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Guy Fawkes

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Guy Fawkes or Guido Fawkes (he adopted the name "Guido"—in which he was indicted—while fighting for the Spanish in the Low Countries)[1][2] (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606) was a member of a group of Roman Catholic restorationists from England that planned the Gunpowder Plot.[3] 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.[4]

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.

Early life


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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[5] 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.[5]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] However, his grandson Anthony-Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount Montagu re-employed Fawkes as a table waiter.[10] 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.[10]

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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[1]

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.[10]

Gunpowder Plot

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 source for the details of the plot itself is the account known as the King'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.

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 native mountains!"

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 page.)

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.[11] 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."[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] He was also included in a list of the 50 greatest people from Yorkshire.[15] 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.[16]


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.[17]
  • 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.[18]
  • 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.[19]
  • 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".[20]
  • 1925: T. S. Eliot - The Hollow Men, the epigraph of the poem directly alludes to Fawkes, "A penny for the Old Guy".[21]
  • 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.[22]
  • 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.[23]

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.[24]

He has also been referenced in television shows such as an episode of The Simpsons, Daria, and the Doctor Who special "The Five Doctors".


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".[25] The Smiths' vinyl album Strangeways, Here We Come has the phrase "Guy Fawkes was a genius" engraved near the run-out.[26] 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".[27]


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.

References and Notes

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