Guy Fawkes: the man behind the guy

Guy Fawkes and the other plotters. Credit: iStock

The effigy of Guy Fawkes is burned throughout Britain at this time of year, but how much do we really know of the famous Gunpowder Plot conspirator?

Guy Fawkes and the other plotters. Credit: iStock
Guy Fawkes (third from left) and the other plotters. Credit: iStock

The classic rhyme “Remember, remember the fifth of November” features one of the few dates that stick in the collective imagination from our school days. As the headmaster of Guy Fawkes’s old school in York has recently pointed out, the man found by guards underneath the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder in early hours of 5 November 1605 is “a global brand. Most people with an appreciation of English culture know something about him.”

Arguing in The Daily Telegraph that it is time for us to forgive St Peter’s School’s most famous alumnus and to stop burning effigies of the guy on bonfires, Leo Winkley suggests that the custom encourages religious intolerance.

There are some surprising twists to the familiar story of Guy Fawkes. For example, while James I was, in fact, the son of a famous Catholic, Mary, Queen of Scots, Fawkes was born in 1570 into a largely Protestant family (although his maternal grandparents were ‘recusant’ Catholics, who refused to attend Protestant services). However, Guy’s stepfather, Dionis Baynbrigge, whom his mother married after the death of his father in 1578, seems to have affected Fawkes’s convictions – Guy converted to Catholicism as a teenager – and thus the course of his life.

Guy and his fellow Catholic plotters were disappointed by James I’s lack of sympathy for their cause. After the long reign of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, English Catholics were optimistic that the new king would herald change. During Elizabeth’s reign, and particularly after the Spanish Armada, Catholics had suffered persecution: they were forbidden to hear Mass and compelled to attend Anglican services, with steep fines for recusants who refused. However, despite positive signs at the beginning of James’s reign, the discovery of two small Catholic plots in 1603 and an ill-fated conference at Hampton Court in 1604 meant that by February that year the new king went as far as to announce his ‘utter detestation’ of Catholicism. Within days, all priests and Jesuits had been expelled and recusancy fines reintroduced.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Credit: ©VisitBritain/ Damir Fabijanc
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Credit: © VisitBritain/Damir Fabijanc

Fawkes was a military man and an imposing figure. According to historian Antonia Fraser, he was “a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, a flowing moustache in the tradition of the time, and a bushy reddish-brown beard… a man of action … capable of intelligent argument as well as physical endurance, somewhat to the surprise of his enemies.”

After selling the estate he inherited from his father, he fought for a decade or so for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch republic in the Eighty Years War and adopted the Italian version of his name, Guido – but, although he is the best known of the plotters today, he wasn’t their ringleader. It was Robert Catesby who conceived the idea and revealed his plot to Thomas Wintour. The latter, who met Fawkes while he was fighting for Spain in Flanders, was the link between Fawkes and Catesby, and as the conspiracy grew more and more conspirators were brought in: 13 in all.

The plan – timed for the state opening of Parliament – on 5 November 1605  was to wipe out King James I and his largely Protestant government and to place James’s nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, on the throne as Catholic puppet monarch.

It fell to Fawkes, as the group’s explosives expert, to guard the barrels of gunpowder, which the plotters had smuggled into a cellar under the House of Lords, and light the fuse. But the plot was foiled when an anonymous word of warning was sent to William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle; the premises were searched and Fawkes arrested.

Claiming at first that his name was John Johnson, Fawkes endured two days of torture, including time on the rack, before at last confessing and naming his co-conspirators. Indeed, defiant to the end, Fawkes, who had been sentenced along with his fellow co-conspirators to be hanged, drawn and quartered, jumped off the gallows, breaking his neck before his executioners could implement the final two grim steps. Fawkes’s defiance apparently even impressed the king, who admired his “Roman resolution”.

To this day the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster before the state opening of Parliament to ensure that there is no repeat of the Gunpowder Conspiracy.

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