Historical Figures: Guy Fawkes

Every year, millions of Britons gather round bonfires on November 5. We let off fireworks and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Catholic plotter who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. But who was Guy Fawkes? And why was he prepared to go to such lengths to destroy the seat of government?

Guy Fawkes

A young adventurer

Guy Fawkes was born in 1570, the son of an official in York's ecclesiastical court. Protestant by birth, he's believed to have converted to Catholicism as a young man. In 1593, he travelled to Flanders, where he enlisted in the Spanish army, fighting with distinction during the capture of Calais in 1596. By all accounts, Guy Fawkes was an imposing figure. Tall and well-built, he had reddish-brown hair and fine beard. He had a good reputation as a brave and resourceful soldier. If you were planning to overthrow the King of England, you'd want him on your side.

James the 1st

James the 1st

A disappointing king

James I came to the English throne in 1603, following the death of Elizabeth I. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose execution Elizabeth had ordered in 1587. English Catholics had been suppressed for years under Elizabeth and they were hoping that James - the son of a Catholic queen - would be more sympathetic. Initially, the signs were good. Anti-Catholic statutes were rolled back and Catholics began to worship openly. But the new measures angered powerful Protestant interest groups and, by 1604, James was obliged to clamp down on Catholics once again, fuelling increasing resentment within a community now convinced it was being systematically persecuted.

Gunpowder, treason and plot

Robert Catesby was a charismatic young Catholic gentleman with a history of speaking out against the English crown. In 1604 he recruited a group of Catholic activists willing to stage a spectacular strike at the heart of the English establishment. The plan was to blow up the Houses of Parliament at a time when the King himself would be present. The aim was to destabilise the monarchy sufficiently to spark a Catholic uprising. Guy Fawkes, with his soldiering background and demonstrable dedication to the Catholic cause, was the ideal man to supervise the preparation and ignition of a gunpowder stack big enough to blow James and his parliament sky-high.

Peter Wright, Thomas Percy, Guido Fawkes and Robert Catelby: all part of the Catholic Activists recruited by Fawkes

Peter Wright, Thomas Percy, Guido Fawkes and Robert Catelby: all part of the Catholic Activists recruited by Fawkes

Failure

In a surveillance operation that wouldn't have looked out of place in an episode of Spooks, English spies had connected Guy Fawkes to Robert Catesby. They knew something was afoot but couldn't identify the target until, on October 26, 1605, one of the conspirators sent the Catholic-born Lord Monteagle an anonymous letter warning him to avoid the opening of parliament, scheduled to take place on November 5. Guy Fawkes, meanwhile was finalising the covert deployment of 36 barrels of gunpowder and a huge stack of firewood, in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament. Monteagle showed the letter to the English authorities and the net began to close around the conspirators. Fawkes was arrested on the night of November 4, as he waited by his pile of gunpowder for the opening of parliament the next day.

Aftermath

As news spread across London that a Catholic plot to assassinate the King had been foiled, citizens began to light celebratory bonfires. The remaining plotters fled to the Midlands, where Catesby and several others were killed in a clash with the King's men on November 8. Those that survived were brought back to London and, along with Fawkes, tried for treason. On January 30 and 31, 1606, Fawkes and seven other plotters were hanged, drawn and quartered, the traditional method of execution for treason. The failed Gunpowder Plot ushered in an era of even fiercer Catholic repression in England. For centuries, effigies of the Pope were set alight on bonfires every November 5. Gradually, the Pope figures were replaced with effigies of Guy Fawkes.