or Guido Fawkes
(he adopted the name "Guido"—in
which he was indicted—while fighting for the Spanish in the Low Countries)
(13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606) was a member of a group of Roman Catholic
restorationists from England that planned the Gunpowder Plot.
The plot's aim was to displace Protestant rule by blowing up the Houses of
Parliament while king James I and the entire Protestant and even most of the
Catholic aristocracy and nobility were inside. The conspirators saw this as a
reaction to systematic discrimination against English Roman Catholics.
Although Robert Catesby led the actual plot, Fawkes was in charge of
executing the plan because of his military and explosives experience.
Authorities foiled the plot shortly before its final execution, when they
captured Fawkes as he guarded the gunpowder. He aroused suspicion by wearing a
coat, boots, and spurs, as if he intended to leave quickly.
Fawkes left a lasting mark on history and popular culture. Bonfire Night,
held on November 5 in the United Kingdom (and some parts of the Commonwealth),
commemorates Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. He has been mentioned in popular
film, video games, literature, and music by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte,
John Lennon, Alan Moore, the movie V for Vendetta and many others. Geographical
locations are named after Fawkes, such as Isla Guy Fawkes in the
Galápagos Islands and Guy Fawkes River in Australia.
Born on 13 April 1570 at High Petergate in York, Yorkshire, Fawkes was the
only son of Edward Fawkes and Edith Blake. His mother had given birth to a
daughter a few years earlier, named Anne, who died at age seven weeks on 11
November 1568. Guy was baptised in the church of St. Michael le Belfrey on 16
April 1570 as a three-day-old baby.
In the five years following Fawkes's birth, his mother bore two more daughters,
Anne (named in honour of the earlier deceased child) and Elizabeth.
He attended St. Peter's School in York, where his schoolfellows may have
included John and Christopher Wright, both of whom would be among the
conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, and Thomas Morton, who became Bishop of
Durham. At St. Peter's,
Fawkes was taught by John Pulleyn, kinsman to the Pulleyns of Scotton and a
suspected Catholic who, according to some sources, may have had an early effect
on the impressionable Fawkes.
Fawkes's father was a descendant of the Fawkes family in Farnley; he was
either a notary or proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and later an advocate of
the consistory court of the Archbishop of York. Edward's wife, Edith Blake, was
descended from prominent merchants and aldermen of the city. Edward Fawkes died
in 1579, and his widow remarried in 1582, to a Catholic, Denis Bainbridge of
Scotton. The family were known to be recusants, resisters of the authority of
the Church of England, and it is probable that his stepfather's influence
contributed to Guy's affiliation to Catholicism; Fawkes finally converted to
Catholicism around the age of 16.
In the same year that Fawkes converted to Catholicism (1586), he would be made
brutally aware of the repression the English Parliament enacted on local
Catholics. Margaret Clitherow, later known as the "Pearl of York", was martyred
in her hometown that year by being crushed to death. She had originally been
arrested for harbouring Catholic priests in her home.
Occupation as a soldier
After leaving school, Fawkes became a footman for Anthony Browne, 1st
Viscount Montagu. Browne was one of the leading statesmen during the time of
Catholic monarch of Scotland Mary and was also allegedly implicated in the
Ridolfi plot. Browne took a dislike to Fawkes and fired him after a short time.
However, his grandson Anthony-Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount Montagu re-employed
Fawkes as a table waiter.
In 1591, Fawkes inherited his father's estates. After renting them out for a
while as a way to earn money, he sold his stakes in them to Anne Skipsey.
In Continental Europe there had been a series of Wars of Religion stemming
from a Protestant-Catholic issue in relation to the presumption of the French
throne. England was divided, the English Protestant crown supported Navarre,
while the Catholics of England supported the Catholic League and Pope Sixtus V,
through the Duke of Guise.
Sir William Stanley had raised an army in Ireland to fight in the Spanish
Netherlands. Fawkes, along with his Jesuit cousin Richard Collinge went over to
Flanders to join him against the Dutch Revolt.
