Guy Fawkes (1570–1606), a devout and militant Catholic in an age when the Protestant Church of England had solidified its hold on British religious life, is remembered as the individual who tried to perpetrate what is thought to have been one of history's most notorious terrorist acts. The Gunpowder Plot, also known as the Powder Treason, was a failed conspiracy to blow up Britain's Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Fawkes, lurking in a cellar below the Parliament buildings, was arrested as he prepared to ignite the explosion.
Fawkes was not the originator of the Gunpowder Plot. He was a traveling soldier—mercenary would be the wrong word, for his motivations were primarily religious, not monetary—brought in on the plan because of his munitions experience. Ever since the plot's discovery, however, he has been the figure most associated with it in the public mind. His perceived primacy has been due to a confluence of several factors, first and foremost being that it was he who actually tried to execute the plan, and was tortured afterwards to make him give up the names of his coconspirators. Fawkes was also a charismatic figure who has seized the imaginations of makers of popular culture, all the way up to the hit film V for Vendetta (2006).
The Gunpowder Plot was a chapter in the long history of conflict between Britain's Protestants and Catholics, and the religious dichotomy was present in Guy Fawkes's own family background. Fawkes was born on April 13, 1570, in the town of Stonegate in England's Yorkshire region. He had two sisters, Anne and Elizabeth. His father, Edward Fawkes (sometimes spelled Faux), was a judicial court official. As such, he was required, under the state Church of England religion (now known as Anglicanism, with the Episcopal Church as its American branch), to swear an oath pledging that he was a Protestant, and there was nothing in his own family background to suggest that he was anything else. Fawkes's mother, Edith, was another story. She, like many other Catholics, put up a Protestant facade, but her nephew became a Jesuit priest and some of her relatives were recusants—English Catholics who refused to attend Protestant church services.
Edward Fawkes died when Guy was eight, and his mother showed her true sympathies by marrying another recusant, Denis (or Dionysus) Bainbridge, described by an acquaintance (according to the Gunpowder Plot Society) as "more ornamental than useful." The family moved to a home near the village of Scotton in North Yorkshire. From that point on, Fawkes likely began to come in contact with devout Catholics who were working through official channels and also by underground means to safeguard and advance the rights of Catholics under the country's increasingly entrenched Anglican regime.
He likely received another dose of this underground Catholicism when he attended St. Peter's School in the city of York (which still exists, and notes Fawkes as an alumnus if not as a role model). The school's headmaster, John Pulleine (or Pulleyn), was nominally Protestant, but St. Peter's was likely a hotbed of Catholic resistance; its former headmaster had been imprisoned for 20 years as a convicted recusant, and Pulleine's entire family was sympathetic to the Catholic cause. One local noblewoman, according to Gunpowder Plot historian Antonia Fraser, called the school "Little Rome." Fawkes, according to one source, married Pulleine's daughter Maria and had a son, named Thomas, in 1591. Other early accounts of Fawkes's life make no mention of the marriage, which could suggest that it was very short (perhaps with mother and child dying in childbirth) or that it did not occur at all.
Several contemporary accounts agree, in any event, that Fawkes as a young man had become serious about Catholicism. When he reached adulthood, he took steps to raise cash for an extended period of military service abroad, renting out his family's land near York to one Christopher Lomley under a 21-year lease. For a year or two he worked as a footman to the Catholic nobleman Lord Montague, and he may have met Robert Catesby, the originator of the Gunpowder Plot, through family connections during this period. Around 1593, he left England for Flanders (a Dutch-speaking region now divided among northern Belgium, France, and the Netherlands), which was then under the control of Spain, Western Europe's great Catholic power, and he enlisted in the Spanish army. A military associate (quoted by David Herber) described Fawkes as "a man of great piety, of exemplary temperance, of mild and cheerful demeanor, an enemy of broils and disputes, a faithful friend, and remarkable for his punctual attendance upon religious observance."
Spain, whose feared Armada had tried unsuccessfully to launch an invasion of England in 1588, had expansionist ambitions, and was also facing resistance to the north from Dutch Protestants. Fawkes saw plenty of military action, serving under the command of the Archduke Albert of Austria, Spain's ally. He fought for the Spaniards in a battle at Calais, in western France, in 1595, and he may have been wounded at the Battle of Nieuport in Flanders in 1600. Among his assignments was one in which he learned to blow up a procession of military wagons. In both these campaigns he came to the attention not only of his Spanish and Austrian commanders but also of a group of English Catholic nobles sympathetic to the Catholic side. He was recognized not only for military valor but also for his virtue and general intelligence.
