Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Real Guy Fawkes and His Contemporary Reemergence

Guy Fawkes Day celebration

Today, The Guy is being celebrated in Great Britain (and a few other places) with bonfires, fireworks, and lots of hot foods. I have never been to a Guy Fawkes Day celebration; however, I have read the details of it in a few British mystery books. It seems that murders on Guy Fawkes Night are relatively common, at least in fiction.

I wonder how many of today’s celebrants think about the story of the real Guy Fawkes, who was discovered guarding a lot of gunpowder that was intended to be used to blow up Parliament.

The real Guy Fawkes

Fawkes (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606), who converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism as a boy under the influence of his stepfather, fought (at the age of 21) in the Eighty Years War for Catholic Spain against the new Dutch Republic and, from 1595 until the Peace of Vervins in 1598, for France.

Fawkes, who had remained on the Continent after the war, was encouraged to join what later became known as the Gunpowder Plot against King James I and the Protestant English government. Fawkes returned to England, from which he had been away for 13 years, in April, 1604. 

The supposed purpose of the plot was to assassinate the Protestant King, James, and replace him with his daughter, third in the line of succession, Princess Elizabeth Stuart (19 August 1596 – 13 February 1662) who later was the wife of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and, following his death, the titular queen of Bohemia. The means of assassination was a large quantity of gunpowder which would be used to blow up Parliament House while the King and most of his government were there.

King James I

 Princess Elizabeth Stuart 

Fawkes, as the junior member of the conspirators and a soldier, was assigned the task of guarding the gun powder and, at the given moment, to light the fuse to ignite it and then escape across the Thames. However, the plot was discovered when Lord William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle, a Catholic, received an anonymous letter warning him not to take his seat in the House of Lords. He took the letter to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who then showed it to King James.  

King James ordered a search of the cellars beneath Parliament. Shortly after midnight, on November 5th, Fawkes was arrested while leaving the cellar. The barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the cellar, hidden beneath piles of firewood and coal.

The arrest of Guy Fawkes

Fawkes was first interrogated by the King’s Privy Council, then transferred to the Tower of London where he was interrogated under torture until he had admitted everything he knew about the plot, including the names of the conspirators.

Fawkes tortured in the Tower of London

The Gunpowder Plot conspirators 

Fawkes and 7 of his co-conspirators were tried at Whitehall on January 27th and found guilty of high treason. They were sentenced to be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both". They were to be hanged until near death, their genitals would then be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts cut from their still living bodies. They would then be decapitated, their bodies cut into parts, and the dismembered parts of their bodies taken to the four corners of the kingdom, to be displayed so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air."

The execution of Fawkes and three other plotters began on January 31st, 1606. Fawkes, however, managed to jump from the gallows before his execution began, breaking his neck in the fall and thus avoiding the agony of the latter part of his execution.

That is the story of the Gunpowder Plot and of Guy Fawkes, for whom this November 5th celebration is named.

Today I believe that there are many people who do not know who Guy Fawkes was who are familiar with the Guy Fawkes mask that has become the symbol for the online hacktivist group, Anonymous, the Occupy movement, and other anti-government and anti-establishment protests around the world.

Guy Fawkes mask

Members of Anonymous


  1. It seems I knew nothing about the history of Guy Fawkes Day. I always thought it was like American Halloween. Thanks for enlightening me, SSN.

  2. You tell good stories, Saintly Nick. Thank you for this one.

  3. the kitty :)

  4. Great post, Nick and I appreciate all the research that must have gone into it. I'll direct my students to it.. Love xx

  5. I had never heard of the gunpowder plot and thought that Guy Fawks was a fictional character. THank you, NIck, for again widening my education.