Was Guy Fawkes the brains behind the gunpowder plot?

Guy Fawkes may have been the man charged with lighting the fuse to the gunpowder in the Palace of Westminster but he wasn’t the leader of the gunpowder plot – and was far from a lone wolf. There were 13 plotters in all – many drawn from elite English families – and the conspiracy’s masterminds were Robert Catesby and his cousin Thomas Wintour.

Catesby was already under suspicion, as a Catholic and a supporter of the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion against Elizabeth I in 1601. Fawkes, on the other hand, was unknown to the authorities, and that’s one of the main reasons he was given such a critical role in the plot. Posing as a servant, he was able to gain access to the Palace of Westminster and, with the help of his co-conspirators, cart in the 36 barrels of gunpowder that he intended to explode under King James VI and I’s feet.

The great irony of Guy Fawkes’s life is that it began in a conventional and respected Protestant family – he was the son of a Church of England official – but ended with an infamous attempt to take out the political establishment in the name of the Catholic faith.

Fawkes was born in York in 1570, in a house a stone’s throw from York Minster. He might have become a merchant like his grandfather, but when his father died in 1579, Fawkes went to live with his mother’s new husband, a committed Catholic. On reaching adulthood, he sold his small inheritance and went to fight on the continent for the forces of Catholic Spain.

A school friend, who became a Jesuit priest, described Fawkes as religiously devout, loyal to his friends, and “highly skilled in matters of war” – exactly what the gunpowder plotters were looking for.

The conspirators in the gunpowder plot of 1605 meet in a house in London. Amongst them are Guy Fawkes (1570 - 1606) and ringleader Robert Catesby (1573 - 1605). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Watch | Dr John Cooper answers: What was the Gunpowder Plot?

Why did the conspirators select parliament as their target?

Once the conspirators were agreed that they wanted to wipe out the king and his government, the Houses of Parliament were the obvious target. Catesby’s justification for obliterating parliament was chillingly simple: “In that place have they done us all the mischief, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment.”

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The ‘mischief’ that Catesby referred to dated back to Queen Elizabeth I’s parliaments, which had passed a series of harsh statutes aimed at forcing Catholics to conform to the Church of England. Catholic recusants (from the Latin recusare, to refuse) were fined, intimidated and imprisoned. Priests and Jesuits dispatched to England in an attempt to maintain the Catholic faith risked torture and execution.

English Catholics welcomed James I’s accession to the throne in 1603, hoping that it would usher in a period of greater toleration. Yet it was to be a false dawn. Two years on, it was becoming increasingly clear that the new king was prepared to grant Catholics few concessions. This was the background to the plotters’ decision to target the state opening of parliament, when the lords, Commons and the king himself would be assembled together. The fact that Catholic nobles might be caught up in the blast was accepted by Catesby as collateral damage: to him they were “atheists, fools and cowards”.

König James I. von England und Schottland (1566-1625).King James I of England and Scotland (1566-1625).
King James I of England and Scotland (1566-1625). (Imagno/Getty Images)

How did the plotters penetrate the Palace of Westminster?

In 1605, the Palace of Westminster was a ramshackle complex of converted royal apartments and dissolved ecclesiastical buildings, very different from today’s high-security buildings. Westminster Hall was crammed with people attending the courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas. Taverns named ‘Heaven’ and ‘Purgatory’ plied their trade a stone’s throw from the Commons and the Lords. In Henry VIII’s day, a brothel openly operated within the precincts of the palace.

The plotters knew that they had a good chance of passing undetected through this melee. Their initial plan was to occupy a property next to the House of Lords and to tunnel from one cellar to another, but the mining proved too time-consuming. Then they rented a coal cellar underneath the Lords’ chamber. This enabled them to bring in the gunpowder without being challenged.

A security sweep failed to spot the significance of the pile of firewood and barrels that had accumulated in the cellar. But then the Catholic peer, Baron Monteagle, received a letter from an anonymous source, warning him to stay away from the Palace of Westminster on 5 November, as “they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament”. The letter reached James I, who ordered a second search. Only then was the plot revealed, preventing nearly a tonne of gunpowder from tearing through parliament.

Did foreign powers offer any assistance to the gunpowder plot?

The attitude of the Spanish was a key reason for the conspiracy’s failure. English Catholics had looked to Spain for support since the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1569, a rebellion of the northern earls had hoped to depose Elizabeth with Spanish naval backing – although the ships never arrived. Later on, English Catholic naval pilots had sailed with the Spanish Armada.

But a generation after this, the political landscape had changed. And when, in 1603, Guy Fawkes went to Spain seeking military aid from Philip III, he found that the Spanish were less inclined to offer their support. For them, the accession of James I created an opportunity to end the costly war with England – and, in August 1604, Spanish and English delegations met at Somerset House in London to sign a peace treaty. Two Spanish noblemen, Don Juan de Tassis and the Constable of Castile (both of whom feature in the 2017 BBC drama Gunpowder), can be seen in the portrait of the Somerset House conference that hangs in the National Maritime Museum. Spain’s abandonment of English Catholics left the plotters to go it alone.

If the plot had been successful, would it have delivered England into the hands of a Catholic regime?

For that to happen, the plotters would have needed to establish a new government, neutralise the Tower of London and secure England’s ports. Their plans to achieve all this were hazy at best.

