The True Story Behind Guy Fawkes’ Day

Fawkes and his fellow conspirators attempted to mount a terrorist attack on their own king and government. A popular symbol of protest today, Guy Fawkes was first the face of treason because of his role in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up the British parliament. 

It All Started With A Letter

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In late October 1605 in England, an English nobleman, Lord Monteagle, received a mysterious letter. Monteagle intended to attend the opening of Parliament a few days later, on November 5, with the rest of England’s peers and the king.

The unsigned letter read: “My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation, therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this parliament . . . for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow.”

The mysterious sender left instructions to Monteagle to burn the letter after having read its contents. Saving himself from the gruesome punishment that would soon befall on his co-religionists, Monteagle forwarded the letter to Robert Cecil, chief minister of King James I. It was believed that members of the Catholic minority were plotting to topple the monarchy and impose a Catholic regime with foreign funding and aid. The author of the letter was never found, but thanks to him the government was able to foil the conspiracy.

The Letter Made Its Way To King James

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The king doubted that the threat was genuine. But despite the skepticism, on November 4, the Earl of Suffolk conducted a search of the Palace of Westminster and its surroundings, where England’s Parliament was due to meet the next day. The earl found no substantial cause for concern, but he did notice a privately rented ground-floor storeroom with an unusually large amount of firewood.

The Conspiracy Was Discovered

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Later that day, Sir Thomas Knyvett, oversaw a second search of the buildings around Parliament. The same storeroom also peeked his attention, and the man guarding it. He was not dressed like a watchman; instead he was wearing clothes more suited for making a quick getaway on horsebackKnyvett’s men seached the firewood and found 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden behind it. The man, who gave his name as John Johnson, was armed with a slow match and a watch. Knyvett had uncovered an astonishing conspiracy to blow up the members of both Houses of Parliament, assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne.

Guy Fawkes Was Tortured And Executed

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Arrested and tortured, John Johnson revealed that he was a 36-year-old Catholic from Netherdale, Yorkshire in northern England and that his real name was Guy Fawkes. He was one of several Catholic conspirators in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. While Fawkes was just one of 13 conspirators, he is the individual most associated with the plot. He became synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot, the failure of which has been commemorated in Britain as Guy Fawkes Night since 5 November 1605, when his effigy is traditionally burned on a bonfire, commonly accompanied by fireworks.

What Were The Reasons Behind The Attack?

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It is necessary to examine an England and a Europe different from today to understand the motivations of the man arrested that November night more than 400 years ago. The terrorist attack was based on religious upheavals occurring half a century beforeThe political and religious instability unleashed by the Reformation had resulted in pitting Catholics against Protestants throughout Europe. In England religious strife resulted in the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. The following year she and her advisers created a religious “settlement,” which envisaged a Protestant national church. The monarch was at its head, although it retained bishops, along with the traditional church courts and some pre-Reformation ceremonial practices.

Catholicism Was Banned in England

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Many English Catholics refused to accept the 1559 Settlement. In this period it was generally accepted in Europe that all subjects of a state should adhere to its official form of Christianity. The Elizabethan regime banned Catholic worship to achieve religious uniformity. Being a practicing Catholic was punishable by law and fines were imposed on those refusing to attend Church of England services. Printing or importing Catholic books became high treason and any foreign-trained English Catholic priests who entered England and those who helped, housed, or hid them were declared traitors.

The Wars of Religion

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England was involved in constant warfare in Ireland, which was populated by Catholics. English statesmen feared Spanish intervention on behalf of England’s Catholics, but English Catholics looked to Spain for armed support in a potential rebellion. At the end of the 16th century, the defeat of the Spanish Armada—one of the most famous events in English history and arguably Queen Elizabeth’s finest hour—was still a fresh memory, along with the mission to reimpose Catholicism in England. Religion also dominated the situation on the continent. In France, French Catholics were against French Protestants. Farther North, the Protestant Dutch Republic was against Spain. 

King James Ascended to the Throne

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After Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, James I (who had ruled Scotland as James VI.) People hoped that her successor would begin a new era of peace. The son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, James was Protestant, but English Catholics were hopeful he would be more sympathetic to them. Even Spanish agents expressed doubts about stirring up a Catholic uprising in England now that James had taken the throne. International relations took a more placid turn as well. At the signing of the Treaty of London of 1604, England agreed to end aid to the Protestant Dutch, and Spain agreed to give no military assistance to English Catholics.

