Born in 1570, Guy Fawkes was the revolutionist who led a group of like-minded rebels in a failed attempt to blow up the English Parliament and kill King James I in 1605. If the men succeeded, their act would have been considered one of the most devastating and dramatic terrorist-driven attacks in history.
Guy Fawkes’ revolutionary thinking was popularised in the movie entitled “V for Vendetta.” The signature black and white masks bearing upturned, curled moustaches and pointy beards were meant to replicate the face of Guy Fawkes. These types of masks date back to the 19th century and were often worn as a protest symbol. Although Fawkes is commonly associated with freedom-fighting, the true story is bit more complicated.
Catholics suffered persecution in the country. The Gunpowder Plot was a direct response to the persecution. The goal of Fawkes and his followers was to usurp the ruler in order to allow England to be led by a monarch who might take a more subservient role under the Pope.
Nevertheless, Fawkes became a symbol of freedom, which prompted the Guy Fawkes Night in Britain. In remembrance of the historical figure, people gather to watch fireworks displays, drink and burn effigies in his honor. Eventually, the celebration was attended more often by non-Catholics.
After the Pilgrims established the first colonies in the United States, they brought the tradition with them. In the United States, the celebration became known as Pope Day. Everyone opposed to the Catholic Church burned effigies of the Pope. However, George Washington was not pleased with the festivities and openly expressed his opposition in 1775.
The Plot Unfolds
Beginning with Queen Elizabeth, Catholicism became severely oppressed. Under her rule, dozens of priests were executed. Catholics were also banned from celebrating Mass or getting married according to their traditional rites. After the pope executed the monarch, Catholics hoped things would change under King James I. After all, many believed that the new king’s wife Anne was a Catholic. James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots was known to have been Elizabeth’s rival. In lieu of his family history, some thought that the King would convert to Catholicism.
However, it soon became apparent shortly after James took the throne that the new ruler was not a friend to the Catholics. Nor was he a fan of religious tolerance. By 1604, he declared Catholicism as a mere superstition. Fearful that the Catholic population was increasing, he also ordered all priests to leave the country. In addition, James continued the repressive acts of former rulers, which included imposing fines for anyone refusing to attend Protestant church services.
Before Fawkes, various Catholics plotted conspiracies against Queen Elizabeth. However, all attempts failed. The undercover conspiracies continued when James became ruler. The Bye Plot for example, involved an attempt to kidnap King James. However, the revolutionaries were handed over to the throne by other Catholics. The failed Main Plot involved a group who plotted to kill James and make his cousin king.
In 1604, Fawkes along with Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Tom Wintour and Jack Wright held a meeting in London’s Duck and Drake Inn. There, the group concocted the plan to detonate explosives under the Houses of Parliament. All swore an oath of secrecy. Eight more like-minded conspirators joined the group. Although Fawkes is the figure most closely associated with the Gunpowder Plot, it was actually Catesby who served as leader of the group.
Fawkes’ Revolution Begins
As a young man, Fawkes spent 10 years fighting in the Spanish military against Protestants in the Netherlands. There he requested assistance from the King of Spain to embark on a rebellion against King James I. In his mind, the ruler was a heretic destined to drive Catholics from the country.
In honour of his service to Spain, Fawkes adopted the name Guido over Guy. He also used the name John Johnson when he acquired the House of Lords cellar caretaker position. Having access to the cellar gave the conspirators the location needed to carry out their plan. On November 5, a new session of Parliament would begin. King James, his son and the House of Lords would all be in attendance.
Fawkes planned to ignite the gun powder and escape by boat across the Thames River. His comrades would venture to the Midlands and planned to kidnap Elizabeth, James’ daughter. They hoped to get her appointed Queen and marry her off to a Catholic.
However, an anonymous letter arrived on October 26 warning against the Parliament session. The authorities were soon alerted. A search party found Fawkes in the cellar at midnight on November 4. Along with the stacks of gunpowder, he had matches in his possession. Fawkes was promptly taken to the Tower of London and tortured according to the King’s orders. Some theorised that the plot was long known and only allowed to continue in hopes of demonstrating the dangers that Catholics posed to the country.
Soon, seven of the other conspirators were arrested. Catesby and three others were shot by English troops. Fawkes and the remaining rebels were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering.
In the months that followed the January 1606 execution, a Jesuit priest was also deemed an accomplice of the group and was executed.
The King and the local government established new rules prohibiting Catholics from voting in elections. People associated with the religion also could not practice law or join the military. By 1534, Henry VIII declared to the kingdom that he was now the head of the Church.
It was not until the 19th century that Catholics enjoyed the freedom of their religion in England.
Facts about Guy Fawkes
- Born in Stonegate, York on April 13th, 1570
- He was educated at St. Peter’s School in York.
- He was born a Protestant but converted to Catholicism when he was about 16
- He was an experienced soldier who fought for the Spanish against the Dutch
- It took up to four days of torture for Guy Fawkes give the names of the other people involved in the plot
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Guy Fawkes" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/guy-fawkes/, February 10, 2017