Fawkes spent ten years fighting for the Spanish Catholic cause as a soldier. It
was while fighting with the Spaniards that he adopted the name Guido, and he
gained considerable expertise with explosives.
The Netherlands were then possessions of King Philip II of Spain, Duke of
Burgundy, who was a foreigner to the Dutch. The Dutch associated Spain and
Philip's rule with the Catholic Inquisition, which he had tried to impose on his
territories in the Low Countries. Fawkes arrived at a time when the death of the
Duke of Parma and mutinies by Spanish mercenaries had left the Catholic military
force in the Netherlands paralysed, and Maurice of Nassau, the stadtholder in
five provinces from 1584 till 1625, son of William of Orange, had led successful
campaigns against Spanish positions. He was also present when Calais was taken
by the Spanish in 1596. For his gallantry in the siege of Calais, Stanley even
gave Fawkes command of a company of soldiers.
Fawkes is notorious for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was
probably placed in charge of executing the plot because of his military and
explosives experience. The plot, masterminded by Robert Catesby, was an attempt
by a group of religious conspirators to kill King James I of England, his
family, and most of the aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords in the
Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament. Fawkes may have
been introduced to Catesby by Hugh Owen, a man who was in the pay of the Spanish
Netherlands. Sir William Stanley is also believed to have recommended him, and
Fawkes named him under torture, leading to his arrest and imprisonment for a day
after the discovery of the plot. It was Stanley who first presented Fawkes to
Thomas Winter in 1603 when Winter was in Continental Europe. Stanley was the
commander of the English in Flanders at the time. Stanley had handed Deventer
and much of its garrison back to the Spanish in 1587, nearly wiping out the
gains that the Earl of Leicester had made in the Low Countries. Leicester’s
expedition was widely regarded as a disaster, for this reason among others.
The best primary sourceKing's Book or
James I The Kings Book - A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings
Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors. Robt. Barker, Printer to the Kings
Most Excellent Majesty, British Museum 1606. Although this is a government
account, and details have been disputed, it is generally considered to be an
accurate record of the history of the plot, and the imprisonment, torture and
execution of the plotters.
details of the plot itself is the account known as the
The plot itself may have been occasioned by the realisation by Protestant
authorities and Catholic recusants that the Kingdom of Spain was in far too much
debt and fighting too many wars to assist Catholics in Britain. Any possibility
of toleration by Great Britain was removed at the Hampton Court conference in
1604 when King James I attacked both extreme Puritans and Catholics. The
plotters realised that no outside help would be forthcoming unless they took
action themselves. Fawkes and the other conspirators rented a cellar beneath the
House of Lords having first tried to dig a tunnel under the building. This would
have proved difficult, because they would have had to dispose of the dirt and
debris. (No evidence of this tunnel has ever been found). By March 1605, they
had hidden 1800 pounds (36 barrels, or 800 kg) of gunpowder in the cellar. The
plotters also intended to abduct Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth of Bohemia,
the "Winter Queen"). A few of the conspirators were concerned, however, about
fellow Catholics who would have been present at Parliament during the opening.
One of the conspirators wrote a warning letter to Lord Monteagle, who received
it on 26 October. The conspirators became aware of the letter the following day,
but they resolved to continue the plot after Fawkes had confirmed that nothing
had been touched in the cellar.
Lord Monteagle had been made suspicious, however; the letter was sent to the
Secretary of State, who initiated a search of the vaults beneath the House of
Lords in the early morning of 5 November. However, nothing was moved, in order
not to alert the conspirators that the plot had been uncovered. Fawkes, who was
resolved to blow himself up along with Parliament if need be, was seized as he
attempted to ignite the powder charge. Peter Heywood, a resident of Heywood,
Lancashire, snatched the torch from his hand at the last instant. Fawkes was
arrested and taken before the privy council where he remained defiant. When
asked by one of the Scottish lords what he had intended to do with so much
gunpowder, Fawkes answered him, "To blow you Scotch beggars back to your own
When they asked for his name Fawkes replied "John Johnson". He was tortured
over the next few days. King James directed that the torture be light at first,
but more severe if necessary. Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower of
London at this time, supervised the torture and obtained Fawkes's confession.