Britain was a monarchy, so royal rule would have had to have continued under a new Catholic regime. The king’s son, Henry, Prince of Wales, was a vigorous Protestant, and would in any case probably have died in the explosion. One of the plotters, Thomas Percy, wanted to kidnap Prince Charles (the future Charles I). But Catesby favoured capturing the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth, appointing a protector and marrying the puppet monarch to a Catholic husband.

The princess’s household was based at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, a swift ride from the Catesby family home at Ashby St Ledgers. Catesby invited the local Catholic gentry to hunt with him on 5 November, hoping they could use this as cover. But when the gunpowder plot failed, his support network melted away. Catesby and Wintour became fugitives, running between one Catholic house and another. They made their last stand at Holbeach House, advancing with swords against the sheriff’s men armed with guns. Catesby and Percy died from the same bullet, while Wintour was captured to face trial.

How was Guy Fawkes punished for his crimes?

The burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes on Bonfire Night might suggest that Fawkes was burnt at the stake. However, for men, the sentence for high treason was to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’, and that’s the grisly fate that awaited Fawkes.

Prior to his execution, brutal torture was used to extract Fawkes’s confession, including manacles – which were secured tightly around wrists and used to hang the accused by their hands for many hours – and, most likely, the notorious rack, which stretched the body, tearing tendons, ripping joints and fracturing bones.

It would have been a wretched Fawkes who was tied head-down to a hurdle and drawn to Old Palace Yard outside the Palace of Westminster, along with three fellow plotters. As the last to be executed, he would have witnessed the others being hanged, removed while still alive, and then dying during the physical mutilation that followed. First, the genitals were cut off and burned. The body was then disembowelled and decapitated, and finally quartered, with body parts displayed across the country.

Fawkes was spared the pain of the final stages because his neck broke as he hanged, bringing instant death on the gallows.

A 19th century wood engraving depicting the arrest of Guy Fawkes in the cellars of parliament, 1605. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

How alive were the authorities to the threat of Catholic conspiracies?

The gunpowder plot was the latest in a string of conspiracies aimed at re-establishing Catholic rule in England. For years, radical Catholics had been hoping to co-ordinate an uprising of recusant families with military support from sympathetic foreign powers. Yet few English Catholics had ever supported armed action against the Protestant regime.

The state had developed powerful weapons against insurgency. Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, recruited an extensive network of informers and agents, penetrating the Catholic underground and infiltrating the continental seminaries where missionary priests were trained. This had enabled him to thwart previous attempts on the monarch’s life, such as the Babington plot of 1586, which aimed to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. After his death, Walsingham’s secret service was maintained by his successor, Robert Cecil, who served both Elizabeth and James I.

Given the sophistication of the network that Walsingham bequeathed Cecil, it’s perhaps surprising that the gunpowder plot came so close to achieving its objective. After all, Fawkes was only discovered at the 11th hour, allegedly as he hovered over the powder, ready to ignite a fuse.

How did Catholics practise their faith without attracting unwanted attention?

The need for Catholicism to be pursued in secret put domestic houses at the very heart of this community. Catholics disguised the symbols and accoutrements associated with their worship, sometimes in plain sight, among everyday furnishings. A dining table might double as an altar, a priest’s vestments could be folded up and buried amid the household linen, and a chalice reserved for mass might be placed on shelves and rendered indistinguishable from ordinary drinking cups. A number of houses famously had ‘priest holes’, secret spaces behind fireplaces, staircases and walls in which not just the sacred vessels but also priests themselves could be hidden.

So the home – and, by extension, the women who kept those homes – were critical to keeping the faith alive. This can be seen in the life of Anne Vaux (played by Liv Tyler in Gunpowder), a Catholic gentlewoman who was arrested on suspicion of being connected to the gunpowder plot. Like other women of her rank and religion, Vaux played a high-stakes role in maintaining Catholic underground networks, orchestrating meetings, acting as a gatekeeper and, crucially, supporting priests in rented safe houses and in her own home.

Why do we call 5 November ‘bonfire night’?

When the gunpowder plot was discovered, Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires in celebration. Before long, 5 November had entered the calendar as a reminder of England’s deliverance. Mingling with the older traditions of fire-making and feasting, it became a day of national rejoicing.

English settlers in America carried their anti-Catholicism across the Atlantic. Known as Pope’s Day in colonial Boston, 5 November saw rival gangs fighting over effigies of the pontiff, and throwing them into the fire. You can witness something similar today in Lewes in Sussex, where bonfire societies parade through the town and hurl good-natured abuse at a volunteer dressed up as a cardinal.

November 1947: The staff and children of the Aldersbrook Children's Home, Wanstead, celebrating Guy Fawkes Day. (Photo by Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images)
The staff and children of the Aldersbrook Children's Home, Wanstead, celebrating Guy Fawkes Day c1947. (Ron Burton/Keystone/Getty Images)

But bonfire festivities are changing. As recently as the 1980s, huge numbers of families congregated in neighbours’ back gardens to eat soup and cinder toffee and watch dad set off fireworks, while streets across the land resonated to the sound of children asking for a ‘penny for the guy’. Today, these traditions are rapidly disappearing.

The American import of Halloween has largely usurped bonfire night, firework sales are more heavily regulated, and villages wishing to host bonfire events have to raise eye-wateringly large sums for insurance, threatening their long-term future.

Will the next generation be able to recite the old rhyme, ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot?’ And what will the original story of the gunpowder plot mean to Britons in 100 years’ time if we no longer make Guys and build bonfires?

John Cooper and Hannah Greig are senior lecturers in early modern history at the University of York


This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine