkes, Catesby and Wintour’s fellow conspirators were Francis Tresham, Robert Wintour, Sir Everard Digby, Thomas Bates, John and Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, Robert Keyes, John Grant and Ambrose Rookwood. On the 25th March 1605 Thomas Percy secured a lease to the undercroft beneath the home of John Whynniard, the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe. The house sat above the House of Lords.
Guy Fawkes’ role was to guard the gunpowder that was covertly stored in the undercroft. Under the guise of Thomas Percy’s servant and caretaker “John Johnson” Guy took delivery of twenty barrels of gunpowder and another sixteen were added in July 1605 just before parliament was set to reopen. Fears about the plague reaching the city led to the postponement of the event. By August some of the gunpowder in the barrels showed signs of decay. These were replaced and the wait for the Catholic plotters power-grab continued.
Lord Monteagle's Letter
News arrived that parliament would reopen on the 5th November 1605. The plotters arranged for a rebellion in the Midland’s at the same time as the Houses of Parliament plot reached its fruition. This was to guarantee the capture of Princess Elizabeth. Guy was to light the fuse to the gunpowder and flee to mainland Europe. Some conspirators grew concerned that their friends and family members would be in the Houses of Parliament as the building was blown to the high heavens. Warnings, cryptic and discreet, were issued. The 4th Baron Monteagle received an anonymous letter on the 26th October 1605 that warned him to retire to the safety of his country seat. It was attributed to Francis Tresham, brother-in law of Monteagle. King James was shown the letter on the 1st November 1605. The busy plotters decided that rumours about a letter were unfounded.
Guy Fawkes Arrest
Guy Fawkes was stationed in the undercroft during the dying minutes of the 4th November. When he left at around midnight he was arrested. He gave the name “John Johnson” to his captors. King James’ official Sir Thomas Knyvet discovered the gunpowder and the firewood that disguised the barrels. “Johnson” was presented to the King’s Privy Chamber and interrogated. He confirmed that he had intended to blow up parliament. King James was compelled to admire “Johnson’s” determination not to betray his fellow conspirators but his patience evaporated on the 6th November. He ordered torture. Taken to the Tower of London, “Johnson” was questioned in a room that was later renamed the Guy Fawkes Room. On the 7th November he confessed that he was Guy Fawkes, on the 8th he offered the names of the other plotters. On the 9th, he disclosed the details of their plan.
On the evening of 5th November 1605 the people of London were encouraged to make bonfires to celebrate the King’s survival and the downfall of his Catholic enemies. In 1606 an act of Parliament decreed that the 5th of November was to be a day of thanksgiving. Anti-Catholic sentiments ran higher than ever and lasted for centuries and new restrictions were placed on Catholics.
By the 8th November the majority of the conspirators were secreted at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. (Now a care home.) When the authorities reached the grounds, shots were fired. Catesby and Percy were said to have been killed by a single shot. It's a common misconception that most or all of the men were slain at Holbeche House. The trial of the eight remaining terrorists, including Guy, was held on 27th January 1606. The king and his family secretly followed proceedings. Guy Fawkes pleaded not guilty to high treason. Unsurprisingly, all eight were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, an excruciating process for their heinous crime.
Fawkes: Martyr or Fallen Hero?
On the 31st January 1606 Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Rookwood and Keyes were dragged to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster which faced the very much in tact Houses of Parliament. Fawkes watched the other men meet their fate. What happened next became the stuff of legend, depending on which side you were on. Either Guy defied the authorities by climbing the ladder to the noose and then jumping, which broke his neck when he landed. He died as a martyr. That, or he slipped and went out with a whimper rather than a bang. Guy’s body was quartered and pieces of him were distributed around the realm as a warning to others tempted to commit treason. Catesby and Percy were treated to exhumation and decapitation. Their heads were displayed outside the House of Lords.
Guy Fawkes Not Catesby Remembered
Guy Fawkes has overshadowed the original plot leaders for centuries. Hence Guy Fawkes Night instead of Robert Catesby Night. Fireworks were used to mark the event from the 1650’s and the tradition of burning an effigy of Guy started in 1673 when King Charles II’s brother and heir James, Duke of York (later James II/VII), converted to Catholicism.
Even now on the day of the State Opening of Parliament the Houses of Parliament’s cellars are searched for explosives, a tradition that began in 1678. From the same year the undercrofts were no longer rented out but in November 1605 it occurred to no one that new security measures might be a good idea.
It was commented that Guy Fawkes was the last man “to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”
- Gunpowder Plot - Treason, Definition & Conspirators - HISTORY
- Gunpowder Plot - Gunpowder, treason, and plot | Britannica
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© 2021 Joanne Hayle