For three or four days Fawkes said nothing, nor divulged the names of his
co-conspirators. Only when he found out that they had proclaimed themselves by
appearing in arms did he succumb. The torture only revealed the names of those
conspirators who were already dead or whose names were known to the authorities.
On 31 January, Fawkes and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were
tried in Westminster Hall. After being found guilty, they were taken to Old
Palace Yard in Westminster and St Paul's Yard, where they were to be hanged,
drawn and quartered. Fawkes, though weakened by torture, cheated the
executioners. When he was to be hanged until almost dead, he jumped from the
gallows, so his neck broke and he died, thus avoiding the gruesome later part of
this form of execution.
A co-conspirator, Robert Keyes, attempted the same trick, but unfortunately for
him the rope broke, so he was disemboweled fully conscious.
Many popular contemporary verses were written in condemnation of Fawkes. The
most well-known verse begins:
- “Remember, remember the fifth of November,
- The gunpowder, treason and plot,
- I know of no reason
- Why the gunpowder treason
- Should ever be forgot.”
(For the full lyrics, see Guy Fawkes Night, or go to the bottom of the
John Rhodes produced a popular narrative in verse describing the events of
the plot and condemning Fawkes:
- "Fawkes at midnight, and by torchlight there was found
- With long matches and devices, underground"
The full verse was published as A brief Summary of the Treason intended
against King & State, when they should have been assembled in Parliament,
November 5. 1605. Fit for to instruct the simple and ignorant herein: that they
not be seduced any longer by Papists. Other popular verses were of a more
religious tone and celebrated the fact that England had been saved from the Guy
Fawkes conspiracy. John Wilson published, in 1612, a short song on the "powder
plot" with the words:
- "O England praise the name of God
- That kept thee from this heavy rod!
- But though this demon e'er be gone,
- his evil now be ours upon!"
The Lord Mayor and aldermen of the City of London commemorated the conspiracy
on November 5 for years after by a sermon in St Paul's Cathedral. Popular
accounts of the plot supplemented these sermons, some of which were published
and survive to this day. Many in the city left money in their wills to pay for a
minister to preach a sermon annually in their own parish.
The Fawkes story continued to be celebrated in poetry. The Latin verse In
Quintum Novembris was written c. 1626. John Milton’s Satan in book six of
Paradise Lost was inspired by Fawkes — the Devil invents gunpowder to try to
match God's thunderbolts. Post-Reformation and anti–Catholic literature often
personified Fawkes as the Devil in this way. From Puritan polemics to popular
literature, all sought to associate Fawkes with the demonic. However, his
reputation has since undergone a rehabilitation, and today he is often toasted
as, "The last man to enter Parliament with honourable intentions."
In popular culture
In eighteenth-century England, the term "guy" was used to refer to an effigy
of Fawkes, which would be paraded around town by children on the anniversary of
the conspiracy. It is
traditional for children to stand on street corners with their creation asking
for a small donation using the term "Penny for the guy."
In recent years this has attracted controversy as some regard it as nothing more
than begging. Whilst it was traditional for children to spend the money raised
on fireworks, this is now illegal, as persons in England under the age of 18
years may not buy fireworks or even be in possession of them in a public place.
This is not the case in other parts of the Commonwealth but sales are restricted
in some ways.
Fawkes was ranked 30th in the 2002 list of the 100 Greatest Britons,
sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public.
He was also included in a list of the 50 greatest people from Yorkshire.
The Guy Fawkes River and thus Guy Fawkes River National Park in northern New
South Wales, Australia were named after Fawkes by explorer John Oxley, who, like
Fawkes, was from North Yorkshire. In the Galápagos Islands a collection of two
crescent-shaped islands and two small rocks northwest of Santa Cruz Island, are
called Isla Guy Fawkes.
There are several references to Fawkes in popular literature, here are the
most noted examples, listed in chronological order.
