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Sunday, 25 January 2015

Guy Fawkes


Guy Fawkes was born in Stonegate, York on April 13, 1570. He was the only son of Edward Fawkes of York, a proctor and an advocate of the consistory court at York and his wife Edith née Blake.

Guy's mother was from a well known merchant family who were recusant Catholics, and his cousin, Richard Cowling, became a Jesuit priest.

His family lived with Guy's well-to-do and respected grandmother, Ellen Harrington. It appears she disliked Edith Fawkes, judging from grudging references and bequests in her will. (Guy only received a whistle and a gold coin in her will.)

In 1579, when Guy was eight years old, his father died. His mother remarried several years later, to the Catholic Dionis Bainbridge, who was connected with the Pulleyns and the Percy family.

Guy was surrounded by many Catholics during his school days, including the Wright brothers, who were later to be involved in the Gunpowder Plot.

He attended St Peters School, York, a 'free schole in ye Horsefair’. This was at the corner of Gillygate and Lord Mayor's Walk (now occupied by a car park).

No details of Guy’s schooldays exist, but he received at St Peters Roman Catholic teachings. The previous headmaster of St Peter's, John Fletcher, had been imprisoned for 20 years as a Catholic recusant. Guy's Head Master - John Pulleyn, was outwardly conforming, but seems to have influenced the boys greatly in two ways - drama and Catholicism, though later he denounced a disguised priest.


In person Guy Fawkes was tall and athletic, with pale blue/grey eyes, a profusion of brown hair, and an auburn-colored beard.

According to Father Greenway, he was, "A man of great piety, of exemplary temperance, mild and cheerful demeanour, enemy of disputes, a faithful friend".

Fawkes was from a mainly Protestant family (his mother was a secret Catholic). He was baptized on April 16, 1570 in St Michael-le-Belfry, York. (The baptismal Register still exists)

He became a Roman Catholic at the age of 16 after the marriage of his widowed mother to a man of Catholic background and sympathies. (He may have been converted by his cousin, Father Richard Collinge of York). Fawkes was unusually devout with a passion for theology.


A soldier of fortune, Fawkes first worked in the house of the viscount Montague, enlisting in 1593 as an adult in the Spanish army, which was occupying the Netherlands (then in Spanish hands), allowing him the freedom to practice his Catholic religion openly.

In 1596 Fawkes participated in the capture of the city of Calais by the Spanish in their war with Henry IV of France.

Fawkes gained a reputation as a good man in a tight corner. He was wounded twice gaining a reputation for bravery, but rose no higher than the rank of ensign.

He gained considerable expertise with explosives and in 1604 appalled by the treatment of Catholics in England, Fawkes was enlisted to join the plot to blow up the King and Parliament.


A plot led by Robert Catesby was hatched to blow up King James I together with the House of Lords and the house of Commons when they were assembled for the opening of Parliament. Catesby was a young Roman Catholic gentleman who, tired of the many broken promises of James I to grant religious toleration, decided on desperate action.

The first meeting of the five central conspirators took place on May 20, 1604, at an inn called the Duck and Drake, in the Strand district of London.

Eventually there were thirteen plotters - three of whom - Guy Fawkes and the brothers John and Christopher Wright were school-fellows at St Peter's School in York.

It is uncertain when Fawkes returned to England, but he was back in London by late August 1605. The conspirators met at Fawkes' house in Dunchurch, Warwickshire to discuss their conspiracy. His final role in the plot was settled during a series of meetings in October, when it was decided he was to light the fuse and then escape across the Thames.

The plotters were able to be able to rent a cellar directly below the parliament chamber, and in this they stored thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.  It was Guy Fawkes who was to remain in the cellar and light the fuse at the appropriate moment.

The conspirators met the night before the opening of Parliament (Nov 3rd) in London and the next day, the King’s men observed an unusual amount of firewood near the offending cellar. When the owner of the house (Whynniard) revealed who the tenant was, a party conducted by Sir Thomas Knevett returned about midnight on Nov 4th and arrested Guy Fawkes.

Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (c. 1823), Henry Perronet Briggs

Fawkes gave his name as John Johnson and remained defiant. When asked what he was doing in possession of so much gunpowder, Fawkes answered that his intention was "to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.”

Far from denying what he was doing, Fawkes said openly that he wanted to destroy the King and Parliament. They searched his pocket and found fuses and kindling.

King James I ordered that Fawkes be removed to the Tower of London and lodged in the infamous cell known as "Little Ease". This was so small that it was impossible to stand, sit or lie down properly.

Fawkes withstood several days of torture rather than give the names of his fellow conspirators, hoping perhaps to give his comrades time to escape abroad. Little did he realize that the government already had a complete list of the plotters.


On  January 31, 1606, Fawkes and three other conspirators were dragged from the Tower on wattled hurdles to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, opposite the building they had attempted to destroy. His fellow plotters were then hanged and quartered.

Fawkes was the last to stand on the scaffold. He began to climb the ladder to the noose, but either through jumping to his death or climbing too high so the rope was incorrectly set, he managed to avoid the agony of the latter part of his execution by breaking his neck.

A 1606 etching by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher, depicting Fawkes's execution

On November 5, 1605 Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King's escape from assassination by lighting bonfires. An Act of Parliament designated each November 5th as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance", and remained in force until 1859.

Guy Fawkes is the only Englishman to have a day named after him (if you exclude St George).

The burning on November 5th 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 gradually spread throughout the English-speaking world.

Procession of a Guy (1864)

The aftermath of the conspiracy was to do a great favour in effect to James I. It certainly united the nation in a common bond of determination and unity, unknown before.

The West Coast American band Green on Red's 1985 album No Free Lunch features "Ballad of Guy Fawkes."

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