Guy Fawkes

As midnight fell on the morning of 5 November 1605, just hours before the reopening of parliament, a suspicious-looking man, dressed in a black cloak and hat, visible only by the glow of a solitary lantern was discovered to be keeping guard over four hundred barrels of gunpowder, hidden beneath the parliament house. His name was Guy Fawkes; his purpose to set light to the powder and achieve by fire what the Spanish Armada of 1588 had failed to do: Return England to the Catholic Church.

The story of Guy Fawkes and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot remains as vividly entrenched into the national psyche as it was on that cold morning in the third year of the reign of King James I. Immortalised through literature, history and media, and ravaged by fire every 5 November through the iconic ritual of burning straw mock-ups, forever known as guys, the legacy of Guy Fawkes continues to enthral children and adults alike, never willing to forget his infamous attempts to destroy the government of his day. And in doing so, the memory of this enigmatic man has created an altogether more appealing celebration: the tradition that the cold late-autumn night becomes alive with the explosion of fireworks.

While the plot itself provides a reality check on the complexities of an age when the way a country was governed waxed and waned in accordance with the religious beliefs of the monarch, and when men were willing to lay down their lives for their principles, the role of the individuals involved in the plot is altogether a more complex tale. In particular, the last four hundred years has seen a tendency to focus the attention on Guy Fawkes as the chief villain of the piece, something that has failed to diminish, at least in the eyes of the masses; and in doing so has given rise to a distorted understanding of the plot, with the result that the identities of his co-conspirators have fallen into partial anonymity. The image of the skulking, cloaked, darkened figure, roaming the vaults beneath parliament, ready to light the fuse has provided a powerful symbol illustrating the severity of the plot. However, in truth, it offers only a small window into the true story of not only the complexity of the age, but the complexity of the man.

The purpose of this section is to provide the reader with an additional insight into the life of Guy Fawkes, at last putting his life into perspective, and not just centring on that one moment for which he is remembered. The section also provides an introduction to my in-depth study on Guy Fawkes, Pity for the Guy, the first biography to date that views Guy Fawkes in the round, thus building on the biographies of the past and allowing the collection of many strands of research over the last four centuries.

Early Years

Guy Fawkes was born in York on 13 April 1570, the same year that Queen Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the papacy. Guy was the first surviving child of Edward Fawkes of York and his wife, Edith. He was also their only son. He was baptised on 16 April in the Protestant parish of St Michael le Belfrey.

Guy grew up in the Stonegate area of York, living in a small house close to York Minster. His father, Edward, worked as a lawyer, holding various positions including proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and advocate of the consistory court of the Archbishop. It is possible that his father was descended from the Fawkes’s of Farnley, a famous family whose number included a Steward of Knaresborough Forest and several Freemen of the City of York. Guy’s grandmother was Ellen Harrington, daughter of the former sheriff and mayor, William Harrington. Of Guy’s mother, less is known. According to some independent research, Edith Fawkes was from the Blake family, well-known aldermen and merchants from York. Alternatively it may have been Jackson, which if true probably gave her a Catholic background. Guy had two sisters, Anne, born in October 1572 and Elizabeth, born in May 1575.

As a child of gentlemanly status, Guy started his education at the age of five, attending the free school of St Peters in ‘Le Horse Fayre’ region of York, founded in 1557 by Charter of Philip and Mary. It was during this time he began mixing with prominent Catholics, including Jack and Kit Wright, his later co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, and the future Jesuit priests Oswald Tesimond and Edward Oldcourne. Less than a year before he started St Peters the school’s integrity had been called into question when the headmaster, Fletcher, was dismissed for converting to the Catholic faith. He was replaced by John Pulleyn, a Protestant reverend, with family ties to the Pulleyns of Blubberhouse. He is suspected of having been a closet Catholic whose influence on Fawkes may have attributed to the beliefs that shaped Guy’s actions in later life. It is possible that Guy attended university at Cambridge, as suggested by his answers to questioning after his arrest in 1605, but that cannot be proven. As a Catholic, he would, in any case, have been unable to obtain a degree.

Edward Fawkes died when Guy was only seven, and was buried on 17 January 1578. Edith Fawkes remained a widow for over nine years before marrying Denis Bainbridge, a Catholic gentleman from the nearby village of Scotton, sometime between 1587 and 1589. Contemporary sources are critical of Bainbridge, a man described as ‘more ornamental than useful’ and ‘unthrifty’. It was around this time that Guy became a Catholic.