- 1842: William Harrison Ainsworth - Guy Fawkes: A Historical Romance,
is a historical novel which portrayed Fawkes, and Catholic recusancy in
general, in a sympathetic light and began to challenge the official
depiction of the plot, one of the first to do so.
- 1847: Charlotte Brontë - Jane Eyre, Jane is compared to Guy
Fawkes by Abbot with the line "a sort of infantine Guy Fawkes" because she
looked as though she was constantly plotting schemes. Brontë herself, like
Fawkes, was of Yorkshire origins.
- 1850: Charles Dickens - David Copperfield, in order for Peggotty
to find money for Saturday's expenses, she "had to prepare a long and
elaborate scheme, a very Gunpowder Plot...", directly referencing the Plot
Fawkes was involved with.
- 1885: W.S. Gilbert - The Mikado, in his Act I song, "As some day
it may happen", Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, lists those he would
prefer to see executed, including "the lady from the provinces, who dresses
like a guy", referring to the effigies created for Guy Fawkes Night
- 1886: Herman Melville - Billy Budd, the novella mentions Fawkes
in the passage "The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers
underlying the Claggarts".
- 1925: T. S. Eliot - The Hollow Men, the epigraph of the poem
directly alludes to Fawkes, "A penny for the Old Guy".
- 1953: Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist of the novel
is named Guy Montag directly after Guy Fawkes. In the story, firemen burn
houses with books in them to keep people from learning, and Guy rebels
against this system.
- 1982: Alan Moore - V for Vendetta, the dystopian graphic novel of
a fascist Britain takes influence from the story of Fawkes. The story
revolves around the main character, V, who wears a stylised Guy Fawkes mask.
- 1997: Kurt Vonnegut - Timequake, Vonnegut recalls a prank letter
he sent to his uncle as an employee of General Electric in 1947. He signed
the letter as Fawkes. There is a reprint of the original letter in the book.
- 1997+: J. K. Rowling - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,
Dumbledore's phoenix is named Fawkes, after the man.
Film and television
There have been various films and television shows which focused on Fawkes
and the Gunpowder Plot. Some noted examples are the historic portrayals such as
the one screened on BBC2 on November 5, 1990 named Traitors, which was a
one-hour play in the Screenplay strand about the Plot, written by Jimmy
McGovern. In 2004 BBC1 screened a two-part serial also written by McGovern,
Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, the second part of which covered the Plot.
The 2006 film V for Vendetta was adapted from the dystopian graphic
novel of the same name. In the film, the main character (named V) symbolically
wears a mask based on a caricature of Fawkes—an act which later in the film is
emulated by hundreds of V's countrymen as a symbol of rebellion against their
oppressive government. The film gathered large exposure worldwide, and to date
it has amassed a gross revenue of over $132,000,000.
He has also been referenced in television shows such as an episode of The
Simpsons, Daria, and the Doctor Who special "The Five
Various musical acts and artists have mentioned Fawkes, especially ones from
England. The most famous example of this is on John Lennon's 1970 solo album
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, on which Lennon sings "Remember, remember, the
5th of November" on the song "Remember".
The Smiths' vinyl album Strangeways, Here We Come has the phrase "Guy
Fawkes was a genius" engraved near the run-out.
Also Jethro Tull's song "Commons Brawl" includes the lines "But there again I
think for less poor Guy went to the wall, the wrong house but the right idea to
end the Commons brawl".
The infamous traitors are "celebrated" by a housing development in Dunchurch,
Warwickshire. The Rugby Borough Council and Post Office agreed to postal
addresses of Guy's Common, Tresham House, Catesby House, Wintour House and Keyes
Cottage. At the entrance to the development stands a stone engraved with "Guy's
Common" name and the UK parliaments emblem - the chained and crowned portcullis.
Guy Fawkes is indirectly referenced via the 'V For Vendetata' character in
Fallout 3: A friendly and sophisticated super mutant named Fawkes is imprisoned
in cell #5 within a Vault where the more malignant super mutants bring captives
to make more via a mutagenic virus.
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