Guy Fawkes

November 5th is traditionally celebrated as Bonfire Night.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Britain experienced significant religious conflicts. In the 15th century, King Henry VIII established the Church of England (Protestant) and severed ties with the Catholic Pope in the Vatican.

The transition was turbulent. Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, Mary, attempted to revert the country back to Catholicism. However, her half-sister, Elizabeth I, steered England back to Protestantism.

Queen Mary, known for persecuting Protestants, earned the nickname “Bloody Mary”. During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, James I, Catholics faced severe persecution.

In an effort to end the persecution of Roman Catholics by the English government, Robert Catesby organized a plot to take revenge for the persecution of his father under Queen Elizabeth I’s regime. There were 13 conspirators in the plot, masterminded by Catesby. Guy Fawkes was one of them. The conspirators hoped to replace the Protestant King with Catholic leadership.

The Group of Plotters

One of the conspirators cared for his brother-in-law, who didn’t want to die. As the November 5th opening meeting of Parliament approached, Lord Monteagle, the brother-in-law of one of the conspirators, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on November 5th. Monteagle alerted the government, and hours before the planned attack, authorities took action.

At about midnight on the night of November 4th-5th, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a justice of the peace, found Guy Fawkes lurking in a cellar under the Parliament building and ordered the premises to be searched.

Guy Fawkes found in Parliament’s cellar

The plotters leased an undercroft beneath the House of Lords, and Fawkes was placed in charge of the gunpowder they stockpiled. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found, and Fawkes was taken into custody. After being tortured, Fawkes revealed that he was a participant in an English Catholic conspiracy to annihilate England’s Protestant government and replace it with Catholic leadership.

Fawkes and the other conspirators involved in the plot were tried and executed for treason. The failed attempt became known as the “Gunpowder Plot.” From that day onwards, Guy Fawkes became the nation’s favourite villain. Every November 5th, the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by burning Fawkes in effigy.

Guy Fawkes was born in 1570 and educated in York. When he was eight, his father died, and his widowed mother married a Catholic, Dionis Bainbridge. Fawkes converted to Catholicism when he was a teenager.

In 1604, Fawkes became involved with a small group of English Catholics led by Robert Catesby, who planned to assassinate the Protestant King James and replace him with his daughter, third in the line of succession, Princess Elizabeth.

The trial of eight of the plotters began on Monday, January 27th, 1606. The jury found all the defendants guilty, and the Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham pronounced them guilty of high treason. The Attorney General Sir Edward Coke told the court that each of the condemned would be “put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both.”

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 to warn others.

The fellow plotters were then hanged and quartered. Fawkes was the last to stand on the scaffold. He asked for forgiveness from the King and state, which was refused.

Weakened by torture and aided by the hangman, Fawkes began to climb the ladder to the noose. Either through jumping to his death or climbing too high so the rope was incorrectly set, he managed to avoid the agony of the latter part of his execution by breaking his neck.

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.

Dragging the plotters to be punished

In 1606, Parliament established November 5th as a day of public thanksgiving. On that day, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination by lighting bonfires, provided that “this testimony of joy be carefully done without any danger or disorder.”

The effigies of the “guy” are typically created by children using old clothes, newspapers, and a mask.

According to historian Lewis Call, Fawkes has become “a major icon in modern political culture,” with his face serving as “a potentially powerful instrument for the articulation of postmodern anarchism” in the late 20th century.

Famous mask of Guy Fawkes