Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot was an English Roman Catholic plot on November 5, 1605, to blow up Parliament, King James I, his queen, and his eldest son. Robert Catesby, the plot's mastermind, and his four accomplices, Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Guy Fawkes were zealous Roman Catholics enraged by James's refusal to provide Catholics more religious toleration. They reportedly believed that the chaos caused by the deaths of the king, his ministers, and Parliamentarians would present a chance for the English Catholics to seize power.
About Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes was born in York in 1570, the son of Edith, whose family secretly practised Catholicism, and Edward, a well-known Protestant lawyer in the city. John and Christopher were his two brothers. Being Catholic at the time was risky because several plots and uprisings against Elizabeth I were orchestrated by Catholics, which resulted in harsh retaliation. Priests who were discovered leading secret services were tortured and killed.
Until Edward Fawkes passed away when Guy was 8 years old, the Fawkes family appeared to be a law-abiding Protestant household. His mother got remarried, this time to Dionysius Bainbridge, a Catholic. Although he was aware of the risks, the young Guy was deeply pulled to his stepfather's religion and eventually converted to Catholicism. The enthusiastic young man travelled to Europe at the age of 21 to take part in the Eight Years War as a soldier for Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers.
Guy Fawkes was reportedly a very handsome guy. Fawkes had developed into a handsome man with his robust build, stunning moustache, and thick reddish-brown hair and beard. His European countrymen gave him the following glowing reviews: “A man of great piety, of exemplary temperance, of mild and chearful demeanour, an enemy of broils and disputes, a faithful friend, and remarkable for his punctual attendance upon religious observance.”
When Guy Fawkes met Thomas Wintour in Spain, his future took a tragic turn. In order to join a network of Catholic assassins operating out of England and directed by his cousin Robert Catesby, Wintour was looking for partners. Devout Fawkes was the ideal partner—brave and clever. In 1604, after James I's accession to the throne, the two men returned to England.
Why Did the Catholics Want to
Blow Up the Parliament?
Catholics all around the nation had thought that the long-lasting religious persecution would come to an end with the new reign. After all, Mary, Queen of Scots, the King's mother, had been a devout Catholic. However, they were quickly let down because James I, a Protestant, wasn't a tolerant ruler.
The conspirators, with Guy Fawkes now among them, decided on a drastic measure. Catesby’s plan was to blow up Parliament during its State Opening on 5 November, when James I, the Queen and his heir would also be present and would be killed. The conspirators then hoped to crown the King's young daughter, Princess Elizabeth.
The conspirators included Fawkes, his cousins Catesby and Wintour, Wintour's brother Robert, their brother-in-law John Grant, Francis Tresham, Catesby's second cousin, Thomas Bates, Fawkes' former classmates John Wright and Christopher, their brother-in-law Thomas Percy, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes. No one in the gang had much knowledge of gunpowder, with the exception of Fawkes, an explosives specialist from his military days. It is a given that he was selected to light the fuse in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament.
The strategy came extremely close to working. The fact that the King, his family, and his Protestant clergy were not all assassinated is only possible as a result of an anonymous letter to the authorities that was received in late October. An extract reads: ‘they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.
In the early hours of November 5, Fawkes was found in the cellars with a fuse, a little lantern, a box of matches, and 36 poorly concealed barrels of gunpowder when royal guards searched The House of Lords at midnight. After being arrested, Fawkes was escorted to the King. Fawkes confidently said when questioned as to what he was doing in the cellars, "I wish to blow the Scottish King and all of his Scottish Lords back to Scotland." He also admitted regretting failing. James I was angered, yet he couldn't help but praise the traitor's "Roman resolution."
Imprisonment and Torture
Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London where he was imprisoned and interrogated. In the Great Hall of the Queen's House, a timber-framed structure dating from the 16th century that overlooks Tower Green, Lieutenant of the Tower Sir William Waad conducted the majority of the interrogation
At the time, any type of torture required permission from the monarch or Privy Council. The royal warrant was written by James I himself, who said that if the subject refused to confess by other means, "If he will not other ways confesse, the gentler tortures are first to be used upon him, and then step by step you may employ the harsher, and so speede youre goode work."
Torture was employed in interrogations to extract information throughout the turbulent 1500s and 1600s, a time of intense political and religious change. Sometimes the mere threat of torture was enough to weaken a prisoner's will. In the White Tower prison cellars, many inmates of the Tower of London were imprisoned and some were tortured.
Fawkes was certainly racked when the "gentler tortures" failed, most likely in the dungeons beneath the White Tower. The rack was a hideous contraption used to cause a prisoner severe pain as their limbs were pushed in opposite directions until the joints were torn or dislocated. Fawkes fiercely resisted for several days, but in the end confessed and named his accomplices.
Sentenced to Death
The other conspirators fled to the Midlands while Fawkes was at the Tower. On November 8 in the early hours, they were apprehended by the Worcestershire High Sheriff. The Wright brothers, Thomas Percy, and Robert Catesby were all shot to death, while the others were brought to the Tower of London. Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes—Fawkes' surviving accomplices—were charged with treason, tried, and given a treasonous sentence. Their demise was gruesome: on January 31, 1606, they were led by a horse through the streets of London to Westminster Yard, where they were executed by hanging, drawing, and quartering one by one.
Fawkes, who was already the most well-known of the conspirators, was the last to be hanged. According to a contemporaneous narrative, Guy Fawkes, alias Johnson, the greatest devil of them all, arrived last and should have set the powder on fire. "He made no speech, but with his crosses and idle ceremonies made his end upon the gallows and the block, to the great joy of all the beholders that the land was ended of so wicked a villainy," the hangman wrote. "His body being weak with the torture and sickness he was scarcely able to go up the ladder, yet with much ado, by the help of the hangman, went high enough to break his neck by the fall."
In the Council Chamber, a higher room of the Queen's House, Sir William Waad commissioned the construction of a sizable marble memorial. Strange as it may seem, this monument honours his ability to avert a national catastrophe and serves as a warning to other convicts about the awful destiny that awaited traitors — it must have helped to calm some tempers!
The names of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators and the Privy Council members who questioned them are listed on the monument. A passage from the Old Testament is quoted in Hebrew below and is also repeated in Latin. It translates as "He discovereth deep things out of darkness and bringeth out to light the shadow of death.’ Job XII.22, Job. This might be a reference to the plotters being apprehended and interrogated.
James I enacted a thanksgiving act in January 1606 to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot's failure and his safety. It was known as the Observance of 5 November Act 1605 and included pyrotechnics, a special church service, and bonfires. Hence the name “Bonfire Night” as it is called. Even today, there are still celebrations, but it was in effect until 1859. The ceremonial search by the Yeomen of the Guard for concealed bombs in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster before the State Opening of Parliament is another ritual that is still practised today.
Even while Guy Fawkes was not the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot, he undoubtedly became its figurehead. Unfortunately for him, he was the first of the conspirators to be apprehended, transported to the Tower of London, and executed after being discovered red-handed. Guy Fawkes' image continues to be used as a symbol of revolt more than 400 years later, with demonstrators all around the world donning masks featuring his stylized visage. You may go to the Tower Torture exhibition today to learn more about the techniques employed to torment prisoners like Guy Fawkes at the Tower of London and to witness reproductions of the torture devices that were formerly used there.
Great thanks to our volunteer historian Gustav Falk