Guy Fawkes (1570-1606)

Gunpowder Plot Conspirator

Plaque at 32 Stonegate YO1 8AS

Arguably the most famous person to be born in York, Guy Fawkes was baptised at St Michael-le-Belfrey on 16 April 1570, probably having been born a few days previously in his parents’ house on Stonegate. He was the second of four children and only son of Edward Fawkes and his wife Edith Jackson. Edward’s father, William Fawkes, was a lawyer in the ecclesiastical courts at York, at that time important institutions, and was married to Ellen Haryngton, daughter of a prominent York merchant. The couple enjoyed a life of solid prosperity in the upper reaches of York society with William serving as Sheriff of York in 1531 and as Lord Mayor in 1536. His son Edward followed his father’s footsteps and likewise became a lawyer in York’s church courts.

Guy’s life changed radically in 1570 with the death of his father. After Elizabeth I’s religious settlement of 1559, England formally became a Protestant country and the nation’s Roman Catholic minority suffered increasing disadvantages as the reign progressed. Catholics were, in effect, denied full citizenship, were debarred from office-holding and could be subjected to heavy fines, while English Catholic priests could be executed as traitors as could those who aided or sheltered them or distributed Catholic books. Guy had been raised a Protestant but, after his father’s death, his mother married Dionis Bainbrigge (sometimes modernised as Denis Bainbridge), a Catholic gentleman living at Scotton, a township in the Yorkshire parish of Farnham. Thus, Guy as an adolescent moved in Catholic circles and was certainly a convert to Catholicism when he came of age in 1591.

Religious conflict

The struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism was not limited to England but was being fought out through more or less continuous warfare in northern Europe. So, the 21-year-old Guy Fawkes sold off the property which he had inherited at Clifton and left to join Spain’s Army of Flanders which was fighting the forces of the Protestant Dutch Republic in the Netherlands. The Army of Flanders was essentially an international force, at the time of Guy’s joining numbering 62,000 or so men comprising around 20,000 Germans, a similar number of Netherlanders, almost 10,000 Spaniards and, among the smaller contingents, 460 English and Scots. Although he never rose above junior officer rank, the consensus is that Guy was a good soldier, brave and dependable, and well thought of among his fellows. He was described by the English Jesuit priest Oswald Tesimond (not, perhaps, an unbiased commentator and, like Guy, a former pupil of St Peter’s School in York) as ‘a man liked by everyone and loyal to his friends’, someone not given to strife and, in particular, avoiding those quarrels that led to duelling, and also ‘something decidedly rare among soldiery, although it was immediately evident to all – a very devout man, of exemplary life’. To these qualities was added a commanding physical presence: Guy was tall and well built and his hair and beard were reddish brown.

While Guy was fighting in the Netherlands, serious disquiet was growing among at least some English Catholics who were becoming increasingly unwilling to put up with the disadvantages they were subjected to. One such was Robert Catesby whose discontents were to lead to what has passed into history as the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby was a gentleman from Warwickshire, probably born in 1573, whose family had suffered heavily from fines, his father Sir William Catesby also having been imprisoned for his faith. Catesby was related to a number of prominent Catholic families in the Midlands and, on the basis of these contacts, he recruited an inner core of potential conspirators. England’s |Catholics had hoped for a bettering of their condition when James VI of Scotland came to the throne of England as James I on Elizabeth’s death in 1603 but this was not forthcoming. Moreover, the signing of a peace treaty between England and Spain in 1604 meant that England’s Catholic plotters could no longer expect support from the Catholic superpower. On 20 May 1604, Catesby, anxious to move things forward, called a meeting of his closest associates at the Duck and Drake, an inn near the Strand in London which was also attended by somebody new to the conspirators: Guy Fawkes.

Undercover diplomacy

As well as his military service, Guy had apparently become involved in the shadowy world of English Catholic undercover diplomacy and had been on a mission to Spain to see if any support might be forthcoming from that quarter in the event of an uprising by English Catholics. Early in 1604, at Ostend, Guy met with Thomas Winter, one of Catesby’s closest associates. Winter’s confession, given after his arrest following the Plot’s discovery, is a major source for reconstructing how the conspiracy developed and, according to Winter, Guy was sounded out at this meeting and informed that Winter and others were planning to try to strike a blow for Catholicism in England with or without Spanish support. Guy was known among English Catholic emigrés, some of whose more prominent members had vouched for his reliability, although the main reason for his being recruited into the Plot must have been that his military service had given him expertise in using explosives.

Gunpowder plot

Catesby was killed by Government forces in the immediate aftermath of the Plot’s being discovered so we have no insight into how he came to formulate his amazingly audacious plan to blow up Westminster Palace with gunpowder, large quantities of which were available following the Anglo-Spanish peace treaty. After a series of false turns and changes of plan, the plotters were lucky enough to be able to rent a vault directly under the palace in which they hid 36 barrels of gunpowder, ferried over the Thames from Southwark, and concealed under firewood The explosives were to be ignited when Parliament opened on 5 November 1605. Various calculations have been made to assess how damaging the explosion would have been but a general consensus suggests the plotters would have been successful in wiping out most of the royal family and a large proportion of England’s ruling class.

The Plot came breathtakingly close to success but, under circumstances which are disputed and which centre on the “Mounteagle letter” warning a pro-Catholic peer not to attend the opening of parliament, it unravelled at the last moment and Guy Fawkes was discovered in the gunpowder-packed vault in the early hours of 5 November. He was interrogated and almost certainly tortured. His initial courage inevitably broke down and he started to confess late on 7 November. Plotters in the London area were quickly rounded up. Catesby had tried to get a Catholic rising off the ground in the Midlands, planned originally to follow on immediately from the destruction at Westminster, but this failed to take off. He and the remainder of the plotters, along with a handful of supporters, were killed or captured by local militia at Holbeach House in Staffordshire on 8 November. After a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion, the surviving plotters were executed publicly in two batches on 30 and 31 January 1606, suffering hanging, drawing and quartering, the appalling punishment prescribed for non-aristocratic traitors. Guy was one of the second batch to be executed, although it seems that his neck broke at the hanging stage of the proceedings, so he was spared the disembowelment and castration which were key elements in the prescribed punishment.

5th November celebrations

The Government’s reaction to the Plot was statesmanlike: James I was anxious to avoid an anti-Catholic pogrom while there were also important foreign policy considerations given the need not to offend either Spain or France, the other major Catholic power. In the aftermath of the executions, Parliament passed “An Act for the Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God every Year on the Fifth Day of November” and it is this legislation (not repealed until 1858) which explains why this fascinating but failed plot from the early seventeenth century is still commemorated today. In many towns the Fifth became the occasion not just for a church service, frequently incorporating an anti-Catholic sermon, but also for civic celebrations, often with bonfires, already an established element in popular festivities, and fireworks. By the 1670s, with fears of Catholicism again rampant, effigies of the pope and the plotters were burned on the bonfires. Detailed information on what happened on 5 November over the 18th century has yet to be assembled but, by the early 19th century, it was Guy Fawkes who was being burned on the 5 November bonfires. A generation or two later, the call for ‘a penny for the Guy’ was often heard on England’s streets as the autumn progressed, usually uttered by children who had only the sketchiest idea about the history of the Plot. In York, Guy Fawkes is commemorated by a plaque in Stonegate on the site where his parents’ house (long since demolished) stood and by the Guy Fawkes Inn (previously Young’s Hotel) on High Petergate while other relevant locations are noted on the York Civic Trust’s Guy Fawkes Trail and in a leaflet produced by the First Stop York tourism partnership. A portrait of Guy Fawkes hangs in St Peter’s School: his effigy is never burned during the school’s annual 5 November celebrations.

Sources

Antonia Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot, Terror and Faith in 1605 (London, 1996)

Mark Nicholls, “Fawkes, Guy”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) James Sharpe, Remember Remember the Fifth of November, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (London, 2005)

©James Sharpe