“Remember, Remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.”
Born in 1570 in the city of York, Guy Fawkes has been immortalised for his role in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Even today, Guy Fawkes is a prominent feature of any Bonfire Night celebration. So who was Guy Fawkes and what are the facts behind this enduring Bonfire Night myth?
Guy Fawkes’ family
Guy Fawkes’ immediate family were all Protestant, although his maternal grandparents were ‘recusant’ Catholics, refusing to attend Protestant church services. When he was eight, his father died before his mother remarried a Catholic man called Dionis Baynbrigge.
The influence of his grandparents and Dionis would help to cement Guy Fawkes’ fanatical Catholic faith in later years.
Guy Fawkes’ time in Spain
Guy Fawkes was 21 when he sold the estate left to him by his late father to go to Europe and fight for Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years War against the Protestant Dutch republic. He flourished in the military atmosphere and by 1603m he was recommended for a captaincy.
It was also around this time he started to use the Italian variant of his name, ‘Guido’.
Later in 1603, Guy Fawkes’ went to petition the Spanish Philip III to support a rebellion in England against the Protestant James I. Philip refused, even though Spain was technically at war with England at the time.
Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot
Whilst fighting for Spain in Flanders, Guy Fawkes met Thomas Wintour, who invited Fawkes to join the Gunpowder Plot under the leadership of Robert Catesby.
Due to Guy’s experience with gunpowder, he was given the essential, but highly dangerous role of sourcing and igniting the explosive.
But eighteen months of meticulous planning was ultimate for nothing, when he was found with just hours to go, amongst barrels of gunpowder and arrested. The thirty-six barrels of gunpowder had been placed directly under the House of Lords where the king would sit for opening the House of Lords the next day.
James I’s spymaster, Robert Cecil, had brilliantly engineered the foiling of the gunpowder plot. Torture was technically illegal at the time, but the king personally gave out a licence for Fawkes to be tortured, including the rack.
Whilst the threat alone of torture was usually enough to gain answers, Guy Fawkes endured two full days before he confessed anything. His famous signature on his confession shows that he was barely able to hold a quill by the end of his ordeal.
James I was impressed with Guy Fawkes high level of fortitude throughout his arrest and torture, admiring his “Roman resolution”.
Hung, drawn and quartered
Guy Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death of being hung, drawn and quartered on the 31st January 1606.
To avoid being drawn (dragged) and quartered, he jumped as he was hung, breaking his own neck. Parts of his body were still quartered and sent to the four corners of England as a warning to other would-be traitors.
Fawkes was 35 when he died at Westminster.
The legacy of Guy Fawkes
Instantly, Guy Fawkes became a national ‘bogeyman’ and was seen as the embodiment of Catholic extremism. He served as a pretext for the additional repression of Catholics, measured that would persist for another 200 years.
Whilst the charismatic Robert Catesby was the ringleader of the gunpowder plot, it isn’t surprising that we mainly remember Fawkes.
Catesby was killed evading capture and was never tried, whereas Fawkes was the man to get caught red-handed under the Houses of Parliament, resolved not to speak under torture and was publicly executed.
Bonfire Night, Fireworks and The Guy
The first 5th of November bonfires began the same year as the Gunpowder Plot itself. After Guy Fawkes was arrested in the early hours between the 4th and 5th November, joyful Londoners began lighting fires for their king’s safety on the night of the 5th. As the years went on, the traditions of Bonfire Night became increasingly elaborate.
Beautiful and complex fireworks displays were added, along with burning effigies of Guy Fawkes (and sometime the Pope) on the bonfires. Even today, some bonfire celebrations will throw an effigy of Guy Fawkes, the Pope and even current politicians as a quirky celebration, rather than being a sign of hostility against Catholic Church.
Penny for the Guy?
Making a dummy or effigy of Guy Fawkes, known as the Guy, is an integral part of celebrating Bonfire Night. Children still sometimes walk through the streets with the effigy, asking for ‘a penny for the Guy’. This money was traditionally used to buy fireworks for the night’s festivities.
Bonfire Night in Britain add Beyond
Not only is Bonfire Night celebrated in Britain, it’s celebrated in other parts of the world. During the time of the British Empire, it quickly found popularity in a number of colonies. New England in the United States celebrated it as Pope Day well into the 18th century. Newfoundland in Canada and New Zealand still light bonfires on the 5th November, along with their British counterparts.
If you’re looking to host a Bonfire Night to be remembered, contact us now to start organising your fireworks display, lancework and firerope and even lighting and lasers, or call 0800 0665 837.