November 5th is “Bonfire Night” in the UK, the day when Britons everywhere set fire to massive piles of flammables, light fireworks, and host parades. Straw dummies representing Fawkes, as well as those of contemporary political figures, are tossed into the bonfire. Why, you may ask? Well, here is a bit of history.
The Beginnings ~
Guy Fawkes was born in April 1570 in York. Although his immediate family were all Protestants, in keeping with the accepted religious practice in England at the time, his maternal grandparents were ‘recusant’ Catholics, who refused to attend Protestant services. When Guy was eight, his father died and his widowed mother married a Catholic, Dionis Baynbrigge.
When twenty-one Fawkes sold the estate his father had left him and went to Europe to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch republic in the Eighty Years War. His military career went well and by 1603 he had been recommended for a captaincy. In the same year, he travelled to Spain to petition the king, Philip III, for support in fomenting a rebellion in England against the “heretic” James I. Despite the fact that Spain and Britain were still, technically, at war, Philip refused.
The Gunpowder Plot ~
While on campaign fighting for Spain, Fawkes was approached by Thomas Wintour and asked to join what would become known as the Gunpowder Plot, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby believed that violent action was warranted to stop those who were making life difficult for Catholics. Indeed, his plan was to blow up the Houses of Parliament, assassinate the King, maybe even the Prince of Wales and many Members of Parliament in the process. Fawkes leapt at the chance.
Thirteen conspirators plotted for eighteen months. Fawkes expertise with gunpowder gave him a key role in the conspiracy: to source and ignite the explosive. Days before the arranged explosion, one of the conspirators gave in to second thoughts and wrote a letter of warning to Lord Monteagle. Alerted, the King’s forces stormed the Parliament cellars in the early hours of November 5, 1605. They discovered Fawkes waiting with 36 barrels of gunpowder stacked directly below where the king would have been sitting for the opening of parliament the next day.
The Penalty ~
Guy Fawkes was subjected to various tortures, including the rack. Torture was technically illegal, and James I was personally required to give a license for Fawkes to endure its ravages. While just the threat of torture was enough to break the resolve of many, Fawkes withstood two days before he confessed and named everyone involved. The signature on his confession was that of a shattered and broken man, the ill-formed letters telling the story of a someone who was barely able to hold a quill.
Leader Robert Catesby was killed evading capture. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were tried and sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death: to be hanged, drawn and quartered. On January 31, 1606, as the last man to climb the gallows steps, Fawkes either jumped or weakly fell (it is unclear), breaking his own neck and thereby avoiding the horror of being cut down while still alive for the “drawn” portion of the sentence. His lifeless body was hacked into quarters and his remains sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others.
The Aftermath ~
Guy Fawkes instantly became a national bogeyman and the embodiment of Catholic extremism. It was a propaganda coup for the Protestant English and served as a pretext for further repression of Catholics that would not be completely lifted for another 200 years.
On the very night of the failed assassination attempt, Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires and celebrate the King’s salvation, and this has been done for the subsequent 400+ years. In 1606 an Act of Parliament designated each November 5 as a day of thanksgiving for “the joyful day of deliverance,” and this act remained in force until 1859. To this day, on the morning of the State Opening of Parliament each year, the basement of the Houses of Parliament are searched for explosives, so far fruitlessly, by the Yeomen of the Guard.
Through the centuries the Guy Fawkes legend has become ever-more entrenched. By the 19th Century it was decided that Guy’s fate wasn’t good enough and that he should be burned on the bonfire every year. So the tradition of burning “Guy” effigies became part of the festivities. “Guy” effigies were (and still are) made by stuffing old clothes with paper and then adding a mask to the head as a final touch. People would parade the “Guy” through the neighborhood in a wagon or pram or chair, asking for “a penny for the Guy.” Some historians speculate this custom contributed to Halloween dressing up and trick-or-treating.
FUN FACT: Another result of this custom is the use of “guy” for a man whose name we don’t know. At first “guy” meant a man who was funny looking and badly dressed – like the “guys” that the children made – thus it was not a compliment! Over the decades “guy” lost its negative meaning and now is a generic term.