By 1603 Fawkes was serving in a regiment commanded by one of these English nobles, Sir William Stanley. Styling himself Guido Fawkes, he was an ensign, on his way to the rank of captain. But Stanley and his associates decided that Fawkes's skills might better be put to use in the diplomatic arena. That year he was sent to Spain on a mission to convince the Spanish monarchy that the time was ripe for another invasion of England on behalf of its beleaguered Catholics. At the time, King James I had just acceded to the throne after the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth I. Fawkes, whom Fraser (drawing on contemporary artworks) described 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," presented a powerful case. English citizens, he claimed, were ready to throw off the rule of James, a Scot enmeshed in a variety of political intrigues.
The move, however, had more than a hint of desperation. After the establishment of the Church of England under King Henry VIII and a temporary and gruesome return to Catholicism under Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary"), Protestantism had become well entrenched under Elizabeth, as even the Spaniards recognized. They gave Fawkes a polite reception, but they were moving in the direction of a permanent peace with England, and Fawkes's mission went nowhere. Meanwhile King James, suspicious of the intentions of English Catholics, sharpened his anti-Papist invective and imposed new fines on recusants.
In Brussels after his Spanish mission, Fawkes was introduced by Stanley to Tom Wintour, a Catholic soldier. Wintour or Stanley informed Fawkes of a plot under consideration by English nobleman Robert (or Robin) Catesby, whose father had undergone long imprisonment for his Catholic affiliation, and whose own militancy had deepened as he fell on hard times. Fawkes seemed the perfect foot soldier for the plan's execution. He knew guns and explosives well, and since he had been away from England for many years, his name and face were unknown to Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and the head of the English monarchy's secret police.
In May of 1604, Fawkes, Catesby, Wintour, and two other conspirators met at an inn in London's upscale Strand district and swore an oath to carry out Catesby's plan: to throw England into chaos by killing its king and lawmakers in a massive explosion, to install King James's young daughter, Elizabeth, as Queen and arrange her marriage to a Catholic monarch from elsewhere in Europe, thus restoring a Catholic monarchy. As time passed, other Catholic activists were let in on the plan, which may have contributed to its ultimate undoing. Fawkes assumed the identity of John Johnson, a servant to one of the other plotters, Thomas Percy.
At first the plan was to tunnel under the Parliament buildings, but the plotters benefited from a stroke of good fortune: the empty cellar of an adjoining building extended underneath their target, and they succeeded in renting it. The Westminster district in London's West End was a crowded warren of streets and businesses at the time, and Fawkes/Johnson attracted little notice as he was installed as caretaker. By early 1605 the plotters had begun to fill the cellar with barrels of gunpowder. To disguise it they covered it with iron bars and bundles of kindling, known in British English as faggots. They had to replace the powder as it "decayed" or went stale.
Finally a date for the explosion was set: November 5, 1605, when King James, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons would all be in attendance in the same chamber. The Powder Treason began to unravel on the night of October 26, with the delivery of an anonymous letter to a Catholic nobleman, Lord Monteagle, advising him to concoct an excuse to avoid the opening of the Parliament session on November 5. Monteagle informed Sir Robert Cecil of the letter's contents, and Cecil informed the King. Continuing uncertainty over who wrote the letter, together with signs that pointed to its being a forgery, have given rise over the centuries to theories that the Gunpowder Plot was devised not by Catholic militants but by Cecil himself, with the intention of permanently crippling Britain's Catholics in the ensuing uproar. In this version of events (promoted in recent times by Francis Edwards), Fawkes and Catesby were double agents. The preponderance of historical opinion holds that the Treason was a genuine terrorist plot, but the debate continues.
Whatever the case, the cellars beneath the Parliament buildings were searched on the night of November 4, and Fawkes was discovered, along with the gunpowder. Described as a very tall and desperate fellow, he gave his name as John Johnson. King James, according to Fraser, ordered that "the gentler Tortures are to be first used unto him et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur [and so by degrees proceeding to the worst]," although torture was illegal in England at the time, and had been since the signing of the Magna Carta, the 1215 document that restricted the power of the English kings. Fawkes was hung from a wall in manacles and proba- bly placed on the rack, a notorious device that slowly stretched a prisoner's body until he lost the use of his limbs. After two days, Fawkes gave up the names of his coconspirators, all but one of whom were tracked down and executed or killed. Prior to his execution by hanging in Westminster's Old Palace Yard on January 31, 1606, Fawkes was barely able to sign his own name on a confession. After dying on the scaffold, he was drawn and quartered.
Restrictions harsher than any they had yet experienced were placed on English Catholics by King James, and November 5 became a national holiday in England, known as Firework Night, Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Day. In the colonial United States it was celebrated as Pope Day, featuring a ceremony in which the Pope was burned in effigy, but the holiday was gradually absorbed into the Halloween festivities that occurred a few days earlier. Guy Fawkes Day evolved away from its roots in Britain, where the targets of the fire might include contemporary figures despised by the public. As part of a group of anti-terrorist measures, the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are still searched by guards each year before the legislature opens in November.
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New York Times , November 5, 2005.
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Herber, David, "Guy Fawkes," http://www.britannia.com/history/g-fawkes.html (October 10, 2006).
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