Who was Guy Fawkes?

Born in York on 13th of April 1570, Guy Fawkes will forever by associated with the celebration of Bonfire Night. On the 5th November his effigy is burnt on bonfires up and down the country, as we recall his unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

Guy Fawkes was born into a Protestant family, which was the accepted religion in England at the time, but his maternal grandparents were secretly Catholics. This Catholic influence was reinforced for Guy at the age of eight, when his widowed mother married a Catholic. By the age of 21, Fawkes had converted to Catholicism, and left England to fight for the Catholic Spanish against the Protestant Dutch. While in Spain he became known as Guido rather than Guy, and in 1603, having proved his military prowess many times over, he was granted a captaincy.

Fawkes used his time abroad to try and gather support for a Catholic rebellion in England against King James I, but was unsuccessful. He even petitioned the Spanish king, Philip III, for support in fomenting such a revolt. Yet, even though Spain and Britain were technically, at war, Philip refused to back his campaign.

It was while on campaign in Flanders that Fawkes was approached by Thomas Wintour, who was to become one of the chief players in the Gunpowder Plot. They became friends, and soon Fawkes was asked to join the campaign to destroy Parliament, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Fawkes was a valuable addition to the plotters, due his expertise in the use of gunpowder. His job was to be the most dangerous of them all, to provide and then ignite the explosive.

It took 18 months of careful planning to set up the Gunpowder Plot, but it was foiled by King James I’s spymaster, Robert Cecil, within hours of the moment when Fawkes was to light the first fuse on the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder stacked in a cellar directly below where the king would have been sitting for the opening of parliament.

The historian Antonia Fraser describes Fawkes as “… a man of action … capable of intelligent argument as well as physical endurance, somewhat to the surprise of his enemies.” This physical endurance was put to the test after Fawkes was caught and subjected to various tortures, including the rack. He withstood two days of the most terrible pain before confessing to his crime. Even King James I is recorded as being impressed by Fawkes’ fortitude.

After his confession, Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He managed to avoid the horror of his body being mutilated while he was conscious by jumping from the gallows and breaking his neck. However, this did not stop the authorities cutting his body into quarters and his remains sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others.

Within days of his death Guy Fawkes became the figurehead of Catholic extremism, and even though it was Robert Catesby who’d led the plot, it was Fawkes who was caught red-handed, so it is not surprising that it is him we remember on 5th November every year.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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