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Guy Fawkes

A painting of Guy Fawkes with House of Parliament in the background.
A painting of Guy Fawkes with House of Parliament in the background.

Guy Fawkes (April 13, 1570January 31, 1606), also known as Guido Fawkes, born in York, was an English soldier and member of a group of Roman Catholics who attempted to carry out the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November 1605.

The plot was an attempt to assassinate the Protestant King James I (James VI of Scotland) and the members of both houses of the Parliament of England, by blowing up Westminster Palace during the formal opening session of the 1605 Parliament, in which the king would address a joint assembly of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Guy Fawkes was in large part responsible for the later stages of the plan's execution. His activities were detected, however, before the plan's completion. Following a severe interrogation involving the use of torture, and a trial in Westminster Hall by Judge John Popham, Fawkes and his conspirators were executed for treason and attempted murder. Guy Fawkes' failure is remembered with Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night) on November 5.

Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Conspirators are discovered and Guy Fawkes is caught in the cellar of the Houses of Parliament with the explosives.
The Gunpowder Conspirators are discovered and Guy Fawkes is caught in the cellar of the Houses of Parliament with the explosives.
Guy Fawkes' signature immediately after torture (only 'Guido') and eight days later.
Guy Fawkes' signature immediately after torture (only 'Guido') and eight days later.
Main article: Gunpowder Plot

Guy Fawkes is famous for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which he was placed in charge of executing because of his military and explosives experience. The plot, masterminded by Robert Catesby, was a failed attempt by a group of English Roman Catholic conspirators to kill King James I of England (VI of Scotland), his family, and most of the aristocracy in one swoop by blowing up the (now demolished) House of Lords building in the Houses of Parliament during its State Opening. Guy Fawkes may have been introduced to Robert Catesby by a man named Hugh Owen, a Catholic who was in the pay of the Spanish Netherlands. Sir William Stanley is also believed to have recommended him and Guy Fawkes named him in his torture, leading him to be arrested and imprisoned for a year after the discovery of the plot. It was Stanley who first presented Fawkes to Thomas Winter in 1603 when Winter was in 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 Leicester had made in the Low Countries. Leicester’s expedition was widely regarded as a disaster for this reason among others. Stanley was a known Catholic sympathist.

The plot itself may have been occasioned by the realization by English Protestant authorities and Roman Catholic recusants that Spain was in far too much debt and was fighting too many wars to assist English Roman Catholics. Any possibility of toleration by the State was removed at the Hampton Court conference in 1604 when James I attacked both extreme Puritans and Catholics. The plotters realized that no outside help would be forthcoming unless they took action. Fawkes and the other conspirators were able to rent a cellar beneath the House of Lords. They were much relieved to find a cellar for rent, as they had first tried to dig a mine under the building. This would have been difficult, because they had to store the dirt and debris and carry it away in barrels. By March 1605, they had hidden eighteen hundred pounds of gunpowder in the cellar, with the intent of detonating it during the State Opening of Parliament with the King and Lords in attendance. The plotters then wished 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 letter of warning to Lord Monteagle, who received it on October 26. 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 suspicious, however, and the letter was sent to the secretary of state who initiated a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords. Fawkes was discovered and arrested during a raid on the cellar in the early morning of 5 November. He was tortured over the next few days, after special permission to do so had been granted by the King. Eventually, he revealed the names of his conspirators (who were either already dead or whose names were known to the authorities). Some had fled to Warwickshire where they were either killed or captured. On 31 January, Fawkes, Al Roth, and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were tried in Westminster Hall, and after being found guilty, were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster and St. Paul's Yard, where they were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Fawkes cheated this fate in a way: though weakened by torture, he jumped from the gallows and snapped his neck rather than being hanged until almost dead.


Effigy of Guy Fawkes, being paraded as part of the by the Cliffe Bonfire Society Bonfire Night rituals in Lewes, Sussex.
Effigy of Guy Fawkes, being paraded as part of the by the Cliffe Bonfire Society Bonfire Night rituals in Lewes, Sussex.

Many popular contemporary verses were written in condemnation of Guy Fawkes aside from the most famous and still well known verse asking us to 'remember remember'. 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 Summe 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 heerein: that they not be seduced any longer by Papists. Other popular verses were altogether more ‘godly’ and in celebration of 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!’

