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Guy Fawkes
13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606


Guy Fawkes (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606), was a member of a group of English Roman Catholics who attempted to carry out the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill King James I of England, to destroy Protestant rule by killing the Protestant aristocracy, on 5 November 1605.

Early life

Fawkes was born on 13 April 1570 in Stonegate, York, the only son of Edward Fawkes (died 1579) and Edith Blake. His mother had given birth to a daughter, Anne, on 3 October 1568 who died seven weeks later on 14 November. Fawkes's mother bore two more daughters, Anne (born 12 October 1572) and Elizabeth (born 27 May 1575).

Guy Fawkes's father, Edward Fawkes, was a descendant of the Fawkes family in Farnley. He was either a notary or proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and later an advocate of the consistory court of the Archbishop of York. Edward's wife, Edith Blake, was descended from prominent merchants and aldermen of the city. Edward Fawkes died in 1579, and his widow remarried in 1582, to a Catholic, Denis Bainbridge of Scotton. The family were known to be recusants, resisters of the authority of the Church of England, and it is probable that his stepfather's influence contributed to Guy’s affiliation to Catholicism.

Guy was originally baptised in the church of St. Michael le Belfrey on 16 April 1570. The entry in the church register reads 'Guye Fawxe sone to Edward Fawxe baptised the xvi day of april'. Guy himself wrote his name 'Guido' - the latin version of his name, but was probably always 'Guy' in life. He was raised a Protestant Anglican. He attended the Free School of St Peter's in York called "Le Horse Fayre". The school had been founded by Royal Charter of Philip and Mary in 1557. Fawkes's schoolfellows may have included John and Christopher Wright, both of whom would be among the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, and Thomas Morton, who became Bishop of Durham. During Fawkes's time at St Peter's Free School he was under the tutelage of John Pulleyn, kinsman to the Pulleyns of Scotton and a suspected Catholic who, according to some sources, may have had an early effect on the impressionable Fawkes. Fawkes converted to Catholicism around the age of 16, according to his admission of recusancy at the preliminary interrogation that followed his capture.

In 1592, Fawkes sold the estate he had inherited from his father. In 1593, after briefly serving as a footman for the 2nd Viscount Montague, he enlisted in the army of Archduke Albert of Austria in the Netherlands. He fought against the Protestant United Provinces in the Eighty Years' War with the armies of Catholic Spain. It was during this time that Fawkes adopted the name Guido, the Spanish form of Guy. He served for many years as a soldier, gaining considerable expertise with explosives, which is the most likely reason that conspirators Winter and Catesby recruited him.

The Netherlands were then in possession of the Castilian Philip II of Spain, Duke of Burgundy, and a foreigner to the Dutch. The Dutch associated Spain and Philip's rule with the Catholic inquisition, which he had tried to impose on his territories in the Low Countries. Fawkes arrived at a time when the death of the Duke of Parma and mutinies by Spanish mercenaries had left the Catholic military force in the Netherlands paralysed, and Maurice of Nassau, the stadholder in five provinces from 1584 till 1625, son of William of Orange, had led successful campaigns against Spanish positions.

In 1596 Fawkes was present at the siege and capture of Calais. By 1602 he had risen only to the rank of ensign. There is some evidence that Fawkes was in considerable poverty around this time. He may have visited Spain in the early 1600s to request Spanish help in returning England to Catholicism.

Gunpowder Plot

Fawkes is notorious for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was probably placed in charge of executing the plot because of his military and explosives experience. The plot, masterminded by Robert Catesby, was an attempt by a group of English conspirators to kill King James I of England, his family, and most of the aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament. Fawkes may have been introduced to Catesby by Hugh Owen, a man who was in the pay of the Spanish Netherlands. Sir William Stanley is also believed to have recommended him, and Fawkes named him under torture, leading to his arrest and imprisonment for a day after the discovery of the plot. It was Stanley who first presented Fawkes to Thomas Winter in 1603 when Winter was in Europe. Stanley was the commander of the English in Flanders at the time. Stanley had handed Deventer and much of its garrison back to the Spanish in 1587, nearly wiping out the gains that Leicester had made in the Low Countries. Leicester’s expedition was widely regarded as a disaster, for this reason among others.

Our best primary source for the details of the plot itself is the account known as the "King's Book" or: "James I The Kings Book-A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors. Robt. Barker,Printer to the Kings Most Excellent Majesty, British Museum 1606." Although this is a government account, and details have been disputed, it is generally considered to be an accurate record of the history of the plot, and the imprisonment, torture and execution of the plotters.

