Shortly after midnight on the night leading up to November 5th 1606, after being ordered by King James I to search the cellars under the Parliament, Sir Thomas Knyvet discovered a man attempting to leave the cellars.
After having been apprehended, the man told his capturers his name was John Johnson when questioned by members of the King´s Privy Chamber.
His real name, however, was Guy Fawkes and he was part of what has become known to history as the Gunpowder plot.
Guy Fawkes was born in York in April 1570, the only date that remains today is the one for his baptism which took place on April 16th, so it´s fair to assume that he was born only days before, one date that has been suggested is the 13th.
His father died when he was only 8 and his mother married a recusant Catholic, meaning that he refused to attend Anglican church services, and Guy himself would later convert to Catholicism. Following this he travelled to the continent where he enlisted with Spanish Catholic forces against Protestant Dutch reformers in the 80 Years War. He also tried to enlist Spain in a revolt against England, something which he failed to do, but he did meet Thomas Wintour, one of his future companions in the Gunpowder plot. They returned to England together, and Wintour introduced Fawkes to Robert Catesby (note to the curious; yes, he was a descendant of Sir William Catesby, councillor of Richard III and executed after the battle of Bosworth).
It was Robert Catesby who got Guy Fawkes involved in the gunpowder plot, which aimed to murder the protestant King James and replace him with his daughter Elizabeth. Guy Fawkes seemed to have been popular among his fellow plotters, something allegedly due to the fact that he seems to have been talented in the intellectual sphere as well as a skilled soldier.
In her book about him, author Antonia Fraser describes him as “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” who was ”capable of intelligent argument as well as physical endurance, somewhat to the surprise of his enemies”
The plotters met on five occasions, the first one on May 20th 1604 at the inn Duck and Drake in London. Through a promotion, one of the plotters, Thomas Percy, was able to gain access to a house owned by John Whynniard, Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe. There he installed one John Johnson, in reality of course Guy Fawkes, as a caretaker of the property.
But these were plague riddled times, and the risk of catching the disease kept Parliament closed for months until what would have been the faithful day – and was, but in other ways than planned – of November 5th.
What most likely blew the cover of the plotters was the fact that one had sent a letter to at least one Catholic member of Parliament, telling him to stay clear on the 5th. Clearly his sympathies wasn´t with any rebels, and the letter he had received was shown to James I, prompting a search of the facilities around the House of Parliament during the night which lead Guy Fawkes to be discovered just as he was attempting to leave the cellar.
He was resilient for a while, but even though it´s said that James himself was impressed by the apprehended rebel´s defiance, it did not keep the king from ordering that Fawkes was tortured. The torture was ordered to continue until a confession had been obtained and everything from manacles to the rack was authorised. It is not known beyond a doubt that Guy Fawkes was put on the rack, but the shaky scribbling of his alias Guido (originated when he was fighting for Spain) hints to a man in distress and pain. By the 9th of November, his interrogators had found out what they wanted, including his own true identity as well as that of his co-conspirators.
Guy Fawkes was sentenced for high treason, the punishment for which was being hanged, drawn and quartered. The execution was to take place on January 31st.
It is not quite known what happened, but in the hanging process but Guy Fawkes broke his neck and died during the first stage of the horrific punishment, something which didn´t keep him from being quartered and his body parts sent to “the four corners of the Kingdom” as warning examples.
Guy Fawkes was 35 years at the time of his death.
Sentenced along with Guy Fawkes was the original initiators Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy and John Wright as well as the recruited Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Robert Wintour, Ambrose Rokewood, Francis Tresham and Everard Digby.
The 5th of November became a kind of Thanksgiving Day by an act of Parliament, an act that stood until 1859, the celebrations influenced by the bonfires lit on the original night. Not rarely has dolls meant to be portraying Guy Fawkes been set on fire.
During recent years, however, the mask intended to portray him has come to once again represent defiance, worn by the internet activists in the group Anonymous as well by participants in demonstrations against social and financial inequality.
There is a saying that Guy Fawkes was the last man to enter the House of Parliament with honest intentions.
The Gun Powder Plot – Antonia Fraser
The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion – Alan Haynes