A popular nursery rhyme about the plot reads:

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Shakespeare's Tragedy of Macbeth was finished in 1606, shortly after the dismantling of the plot. It is widely believed that Shakespeare wrote it as an effort to appease King James, who could trace his family back through the Scottish Kings to Banquo's line. Shakespeare’s name may have possibly been drawn as one of the conspirators, similar to the way Cicero was depicted in the Bard's own play Julius Caesar. In 1606, his daughter, Susannah, was listed as one of the residents of Stratford refusing to take Holy Communion, suggesting that the family certainly had some Catholic sympathies. However, it is likely that Shakespeare wrote this play as an overture of loyalty in the suspicious climate following the plot.

The conspiracy was commemorated by the Lord Mayor and aldermen of the City of London on November the 5th for years after by a sermon at St. Paul's Cathedral. The 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 so they might pay for a minister to preach a sermon annually in their own parish.

In 1842, William Harrison Ainsworth wrote an historical novel called "Guy Fawkes", which portrayed Fawkes, and Catholic recusancy in general, in a sympathetic light.

In Enid Blyton's Secret Seven series, "Guy Fawkes" is the 'password' the seven children use to authenticate their entry to any of their several meetings. The reason for their choice arises from the bonfires that they arrange frequently.

Fawkes was later celebrated in poetry. The Latin verse In Quintum Novembris was written c.1626. Also John Milton’s Satan in book six of Paradise Lost is very Fawkesian in inspiration. The Devil invents gunpowder to try to match God's thunderbolts. Post reformation and anti-Roman Catholic literature often personified Guy Fawkes as the Devil in this way. Puritan polemics to popular literature all sought to associate Guy Fawkes with the demoniacal.

The story of Guy Fawkes inspired Alan Moore's 1982 dystopian graphic novel of a fascist Britain, V for Vendetta (which was adapted into a 2006 film version). The story revolves around the main character, V, who wears a stylized Guy Fawkes mask. In the story, V plans to blow up the abandoned Parliament buildings on a future 5th of November as his first move to bring down the nation's fascist, tyrannical dictator, whose physical appearance is loosely based on James I's.

  • Charles Dickens also referred to Fawkes quite often, particularly in his history of England, but also with references in his novels.
  • The poet T. S. Eliot mentions Guy Fawkes in the epigraph for his poem The Hollow Men, "A penny for the old guy".
  • Fawkes, the phoenix that appears in the Harry Potter books, is named after Guy Fawkes. A parallel has been drawn between Fawkes' owner Albus Dumbledore's Order of the Phoenix and the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot. It has also been said that the naming of Fawkes arises from the phoenix's tendency to burst into flame.
  • In the story "Witch Week" of the Chrestomanci series, an alternate universe is created when Fawkes succeeds in destroying Parliament.
  • In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Jane believes Ms. Abbot thinks of her as an "infantile Guy Fawkes"--always watching everyone and scheming.
  • In the Lucasarts video game Armed and Dangerous there is a weapon known as the Guy Fawkes Traitor Bomb, which causes all victims caught in the blast to turn upon their allies.
  • In the island chain of the Galapagos, one of the islands is named Isla Guy Fawkes
  • In Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native," the plot is centered around the celebrations of Guy Fawkes Days
  • In Len Deighton's Funeral in Berlin, the climax takes place on Guy Fawkes Day, with the sound of gunfire mistaken for the sound of exploding fireworks.

Popular culture

A common phrase is that Fawkes was "the only man to ever enter parliament with honourable intentions."[1] (This phrase may have originated in a nineteenth-century pantomime, and was commonly seen on anarchist posters during the early twentieth century. The Scottish Socialist Party became embroiled in controversy when they resurrected the poster with humorous intent in 2003).

Guy Fawkes appears in the 2002 list of "100 Greatest Britons", sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public. The list ranks him alongside others such as John Lennon, David Beckham, Aleister Crowley, Winston Churchill and Johnny Rotten. He was also included in a list of the 50 greatest people from Yorkshire.

Guy Fawkes is documented in many film newsreels (see the archives of British Pathé and Movie Tone). The discovery of the plot, the celebration, and Guy Fawkes are also mentioned in many popular songs and ballads. Notably, on the vinyl version of The Smiths' album Strangeways, Here We Come, the words "Guy Fawkes was a genius" are carved near the centre of the record.

A popular British rhyme is often quoted on Guy Fawkes Night, in memory of the Gunpowder Plot:

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip Hoorah !
Hip hip Hoorah !
A penny loaf to feed ol'Pope,
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar,'
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say: ol'Pope is dead.



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