The plot itself may have been occasioned by the realization by English Protestant authorities and Roman Catholic recusants that Spain was in far too much debt and was fighting too many wars to assist English Roman Catholics. Any possibility of toleration by the State was removed at the Hampton Court conference in 1604 when James I attacked both extreme Puritans and Catholics. The plotters realized that no outside help would be forthcoming unless they took action themselves. Fawkes and the other conspirators rented a cellar beneath the House of Lords having first tried to dig a tunnel under the building. This would have proved difficult, because they would have had to dispose of the dirt and debris. By March 1605, they had hidden 1800 pounds (36 barrels, or 800kgs) of gunpowder in the cellar. The plotters also intended to abduct Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth of Bohemia, the "Winter Queen"). A few of the conspirators were concerned, however, about fellow Catholics who would have been present at Parliament during the opening. One of the conspirators wrote a warning letter to Lord Monteagle, who received it on 26 October. The conspirators became aware of the letter the following day, but they resolved to continue the plot after Fawkes had confirmed that nothing had been touched in the cellar.

Lord Monteagle had been made suspicious, however, and the letter was sent to the Secretary of State, who initiated a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords in the early morning of 5 November. Peter Heywood, a resident of Heywood, Greater Manchester, was reputedly the man who snatched the torch from Guy Fawkes’s hand as he was about to light the fuse to detonate the gunpowder. Fawkes was tortured over the next few days, after the King granted special permission to do so. James directed that the torture should be gentle at first, and then more severe. Sir William Wade, Lieutenant of the Tower of London at this time, supervised the torture and obtained Fawkes's confession. For three or four days Fawkes said nothing, let alone divulge the names of his co-conspirators. Only when he found out that they had proclaimed themselves by appearing in arms did he succumb. The torture only revealed the names of those conspirators who were already dead or whose names were known to the authorities. Some had fled to Dunchurch, Warwickshire, where they were killed or captured. On 31 January, Fawkes and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were tried in Westminster Hall. After being found guilty, they were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster and St Paul's Yard, where they were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Fawkes, however, managed to avoid the worst of this execution by jumping from the scaffold where he was supposed to be hanged, breaking his neck before he could be drawn and quartered ("The King's Book.",1606.)


Many popular contemporary verses were written in condemnation of Fawkes. The most well-known verse begins:

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

John Rhodes produced a popular narrative in verse describing the events of the plot and condemning Fawkes:

The full verse was published as A brief Summe of the Treason intended against King & State, when they should have been assembled in Parliament, November 5. 1605. Fit for to instruct the simple and ignorant herein: that they not be seduced any longer by Papists. Other popular verses were of a more religious tone and celebrated the fact that England had been saved from the Guy Fawkes conspiracy. John Wilson published, in 1612, a short song on the "powder plot" with the words:

O England praise the name of God
That kept thee from this heavy rod!
But though this demon e'er be gone,
his evil now be ours upon!’

The Lord Mayor and aldermen of the City of London commemorated the conspiracy on November 5 for years after by a sermon in St Paul's Cathedral. Popular accounts of the plot supplemented these sermons, some of which were published and survive to this day. Many in the city left money in their wills to pay for a minister to preach a sermon annually in their own parish.

The Fawkes story continued to be celebrated in poetry. The Latin verse In Quintum Novembris was written c. 1626. John Milton’s Satan in book six of Paradise Lost was inspired by Fawkes—the Devil invents gunpowder to try to match God's thunderbolts. Post-Reformation and anti–Roman Catholic literature often personified Fawkes as the Devil in this way. From Puritan polemics to popular literature, all sought to associate Fawkes with the demoniacal.

In popular culture

The practice of referring to people as "guy" or "guys" began shortly after Fawkes was made famous by the Gunpowder Plot. In 18th-century England, the term was originally used to refer to an effigy of Fawkes, which would be paraded around town by children on the anniversary of the conspiracy. It is traditional for children to go door-to-door with their creation asking for a small donation using the term "Penny For The Guy". In recent years this has attracted controversy as some regard it as nothing more than begging. Whilst it was traditional for children to spend the money raised on fireworks, this is now illegal, as persons under 18 cannot buy fireworks or even be in possession of them in a public place.

A common phrase is that Fawkes was "the only man to ever enter parliament with honourable intentions". This phrase may have originated in a 19th-century pantomime, and was commonly seen on anarchist posters during the early 20th century. The Scottish Socialist Party became embroiled in controversy when they resurrected the poster with humorous intent in 2003.

Fawkes was ranked 30th in the 2002 list of "100 Greatest Britons", sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public. He was also included in a list of the 50 greatest people from Yorkshire.


Guido (Guy) Fawkes (also spelt contemporaneously Faukes) (April 13, 1570 - January 31, 1606), who also used the pseudonym John Johnson, was a member of a group of Catholic conspirators who endeavoured to blow up King James I and all the members of both branches of the Parliament of England while they were assembled in the House of Lords building for the formal opening of the 1605 session of Parliament. The plot was uncovered and the barrels of gunpowder defused before any damage was done. Fawkes was a convert to Catholicism, which occurred at about the age of 16 if his admission of recusancy at his preliminary interrogation is to be believed.

Fawkes was born in Stonegate in York, where he was baptised in the church of St. Michael-le-Belfry, and attended St Peter's School. He served for many years as a soldier gaining considerable expertise with explosives. In 1593 he enlisted in the army of Archduke Albert of Austria in the Netherlands, fighting against the Protestant United Provinces in the Eighty Years' War. In 1596 he was present at the siege and capture of Calais but by 1602 he had risen no higher than the rank of ensign.

