Friday, November 15, 2013

Gunpowder, Treason and losing the Plot.

The last man to enter the English parliament with honest intent was Guy Fawkes, so the old joke says.  His intent was to blow up the Parliament. He failed.
So Guy Fawkes (Guido to his mates, John Johnson before they tortured his real name out of him) was one of a group of provincial Catholics who planned the gunpowder plot of 1605. The group was led by Robert Catesby and their aim was to assassinate the Protestant King James and replace him with his daughter, Princess Elizabeth.
                                   James 1st and 6th. The first king of the union.

Guy had denounced James 1st as a “heretic" who would drive all the Catholics out of England if he had the chance. Guy also denounced Scotland, and the King's favourites among the Scottish nobles.   



The conspirators 

The five central conspirators first met on Sunday 20 May 1604, at a pub called the Duck and Drake in the Strand in London, near the current Penguin offices. One of the conspirators, Thomas Percy had been promoted in June 1604, and  gained access to the house of the keeper of the King's Wardrobe. They installed Fawkes (now called John Johnson)  as a caretaker,  they  used  this access 'maybe' to start tunnelling from that house to Parliament. No tunnel was ever found and Fawkes only admitted it on day five of his torture so he might have been saying anything by then. There are no records of any tunnel existing.

The conspirators noticed that a widow was clearing out a nearby under croft that just happened to be directly beneath the House of Lords. They bought the lease of the under croft and filled the cellar with 36 barrels of gunpowder. They were ready to go at the scheduled opening date of Parliament but the threat of the plague delayed the event until Tuesday, 5 November. Otherwise bonfire night might have been a midsummer event.

                                                             drawing and quartering
Guy's job was to light the fuse then escape across the Thames. They had planned a simultaneous revolt in the Midlands to capture Princess Elizabeth.  Wikipedia is the master of understatement  “Acts of regicide were frowned upon”.  So Fawkes was going to go abroad and claim that the murder of the king was his holy duty.

There was a few Catholics in parliament at the time and they would be present at the opening. One of them, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter on 26th October warning him to stay away. The letter was eventually shown to King James who ordered a search of the cellars underneath Parliament. Fawkes was found leaving the cellar and the barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden under piles of firewood and coal. What do you think they said? Who the Fawkes is that?
                                                             Yer nicked mate!

When asked by one of the lords what he was doing in possession of so much gunpowder, Fawkes answered that his intention was "to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains." Fawkes admitted his intention to blow up the House of Lords, and expressed regret at his failure to do so. His steadfast manner earned him the admiration of King James, who described Fawkes as possessing "a Roman resolution". James's ordered his torture anyway. They wanted the names of the 12 co-conspirators. He directed that the torture be light at first, referring to the use of manacles, then the rack. After five days, Fawkes broke and confessed.
                                           Guy's signature before and after torture.

At the trial all the defendants were found guilty. Their sentences was to be drawn backwards by a horse, his head near the ground.  Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed.

On 31 January 1606, Fawkes and three others were pulled by horse from the tower of London to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. The other three were hanged and quartered, Fawkes was the last to stand on the scaffold. He is reported to have asked forgiveness of both king and state while crossing himself as he climbed to the noose. He then jumped from the gallows, breaking his neck in the fall. His lifeless body was nevertheless quartered and, as was the custom, his body parts were then distributed to "the four corners of the kingdom", to be displayed as a warning to other would-be traitors.

He was about 35 years old at the time he died.
There is a description of him by Antonia Fraser ‘A tall powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, a flowing moustache in the tradition of the time, and a bushy reddish-brown beard", and that he was "a man of action ... capable of intelligent argument as well as physical endurance, somewhat to the surprise of his enemies."

An act of Parliament designated each 5 November as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance", and remained in force until 1859. We don’t really do the Guy Fawkes as in the penny for a Guy thing but we do excel in the fireworks and party aspect of it. 
The English are better at making an effigy of the poor guy (sorry!), then flinging it on a bonfire and rejoicing. In some parts they burn an effigy of whoever is annoying them at that particular moment ...... 




Caro GB 15/11/2013


  1. Interesting take on a character who's grown to be a rallying symbol for so many angered by their governments. I wonder how many realize just how brutal his end.

  2. I have to say that I was particularly drawn to the Greedy Pig Virus effigy.

    When I was a kid, we celebrated Guy Fawkes Day even here in South Africa. Great fun it was too, but generally without bonfires (something to do with the fact it was summer, I imagine).

  3. I find it kind of funny (gallows humor, you know) that Guy Fawkes is probably as well, or better, remembered (and celebrated) than King James (other than the bible, is that the same King James?) The price we pay for fame...