Coming of Age

According to recent speculation, Guy married a Mary Pulleyn in 1590 and fathered a child, Thomas, in 1591. The inclusion of these entries in the International Genealogy Index, compiled by the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, is dubious and cannot be backed up by a contemporary source. Evidence that Mary Pulleyn, born in 1569, even existed cannot be verified, as it is also absent from Catharine Pulleyn’s family history of 1915.

In 1591, at the age of 21, Guy inherited his father’s estates which he leased to a Christopher Lumley, a tailor from York, a man well known to Guy having witnessed his uncle’s will in 1581. Less than eleven months later, Guy sold what remained of his inheritance to Anne Skipsey, a spinster from Clifton. According to the document, Guy was living back in York, rather than Scotton. Later that year his mother, and step-father, signed a quit deed legally excluding themselves from any future right to the late Edward Fawkes’s former possessions.

Within a year of leaving Yorkshire, Guy appeared at Cowdray House in Sussex, looking for employment. At the time Cowdray was the estate of the 1st Viscount Montague, Anthony Browne, a fiery Catholic Lord who had previously been close to Queen Mary. Evidently, Guy lasted only briefly due to Montague taking a dislike to him. Despite the setback, Guy later returned to Cowdray, this time as a footman to the 2nd viscount, Anthony-Maria, the first viscount’s grandson. Among Guy’s co-workers was a man named Spence, Montague’s steward, and Guy’s relative. Montague was also related to Robert Catesby.

War of Religion

Frustrated from his lack of potential as a Catholic living in England, Guy left England in 1593 and travelled to Flanders with his cousin, Richard Collinge, a Jesuit priest. Likely, he spent at least a year travelling in Europe, familiarizing himself with the languages and customs of the time and also using what was left of his inheritance. By 1595 he had signed up as a soldier in the ‘English Regiment’ of the Spanish Army fighting in the War of Religion that plagued Europe at the time. Taking up this role was common for exiled Catholics at the time, and was in many ways reminiscent of the French Foreign Legion of its day. His commander was Sir William Stanley, an English Catholic, who had previously fought for Elizabeth before defecting to the Spanish due to his lack of reward from the queen and his sympathy for the Jesuits.

Guy’s career in the military would be of considerable significance to his later destiny. In 1596, he was present at the siege of Calais, an 8-day onslaught resulting in the destruction of much of the city and the surrender of the port to the Spanish. According to reports Fawkes was noted for his gallantry and was rewarded by Stanley by being made a lieutenant. Guy’s military career was mostly successful: references describe him as being ‘sought by all the most distinguished in the Archduke’s camp for nobility and virtue.’ It was during this time he became an expert in the art of destroying fortifications using gunpowder.

Records of Guy’s career are sparse. He likely served with Stanley at Amiens and Geldern in 1597, followed by time spent in the Spanish Netherlands. In 1599, a letter written by Collinge referred to Guy being in Venice, searching out his cousin Martin Harrington. In 1600 Guy was back in the Low Countries, and was present at the Battle of Nieuwpoort where he appears to have been wounded. Between 1601-03, Guy was present at the siege of Ostend.

Role in the Spanish Treason

In 1603 Guy was placed on indefinite leave from his regiment and sent on an errand to Spain on behalf of three prominent unnamed figures, probably Stanley, Catholic spy Hugh Owen and Father William Baldwin, principal Jesuit of Flanders. The purpose of his mission: to ‘enlighten King Philip III concerning the true position of Romanists in England’.

Before Guy arrived in Spain, the court of Philip III had been a hub of activity. Following the death of his father Philip II, Catholics from England had been vigorously attempting to convince Philip III to launch another Armada on England to ensure the crown for the Infante Isabella on the event of Elizabeth’s death. The only credible alternative to Isabella, descendent of John of Gaunt, was the Protestant King of Scotland, James VI.

Support for James was limited, particularly among the Catholic faction. In 1601 two Englishmen, Thomas James and Thomas Wintour spent time in Spain petitioning the king for an immediate invasion of England, ensuring the crown for Isabella on Elizabeth’s eventual death. For a time the king agreed to help, but by the time of the queen’s death in 1603, his promises were still to realised.

James VI came to the throne of England in March 1603 following which the English Catholics adopted their plans for another armada. In May 1603 Anthony Dutton, probably an alias for Christopher Wright, came to Spain to mount a fresh plea. By June, Dutton was joined by Guy Fawkes. Despite drawing up new proclamations for the removal of the new king and a constitution for religious freedom, their attempts came up short, and they returned to Brussels.

