Guido Fawkes (April 13, 1570—January 31, 1606), most commonly called Guy Fawkes and sometimes rendered as Faukes, who also used the pseudonym John Johnson, was a member of a group of Roman Catholic conspirators who attempted to assassinate King James I and all the members of both branches of the Parliament of England while they were assembled in the House of Lords building for the formal opening of the 1605 session of Parliament. The plot was uncovered and the barrels of gunpowder defused before any damage was done. Fawkes was a convert to Catholicism, which occurred at about the age of 16, if his admission of recusancy at his preliminary interrogation is to be believed.
Fawkes was born in Stonegate in York, where he was baptized in the church of St. Michael-le-Belfry, and attended St. Peter's School. He was the only son of Edward Fawkes of York and his wife Eve Blake. He served for many years as a soldier gaining considerable expertise with explosives. In 1593 he enlisted in the army of Archduke Albert of Austria in the Netherlands, fighting against the Protestant United Provinces in the Eighty Years' War. In 1596 he was present at the siege and capture of Calais but by 1602 he had risen no higher than the rank of ensign.
In his person he was tall and athletic, his countenance was manly, and the determined expression of his features was not a little heightened by a profusion of brown hair, and an auburn-coloured beard. He was descended from a respectable family in Yorkshire, and having soon squandered the property he inherited at the decease of his father, his restless spirit associated itself with the discontented and factious of his age.
The beginnings of the Plot
The Gunpowder Plot was created in May 1604 with Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright , Robert Keyes, Thomas Wintour and Robert Wintour. Fawkes, who had considerable military experience and a good understanding of explosives, had been introduced to Catesby by a man named Hugh Owen . Some accounts indicate that Thomas Wintour was the prime mover in all of this, and that Fawkes was the tool towards the ultimate execution of the plot.
Planning and preparation
In March 1605, the conspirators rented a cellar beneath Parliament through Thomas Percy (also spelt Percye); Fawkes assisted in filling the room with gunpowder which was concealed beneath bric-a-brac in the cellars of the House of Lords building. The 36 barrels belonging to John Whynniard contained an estimated 2500 kg of gunpowder. The explosion could have reduced many of the buildings in the Old Palace of Westminster complex, including the Abbey, to rubble and would have blown out windows in the surrounding area for a distance up to almost a mile.
At around Easter 1605, Fawkes left Dover for Calais, travelling to St Omer and then to Brussels. According to the confession made by Fawkes on November 5 1605, he met with Hugh Owen, and Sir William Stanley there. After that he made a pilgrimage in Brabant. He returned to England at the end of August or early September, again by way of Calais.
There are suggestions that the original plan was to dig a tunnel from the cellar of an adjacent building by mining and then plant the explosives under the meeting chamber in the House of Lords.
Discovery and arrest
At around midnight November 4 or in the very early hours of November 5th, Fawkes, posing as a Mr John Johnson, was arrested in the cellar by a party of armed men led by Sir Thomas Knevytt (or Knevett). In Fawkes' possession were a watch, slow matches and touchpaper. On arrest Fawkes did not deny his intentions, stating that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament. Prior to the arrest, some of the plotters were worried about fellow Catholics who would be present at Parliament on the appointed day. One such plotter was Mark Tresham, who wrote a letter to Lord Monteagle warning him. The recipient became suspicious, and the letter was sent to the secretary of state which initiated a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords.
Interrogation of the prisoners
Fawkes was brought into the king's bedchamber, where the ministers had hastily assembled, at one o'clock in the morning. He maintained an attitude of cool defiance, making no secret of his intentions. He replied to the king, who asked why he would kill him, that the pope had excommunicated him, that dangerous diseases require a desperate remedy, adding fiercely to the Scottish courtiers who surrounded him that one of his objects was to blow the Scots back into Scotland.
Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated. He was questioned on the nature of his accomplices, the involvement of Thomas Percy, what letters he had received from overseas, and whether he had spoken with Hugh Owen.
He was taken to the Tower of London and there interrogated under torture. Since torture was forbidden except by the express instruction of the monarch or the Privy Council, King James I in a letter of November 6 stated: "The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by increase to the worst], and so God speed your goode worke". Initially he resisted torture. On November 8, Fawkes verbally confessed, revealing the names of his co-conspirators, and recounted the full details of the plot on November 9. He made a signed confession on November 10; his signature after torture on the rack is strikingly shaky.
A nominal trial ensued on January 27, 1606, at which the sentences had already been predetermined. On January 31, Fawkes, Wintour, and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster, where they were hanged, drawn and quartered.
According to historian Lady Antonia Fraser, the gunpowder was taken to the Tower of London and would have been reissued if in good condition, or otherwise sold for recycling. However, a sample of the gunpowder may have survived -- in March 2002 workers at the British Library, investigating archives of John Evelyn, found a box containing various samples of gunpowder and several notes: "Gunpowder 1605 in a paper inscribed by John Evelyn. Powder with which that villain Faux would have blown up the parliament." and "Gunpowder. Large package is supposed to be Guy Fawkes' gunpowder." and "But there was none left! WEH 1952".
According to historian Ronald Hutton, when it was moved to the Tower of London magazine after Guy Fawkes was caught, it was discovered to be `decayed'; that is, it had done what gunpowder always did when left to sit for too long, and separated into its component chemical parts, rendering it harmless. If Guy had plunged in the torch with Parliament all ready above him, all that would have happened would have been a damp splutter.
In England and in New Zealand, the failure of the gunpowder plot is celebrated annually on Guy Fawkes Night.
Guy Fawkes appears in the 2002 List of "100 Great Britons" (sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public), alongside such other greats as David Beckham, Aleister Crowley, Winston Churchill and Johnny Rotten. Cynical Britons are sometimes known to ironically comment that Guy Fawkes was the only man to go to Parliament with honourable intentions.
In an interesting example of semantic progression, Guy Fawkes has become immortalised by one of the most common words in the English language, particularly in American spoken English. The burning on 5 November of an effigy of Fawkes, known as a "guy," led to the use of the word "guy" as a term for "a person of grotesque appearance" and then to a general reference for a man, as in "some guy called for you." In the 20th century, under the influence of American popular culture, "guy" gradually replaced "fellow," "bloke," "chap" and other such words in that country; the practice is spreading throughout the English-speaking world.
The story of Guy Fawkes was a major inspiration for Alan Moore's post-nuclear war tale of a fascist Britain, V for Vendetta. The main character in that story is modeled on Fawkes.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04