Here in Old Blighty we annually celebrate bonfire night, or Guy Fawkes night, with fireworks and the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes. But who is he? And why is he so important? For those of you who skipped that day at school here is a brief history lesson.
Guy Fawkes (also known as guido) was a Catholic activist who was a conspirator. He was one of the key players in the failed gunpowder plot.
The Gunpowder Plot
Although Fawkes is the most famous of the conspirators the plot was the brainchild of Robert Catesby. His plan was to assassinate the king at the time, James I. James was a protestant – so the attacks were more religiously motivated than political. (although James had his own government in place). Fawkes was recruited on an overseas trip and acquired a position as a janitor. He performed an undercover role. As for the fine details of the plot itself such as how the gunpowder was transferred to the cellars, these remain sketchy. Most of this information was extracted from the captured members via torture. They claim they were sent via a tunnel underneath parliament, but no traces of a tunnel were ever found.
The capture was due to a bit of a bungle! Not everyone in parliament was a protestant and the conspirators made the mistake of trying to save one of their fellow Catholics sending him a warning letter to avoid parliament on that day. As it transpired William Parker did not keep the letter a secret and revealed that a plot was afoot. Historians debate whether or not Parker would have been sent a letter and some postulate that he may have staged the letter in order to curry favour with King James. But either way, it was thanks to this that the basements of the house of parliament were searched and the plot was revealed.
Upon being captured Fawkes was tortured. He was so resolute in his ability to withstand pain, probably due to his military background, that he earned the admiration of King James. This did not result in leniency though and his torture continued. The King ordered a varying degree of torture until Fawkes had revealed all the information they wanted from him. Despite facing the torture wrack Fawkes determination not to turn in his co-conspirators meant he endured several days of torture before he eventually gave in and revealed their names. Following this information, the co-conspirators were captured and they were all found guilty and sentenced to death.
They met a grizzly end, acting as an example to anybody who dared commit regicide! They were dragged on their backs by horses before having their genitals removed and being disembowelled. Then their hearts were removed and their heads chopped off. In an epic show of resilience Fawkes was able to make his death slightly quicker by making sure the hanging part of his punishment broke his neck.
The legacy of this plot influenced culture at the time. As a result of this Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, an cautionary tale about the results of going against the king. In the modern world, the legacy remains, as every fifth of November we take part in various customs designed to remember the event. Including the catchy nursery rhyme “remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgotten.” As well as this masks of Guy Fawkes face have become synonymous with rebelling against “the system”. Thanks in part to the comic book and later movie V for Vendetta.