Upper Classes Were Still Catholic

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These developments helped quiet the minds of some of England’s Catholic dissidents. English Catholicism was characterized by upper class leadership, which often had both sufficient influence and money. Many were well-positioned enough to bear the disadvantages loaded upon them and conformed publicly to the 1559 religious settlement while privately practicing their religion.

The Gunpowder Plot

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Some Catholic dissidents, however, sought to overthrow Protestant rule in England. King James’s adherence to the 1559 settlement and public continuance of intolerant policies inspired some to take a more active role to place a Catholic monarch on the throne. One such person was Robert Catesby. The idea of using gunpowder had occurred to him in 1603, and Catesby began recruiting in early 1604. 

Catesby Was Joined By Guy Fawkes

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Thomas Winter, John Wright and Thomas Percy were the plot’s first members, they belonged to the disaffected Catholic upper classes. Winter traveled to Flanders, which was under Spanish rule, to seek out Spanish assistance, but he wasn’t successful. Luckily, he found Guy Fawkes, a former schoolmate of Wright who was fighting for the Spanish in Flanders. Born a Protestant in York in 1570, Fawkes later converted to Catholicism.

Author Antonia Fraser describes Fawkes as “a man of action … capable of intelligent argument as well as physical endurance, somewhat to the surprise of his enemies.”

Winter learned of Fawkes’s extensive expertise in explosives and convinced him to join the plot. In May 1604, at the Duck and Drake Inn in London, the five men met and swore an oath of loyalty and secrecy.

13 Co-conspirators

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Catesby’s explosive attack on the English crown started to take shape in the months that followed. Percy began living in a house close to Parliament with Fawkes posing as his servant, adopting his pseudonym John Johnson. The group later grew to include Robert Keyes, Robert Winter, John Grant, Christopher Wright , and Thomas Bates, these new members would provided funds and further resources. They began acquiring gunpowder and in March 1605 Percy rented a basement storeroom at the Palace of Westminster where the gunpowder was transported. Under the expert supervision of Fawkes, the gunpowder could do the most damage. Three wealthy men—Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham, and Sir Everard Digby—joined the conspiracy, bringing the total number to 13.

The Plan Was Delayed Several Times

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They had planned to launch the attack when Parliament opened, but the plague kept delaying them. Finally, in November 1605, it appeared that the plan would finally be set in motion. The conspiracy stayed secret until Lord Monteagle received his letter and handed it over; the search was ordered, and Fawkes arrested and brought to the Tower of London in the early hours of November 5. The room in which Fawkes was interrogated subsequently became known as the Guy Fawkes Room.

The Aftermath

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Fawkes was able to resist interrogation and he remained defiant until King James issued an order on November 6, 1605, authorizing the use of torture. It was only then that Fawkes relented and confessed. Many of the co-conspirators had fled but the king’s forces hunted them down. Catesby, Percy, and Christopher Wright were killed in a shoot-out in Staffordshire in northern England. The rest were caught, taken back to London, and convicted of treason (Francis Tresham died in prison before the trial). 

The Execution

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The plotters were then hanged and quartered. The other men received the full measure of their sentences as a warning to other potential rebels, but Fawkes was the last to stand on the scaffold, and he managed to avoid the agony of the latter part of his execution by jumping from the gallows and 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.

The Failed Plot Served As Propaganda

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King James’s  was anxious to avoid both a persecution against his Catholic subjects and diplomatic tensions with Catholic states. Luckily, the miraculous nature of the plot’s discovery proved an important propaganda tool. Parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act of 1606 requiring every parish church in England to deliver a sermon on November 5 thanking God for deliverance from a Catholic plot

Guy Fawkes Day

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Over the years, the day of thanksgiving morphed into Guy Fawkes Day (or Bonfire Night) throughout the United Kingdom. Every November 5, fireworks (representing the gunpowder) and bonfires mark the occasion. Straw effigies of Fawkes—called “Guys”—are burned. Despite not being the leader of the conspiracy, Fawkes became synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot, and a legend was born.