If you ever find yourself in London on November 5th, you may see the bursts of fireworks around the city, accompanied by burning effigies in the neighborhood square. Also known as Bonfire Night, this celebration does not mark Britain’s independence but rather, its salvation from the nefarious plans of its most infamous villain, Guy Fawkes. Publicly celebrated for more than four centuries, his failed plot to kill James I, King of both England and Scotland, was considered a frightful brush with death for the crown and arguably the most dramatic criminal discovery in British history. Now coined the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, this twisted, religion-fueled misdeed led to a charge of high treason for Fawkes—who was captured red-handed with 36 barrels of gunpowder—and a condemnation so gruesome, a court agreed the guilty traitors should be “put to death halfway between heaven and earth, as they are unworthy of both.” Eventually sentenced to extreme torture, hanging, and mutilation so their bodies could be displayed as “prey for the ravens of the air,” Fawkes and his friends soon learned that hell was, indeed, the only place left for them.
To understand why on earth Guy Fawkes would do something drastic enough to warrant this kind of punishment, it’s necessary to examine the religious state of England at the time. Heavily repressed under the fiercely Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of the infamous couple Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, England saw scores of Catholic priests die under her reign, and Catholics were forbidden to pray or marry according to their own religious doctrine. When she died in 1603, a new hope emerged around the coronation of King James I, who had a Catholic wife and was, after all, the son of Mary Queen of Scots. For those who dared to dream, it seemed likely he may even convert himself and finally deliver on a long-awaited Catholic dominion. Alas, James was a disappointment in this regard, as he not only remained Protestant, but he condemned Catholicism as a superstition in 1604, ordering all priests to leave England and issuing fines to those who refused to adhere to his spiritual beliefs.
While it’s worth noting Guy Fawkes was not the ringleader of the conspiracy, he remains the most memorable character of the doomed plot, partly because he was found with a lit match and a lot of gunpowder under the House Of Lords, but also because he was a man of distinction. He was described as “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner” and “highly skilled in matters of war.” Tall and powerfully built, with bushy reddish-brown hair and a ruddy beard, Fawkes was a man of action, a man of both intelligence and stamina. After his capture, it took two full days to break him under torture, and even when his confession did spill forth, he told his surprised captors he did it “to blow you, Scotch beggars, back to your native mountains.” He then went on to say he was only regretful that he had failed to do so. His steadfast manner and defiant endurance even earned him the praise of King James himself, who claimed the villain indeed had “a Roman resolution.”
All of this was not terribly surprising, given Fawkes had fought in the Eighty Years War for Catholic Spain against the new Dutch Republic and earned accolades for his bravery at the siege of Calais in 1596. By 1603, just two years before the Gunpowder Plot, he became a captain, traveling to Spain personally to find supporters for his burgeoning Catholic rebellion in England. It was at this time that he reinvented himself as a continental and dashing rebel, assuming the Italian version of his name, Guido. Although he never received any support from Spanish authorities, he returned to England with his new moniker and a fresh resolve to bring down the monarchy.
As luck would have it, one of Fawkes’s cohorts, Thomas Percy, gained access to a London house belonging to the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe where Fawkes, under the alias John Johnson, soon took up work as a caretaker. According to confessions, they began ardently digging a tunnel from beneath the home to Parliament, although no trace of an underground passage has ever been found. As the story goes, the men were in the midst of their burrowing one day when they heard a noise from the ground above. Further investigation would reveal their luck had extended even further, as a basement cellar was being cleared out located—quite unbelievably—directly beneath the House of Lords. It seemed too good to be true.
Of course, the men immediately purchased the filthy undercroft from the tenant’s widow and deemed it the ideal place to store gunpowder, soon bringing in 20 barrels followed by 16 more a few weeks later. The scene was perfectly set for the July 28th opening of Parliament, but as Fawkes and his men rubbed their hands together in anticipation, they soon received the disappointing news that the ever-present threat of plague had delayed the big day until November 5th. It seemed they would have to wait another three months.
While all the conspirators had done a tremendous job keeping their plans a secret, the ticking of the clock gave them time to think, specifically about the innocents who may perish in the explosion, some of whom would surely be Catholic. What could be done about them? Although no one spoke of it, and history still does not know the person’s identity, someone wrote an anonymous letter just days before the plot was to take place, alerting Catholic sympathizers to avoid the State Opening of Parliament. Of course, this immediately tipped off authorities who waited until November 4th to burst in and find Fawkes crouching next to 36 barrels of gunpowder, a box of matches in his hand.
Upon order of the king, he was taken to the Tower of London where he would face some seriously nasty interrogation, although, by what methods, no one really knows. In a time when extreme torture was legal and even expected, he likely spent the next three days on the rack as his fingernails were systematically torn out, eventually beginning to “speak English,” Medieval slang for to confess. His co-conspirators would soon be rounded up as well, with the exception of four who would die in a shoot out with English police.
Although the outcome was never in doubt, a trial began on January 27th, 1606, where all defendants were found guilty of high treason, one of the most dastardly of all English crimes. As the men were displayed on the scaffold for the leering crowd, while the king’s family watched in secret, their sentence was read. Meeting all Medieval standards of brutality, they would arrive at their site of execution in fitting style—drawn feet first on a wooden panel pulled by a horse. They would then be hanged and quartered in keeping with the statutory penalty of England for men convicted of this crime.
On the day of his execution, Guy Fawkes had the distinct pleasure of being the last to die. He watched his friends hanged, almost to the point of death, at which time their genitals were cut off and burned, while their stomachs were cut open and their bowels removed. Once they were decapitated and chopped into four pieces, the crowd turned their attention to Fawkes. His time had come. As the last to stand on the bloody scaffold, he asked forgiveness of the King and state, neither of which was granted. But as he ascended the ladder to the noose, luck would offer him one last gift, as he was able to slip from the grasp of the executioner and pitch himself headfirst off the high point, breaking his neck on the ground below and dying instantly. While it was true he had avoided the supreme agony of his fate, the crowd would still require their pound of flesh, and his limp body was quartered nonetheless, and the four parts distributed to the four corners of the kingdom as a reminder to those who might dare to plot against the crown.
Today, the legend of Guy Fawkes has given way to a few sparkler and perhaps a reason to hit the pub, but there was a time, not so long ago in the early 20th century, when the tradition of burning images in the street was alive and well—and long before that, it was a legally enforced day of thanksgiving for Britain for “the joyful day of deliverance.” Despite the failings of his plot, the image of Guy Fawkes has inspired many rebellion-oriented ideas, including the movie V For Vendetta and the masks used by the hacktivist group known as “Anonymous.”The story is also set to become a historical drama on the BBC.
And the rest is history.