The Gunpowder Plot

Guy returned to Brussels in March 1604 having witnessed the failure of the Spanish Treason. On his return, Guy learned that Thomas Wintour had been seeking him out on behalf of Robert Catesby from England. Judging by Guy’s confessions in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Wintour probably told him much of their plans from the start. Soon after, Guy returned to England for the first time in ten years and was introduced to Catesby for the first time. In May 1604 Guy was one of five attendees at a meeting at a secluded house located near the Strand, where the hatching of the gunpowder plot took place. Along with Robert Catesby was Jack Wright, brother of Kit and former school friend of Guy, and Thomas Percy, kin of the Earl of Northumberland. Away from prying eyes, the five desperate men swore an oath of secrecy of what they were about to undertake before celebrating Mass in the company of a Jesuit, probably Father John Gerard.

Within a month of the meeting, Thomas Percy rented a house adjoining parliament where it was determined that they should dig a mine, beneath the parliament house, that would be filled with gunpowder. Due to his unknown status, Guy was placed as caretaker of the house assuming the alias John Johnson.

At the end of the summer, the plotters returned to begin work on digging the mine. However, on their return, they were foiled. Due to its location close to parliament, the house was requisitioned by the Crown for use by the Scottish Lords, who had travelled to London to negotiate the union between the Crowns of England and Scotland. This would later prove the first step in the establishment of Great Britain.

After negotiations ended in early December, work began on the mine, ceasing on Christmas Eve. While the conspirators disbursed for Christmas Guy stayed alone to watch the house. On 28 December he was present at a wedding in Whitehall between the Earl of Montgomery and the niece of Robert Cecil.

Work on the mine was slow, and not without difficulty. Despite taking on new conspirators, the hindrances to their progress diminished the possibility of the task being ready by the reopening of Parliament in July. Then in March, their prospects changed when a nearby cellar became available for hire, located directly under the chamber used by the Lords. Percy acquired the cellar from the outgoing merchant, and the conspirators abandoned the mine. Once the gunpowder had been taken into the new cellar and covered, Guy was despatched to Flanders to pass on news to the exiles.

Parliament was prorogued to October, then the 5 November. Fawkes was back in London by the end of August, taking short term residence in the home of Mrs Herbert near the parish of St Clement’s Danes, though he was asked to leave due to his dealings with known Catholics. In October he met with the conspirators to thrash out the details of the plot, including the possibility that known Catholic lords, including Montague, might be saved.

On 26 October the plot was compromised after an anonymous whistleblower sent a letter to the Lord Monteagle, informing him that there would be ‘a great blow this parliament’ and that he should avoid attending. Fearing its significance, Monteagle passed the letter on to Sir Robert Cecil who later showed it to the king. Despite becoming aware of the letter, Catesby pressed on. He instructed Guy to check the cellar and search for any sign that they were under threat. On seeing no harm, Guy returned with the news Catesby desired. Despite Catesby using him for such a potentially dangerous task, Guy’s loyalty to Catesby remained undiminished and the plot would go ahead.

On 3 November the conspirators, now numbering 13, made arrangements for the execution of the plot. On 4 November, Guy made preparations for the lighting of the gunpowder, following which he would travel to Flanders to spread news of the destruction. On that day, Guy was seen in the cellar by government officials. Despite paying him little attention, a second search was ordered. With hours to go before lighting the match, a planned search of the vaults saw Guy Fawkes arrested.

Arrest and Torture

Guy was taken to the King’s Chamber and questioned. Despite his willingness to admit to his role in the crime, he mentioned nothing of his accomplices, other than he was Johnson servant to Thomas Percy, a fact the authorities already knew. His bravery was praised by those present. However, his xenophobia against Scots and his hatred for the King as a person was evident.

Having learned little from questioning, the King decreed that Fawkes should be tortured. A letter written by James to Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, instructed that the ‘gentler torturers’ should be used first, the manacles, and thereby ‘so proceeding to the worst’. Over the coming days, he was questioned regularly and tortured severely. By 9 November he finally named his associates, many of whom had been killed or arrested in the last stand in Staffordshire. The effects of his torture are noticeable in his signature, noticeably shaky compared to days earlier. The signature is also incomplete, confirming reports that he collapsed before finishing it.

Guy and the seven remaining conspirators were taken to Westminster on 28 January and tried for treason. The guilty verdict had already been ascertained, and they were subsequently condemned to death. On 31 January he was hanged drawn and quartered. A contemporary account states of Guy:

‘His body being weak with the torture and sickness he was scarce able to go up the ladder, yet with much ado, by the help of the hangman, went high enough to break his neck by the fall. He made no speech, but with his crosses and idle ceremonies made his end upon the gallows and the block, to the great joy of all the beholders that the land was ended of so wicked a villainy’.