Gunpowder Plot

The beginnings of the Plot

The Gunpowder Plot was concocted in May of 1604 with Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Wintour and Robert Wintour. Fawkes, who had considerable military experience and a good understanding of explosives, had been introduced to Catesby by a man named Hugh Owen. Some accounts indicate that Thomas Wintour was the prime mover in all of this, and that Fawkes was the tool towards the ultimate execution of the plot.

Planning and preparation

In March 1605, the conspirators rented a cellar beneath Parliament through Thomas Percy (also spelt Percye); Fawkes assisted in filling the room with gunpowder which was concealed beneath bric-a-brac in the cellars of the House of Lords building. The 36 barrels belonging to John Whynniard contained an estimated 2500 kg of gunpowder. The explosion could have reduced many of the buildings in the Old Palace of Westminster complex, including Abbey, to rubble and would have blown out windows in the surrounding area for a distance up to almost a mile.

At around Easter 1605, Fawkes left Dover for Calais, travelling to St Omer and thence to Brussels. According to the confession made by Fawkes on November 5 1605, he there met with Hugh Owen, and Sir William Stanley. After that he made a pilgrimage in Brabant. He returned to England at the end of August or early September, again by way of Calais.

There are suggestions that the original plan was to dig a tunnel from the cellar of an adjacent building by mining and then plant the explosives under the meeting chamber in the House of Lords.

Discovery and arrest

At around midnight November 4 or in the very early hours of November 5th, Fawkes, posing as a Mr John Johnson, was arrested in the cellar by a party of armed men led by Sir Thomas Knevytt (or Knevett). In Fawkes' possession were a watch, slow matches and touchpaper. On arrest Fawkes did not deny his intentions, stating that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament.

Interrogation of the prisoners

Fawkes was brought into the king's bedchamber, where the ministers had hastily assembled, at one o'clock in the morning. He maintained an attitude of cool defiance, making no secret of his intentions. He replied to the king, who asked why he would kill him, that the pope had excommunicated him, that dangerous diseases require a desperate remedy, adding fiercely to the Scottish courtiers who surrounded him that one of his objects was to blow the Scots back into Scotland.

Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated. He was questioned on the nature of his accomplices, the involvement of Thomas Percy, what letters he had received from overseas, and whether he had spoken with Hugh Owen.

He was taken to the Tower of London and there interrogated under torture. Since torture was forbidden except by the express instruction of the monarch or the Privy Council, King James I in a letter of November 6 stated: "The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by increase to the worst], and so God speed your goode worke". Initially he resisted torture. On November 8, Fawkes verbally confessed revealed the names of his co-conspirators, and recounted the full details of the plot on November 9. He made a signed confession on November 10; his signature after torture on the rack is strikingly shaky.


A nominal trial then ensued on January 27, 1606 at which the sentences had already been predetermined. On January 31, Fawkes, Wintour, and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster. There they were hanged, drawn and quartered.


According to historian Antonia Fraser, the gunpowder was taken to the Tower of London and would have been reissued if in good condition, or otherwise sold for recycling. However a sample of the gunpowder may have survived -- in March 2002 workers at the British Library, investigating archives of John Evelyn, found a box containing various samples of gunpowder and several notes: "Gunpowder 1605 in a paper inscribed by John Evelyn. Powder with which that villain Faux would have blown up the parliament." and "Gunpowder. Large package is supposed to be Guy Fawkes' gunpowder." and "But there was none left! WEH 1952".

According to historian Ronald Hutton, when it was moved to the Tower of London magazine after Guy Fawkes was caught, it was discovered to be `decayed'; that is, it had done what gunpowder always did when left to sit for too long, and separated into its component chemical parts, rendering it harmless. If Guy had plunged in the torch with Parliament all ready above him, all that would have happened would have been a damp splutter.

In England, the failure of the gunpowder plot is celebrated annually on Guy Fawkes Night.


Guy Fawkes appears in the 2002 List of "100 Great Britons" (sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public), alongside such other greats as David Beckham, Aleister Crowley, Winston Churchill and Johnny Rotten. Cynical Britons are sometimes known to comment that Guy Fawkes was the only man to go to Parliament with honourable intentions.

In an interesting example of semantic progression, Guy Fawkes has become immortalised by one of the most common words in the English language, particularly in American spoken English. The burning on 5 November of an effigy of Fawkes, known as a "guy," led to the use of the word "guy" as a term for "a person of grotesque appearance" and then to a general reference for a man, as in "some guy called for you." In the 20th century, under the influence of American popular culture, "guy" gradually replaced "fellow," "bloke," "chap" and other such words there and the practice is spreading throughout the English-speaking world.

The story of Guy Fawkes was a major inspiration for Alan Moore's post-nuclear war tale of a fascist Britain, V for Vendetta. The main character in that story is modeled on Fawkes.











This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008