So, it’s November already, the shops are stocked for Christmas and in less than eight weeks time, those that do, will celebrating Christmas. However, before we all get too festive there is one more tradition many will be celebrating across the UK, mostly with a huge crackling bonfire and fireworks, which dates back to the 17th century, otherwise known as Bonfire Night. On 5th November every year, the effigy of Guy Fawkes is still burned on bonfires across England in recognition of his part in the failed ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of 1605. However, what’s interesting, and perhaps not widely known, is, Fawkes didn’t devise or lead the plot to assassinate James I, so why is he still singled out as one of British history’s greatest villains more than 400 years after his death?
Born in April 1570 in York, Guy Fawkes’s immediate family were Protestants, in keeping with the accepted religious practice in England at the time, however his maternal grandparents were ‘recusant’ Catholics, who refused to attend Protestant services. When Guy was 8-years-old, his father died and his widowed mother married a Catholic. It is suggested that it was these early influences that forged Fawkes’ convictions as an adult.
An imposing character, Fawkes is described by historian Antonia Fraser as, “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”, while school friend, Oswald Tesimond, described him as “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife and loyal to his friends”.
By the time he was 21 years old, Fawkes travelled to Europe to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch and his military career flourished. Later, when on campaign fighting for Spain in Flanders, Fawkes was approached by Thomas Wintour, one of a number plotting against the English Protestant King, James I, due to his extreme intolerance of Catholics. Wintour asked Fawkes to join what would become known as the ‘Gunpowder Plot’, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Fawkes was an expert with gunpowder, which gave him a key, and very dangerous role, in the conspiracy. However, despite months of careful planning, James’s I spymaster, Robert Cecil, foiled the plot with just hours to go, and Fawkes was arrested at midnight on 4 November 1605 beneath the House of Lords. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found stacked in the cellar exactly below where the king would have been sitting for the opening of parliament the next day.
Fawkes was tortured and withstood two days of excruciating pain before he confessed all. However, his fortitude throughout impressed James I, who said he admired Fawkes’ “Roman resolution”. Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death, which meant he would be hanged, drawn and quartered. However, he jumped from the gallows, breaking his own neck, thereby avoiding the horror of being cut down while still alive, having his testicles cut off and his stomach opened. His body was then hacked into quarters and his remains sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others. Ringleader Catesby, on the other hand, was killed evading capture, so never tried.
Guy Fawkes instantly became a national bogeyman and by the 19th Century it was his effigy that was being placed on the bonfires that were lit annually to commemorate the failure of the plot.