Guy Fawkes
31st January 1606

A monster or a hero - freedom fighter or terrorist? Either way, Fawkes remains iconic - a powerful symbol whose name is invoked in myriads of ways. But who was the man behind the image?

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Guy Fawkes - who sometimes styled himself as 'Guido', taking the Spanish version of the name during time he spent fighting in Holland and Belgium - is one of the most celebrated figures in popular British history. He is most famously bound up with the memory of the Gunpowder Plot - still celebrated each year on Bonfire Night and continues to sit at the centre of debates about nationalism, religious identity and debates about the meaning and purpose of "terrorism".

Born in York in 1570, his family was for the most part Protestant, but his mother's family were recusant Catholics and a cousin went so far as to become a Jesuit priest. The Recusants were those who refused to attend Anglican mass and were, for the main part, actually Catholics who refused to recognise the Anglican church at all. In the highly charged religious atmosphere of the time, the Recusants were seen as a highly subversive element in society.

Under the whims of various monarchs and officialdom alike, Catholics found themselves under varying states of suppression and during wars with Catholic nations often treated as political enemies because of their faith (plus ca change... plus ca meme chose).

Fawkes probably came to become a Catholic through his mother's family, but the precise chain of events that led to his conversion will probably never be known. Like many young men to this day, he took the opportunity to express his religious fervour by taking part in a religious war abroad. As today's would-be Jihadists sometimes leave England to take part in a proxy war against the West in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, so Fawkes did in 1591.

In that year he sold the estate he inherited from his father and travelled to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant New Dutch Republic. Both France and England were embroiled to different degrees in the war (the defeat of the Spanish Armada taking place in 1588).

Fawkes' fervour was such that he eventually travelled to Spain to petition King Philip III himself in person for support for a Catholic rebellion in England. His request was noted, but rejected.

Gunpowder Plot

With his military background and openly declared intent to mount a Catholic rebellion in England, Fawkes soon found his way into a circle of men prepared to go the utmost lengths in their pursuit of a return to Catholicism in England. By all accounts, he was an impressive physical and intellectual presence but was not by any means the leader of the plot - that being the more aristocratic Robert Catesby.

In their early meetings, the conspirators decided that the most decisive course of action would be to destroy parliament on its opening by the King, at once destroying the heart of the nation's authority by killing him and his ministers. Their plan was then that the King James IV's 9yr old daughter Elizabeth Stuart would be kidnapped and placed on the throne as Catholic Queen of England.

Nonetheless, he was a man of energy and physical commitment and quickly became a leading figure in the small band of insurrectionists. While destroying Parliament with explosives was Catesby's idea, Fawkes took an active role in the mechanics of the plot itself.

On the night of the 5th November, it was Fawkes himself who was discovered in the cellar by Thomas Knyvet - with a slow-burning match and a watch. Also discovered were barrels of gunpowder and piles of wood buried under coal - the purpose and design being immediately apparent.

Torture and Death

Following his apprehension and evident scale of the plot, the authorities were naturally keen to discover as much as they could from Fawkes. At first giving his name as 'John Johnson,' Fawkes refused to divulge anything about his co-plotters, but expressed regret that he had failed in his attempts.

King James was impressed by what he described as Fawkes' "Roman Resolution", but soon gave the famous order:

"the gentler Tortures are to be first used unto him et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur"

The Latin being translated as "and so by degrees proceeding to the worst". On the 7th of November, he finally admitted his true name and by the 9th had signed a confession. At this point, his "signature" had become an almost illegible scrawl, with most of the letters barely recognisable as such.

What tortures were brought to bear on him are unrecorded, but it is likely that he was stretched on the rack - his arms and legs pulled by chains until his muscles and bones gave way.

His eventual trial - along with 7 co-conspirators - took place in January the following year. Despite his evident acceptance of guilt from the very moment of his arrest, Fawkes entered a plea of not guilty. Quickly found guilty, he and his fellow conspirators they were sentenced to 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 so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air".

To be hanged, drawn and quartered was the most brutal and extreme form of execution used in England and was usually reserved for the crime of regicide. As described, Fawkes and his fellows were dragged behind a horse from prison to the place of execution - Old PalaceYard at Westminster. There, their genitals were removed while they were alive. Following this, they were hung from a gallows but cut down while still alive. Fawkes himself managed to find the strength to jump from the gallows and broke his neck, thus dying before the final stage, where the still-beating hearts of the prisoners were cut out of their bodies and displayed to the crowd, accompanied by the famous words "behold - the heart of a traitor!"

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 27th February 2015 | © Weird Island 2010-2021
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