Who was the man behind the mask?
Every 5 November in Britain on Guy Fawkes Day, we remember the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Guy Fawkes and fellow Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up Parliament and assassinate James I of England.
Everyone knows how Fawkes was caught in the act, imprisoned and tortured at the Tower of London and that he and most of his fellow conspirators suffered a traitor’s hideous death in Westminster. But who was the real Guy Fawkes, the man behind the mask?
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
Guy Fawkes was born in York in 1570, the son of Edward, a church lawyer and prominent Protestant in the city, and Edith, whose family included secret Catholics. He had two brothers, John and Christopher. At that time, it was dangerous to be Catholic: many plots and rebellions against Elizabeth I were led by Catholics, which led to severe reprisals. Priests who were caught leading secret services were tortured and executed.
To all outward appearances, the Fawkes were a law-abiding Protestant family, until Edward Fawkes died when Guy was 8 years old. His mother remarried, this time to a Catholic, Dionysius Bainbridge. The young Guy was drawn strongly to his stepfather’s religion, and although he knew of the dangers, he converted to Catholicism. At the age of 21, the passionate young man set off to Europe to fight for Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers in the Eight Years War.
© St Peter's Foundation
Fawkes had grown into a good looking man, tall and strong, with thick reddish-brown hair and beard, and an impressive moustache. His compatriots in Europe described him admiringly as:
‘A man of great piety, of exemplary temperance, of mild and chearful demeanour, an enemy of broils and disputes, a faithful friend, and remarkable for his punctual attendance upon religious observance.’
Guy Fawkes’s future took a fateful turn when he met Englishman Thomas Wintour in Spain. Wintour was scouting around for allies to join a group of Catholic conspirators based in England, led by his cousin Robert Catesby. Devout Fawkes was a perfect match, brave and skilful. The two men returned to England in 1604, where James I had acceded to the throne the previous year.
It was in Spain that Guy also became known as ‘Guido’ Fawkes.
With the new reign, Catholics across the country had hoped for the end of the religious persecution they suffered for so long.
After all, the King's mother - Mary, Queen of Scots - had been a devout Catholic. However they were soon disappointed; the Protestant James I wasn't a tolerant king.
The conspirators, with Guy Fawkes now among them, decided on a drastic measure.
Catesby’s plan was to blow up Parliament during its State Opening on 5 November, when James I, the Queen and his heir would also be present, and would be killed.
The conspirators then hoped to crown the King's young daughter, Princess Elizabeth.
King James I of England and VI of Scotland, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Along with Fawkes and cousins Catesby and Wintour, the plotters included Wintour’s brother Robert, their brother-in-law John Grant, Catesby’s second cousin Francis Tresham, his servant Thomas Bates, Fawkes’ childhood classmates Christopher and John Wright, their brother-in-law Thomas Percy, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes.
No one in the group knew much about gunpowder, apart from Fawkes, an explosives expert from his military days. Naturally he was chosen to set the fuse in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament.
Apart from Keyes, most plotters were wealthy men, driven by their hope of religious freedom.
An illustration from Old and New London: A Narrative of its History, its People and its Places', Vol II by Walter Thornbury, 1872-8.
View of a house in Lambeth, sometimes romantically known as ‘the residence of Guy Fawkes’ but he never lived there. The house was leased by Robert Catesby and used as a base and store by those involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It was visited by Guy Fawkes, along with the other conspirators, but was never in fact his residence.
© London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (COLLAGE: the London Picture Archive, ref 17563)
The plan very nearly succeeded. It was only thanks to an anonymous letter to the authorities, received in late October, that the King, his family and his Protestant ministers were not all murdered.
An extract reads: ‘they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them’.
Royal guards searched The House of Lords at midnight and in the early hours of 5 November Fawkes was discovered in the cellars, with a fuse, a small lamp, a box of matches and 36 poorly-hidden barrels of gunpowder.
Guy Fawkes leaving a trail of gunpowder by George Cruikshank. © London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (COLLAGE: the London Picture Archive, ref 311903)
Guy Fawkes is said to have been carrying this iron lantern when he was arrested in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament on the night of 4–5 November 1605.
The lantern was given to the University of Oxford by Robert Heywood who had been a Proctor – an official responsible for ensuring the rules of the University are observed.
His brother, Peter Heywood, had accompanied Sir Thomas Knyvett, Keeper of Whitehall Palace, in his fateful search of the cellars and is credited with taking the lantern from Guy Fawkes during the initial struggle and preventing him from detonating the gunpowder.
The lantern seems to have been passed to Robert sometime after an assassination attempt in 1640 left Peter mortally wounded. Robert then passed the lantern to the University of Oxford in 1641.
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, AN1887.2
Fawkes was arrested and taken to the King. When asked what he was doing in the cellars, Fawkes replied boldly: 'I wish to blow the Scottish King and all of his Scottish Lords back to Scotland.' He also expressed his regret at having failed. Although insulted, James I couldn’t help but praise the traitor’s ‘Roman resolution’.
Guy Fawkes interrogated by King James I and his council. © London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (COLLAGE: the London Picture Archive, ref 310647)
Fawkes was brought to the Tower of London to be imprisoned and interrogated. Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower, led much of the interrogation in the Great Hall of the Queen’s House, a 16th-century timber-framed building that overlooks Tower Green.
At the time, the monarch or Privy Council had to authorise any form of torture. James I himself wrote the royal warrant: ‘If he will not other ways confesse, the gentler tortures are first to be used upon him, and then step by step you may employ the harsher, and so speede youre goode work.’
Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, © National Portrait Gallery, London
The 1500s and 1600s were a period of extreme political and religious upheaval and torture was used in interrogations to elicit information. Even just the threat of torture was sometimes enough to break a prisoner’s resolve.
Many prisoners at the Tower of London were detained and some tortured in the White Tower prison vaults. They must have been a dark and fearsome place indeed; very different from how they look in this photograph from around 1898.
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
When the ‘gentler tortures’ failed, it’s highly likely that Fawkes was racked, probably in the White Tower dungeons.
The rack was a horrible device, designed to inflict excruciating pain as a prisoner’s limbs were pulled in opposing directions until the joints were dislocated or separated.
Fawkes held out bravely for several days, but eventually named his co-conspirators and signed a confession.
Guy Fawkes’s signature before and after his interrogation seems to show that he was indeed tortured; his writing hand seems to have been badly damaged.
While Fawkes was at the Tower, the other conspirators fled to the Midlands. They were caught by the High Sheriff of Worcestershire in the morning of 8 November.
Robert Catesby, the Wright brothers, and Thomas Percy were shot dead and the others taken to the Tower of London.
Fawkes and his surviving co-conspirators, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood and Robert Keyes were committed, tried and sentenced to the act of treason.
Their fate was grisly: on 31 January 1606, they were dragged behind a horse along the streets of London to Westminster Yard where, one by one, they were hanged, drawn and quartered.
The White Tower at Tower of London
Fawkes, who was already the most famous of all the plotters, was the last to go up the gallows. According to a contemporary account:
‘Last of all came the great devil of all, Guy Fawkes, alias Johnson, who should have put fire to the powder. His body being weak with the torture and sickness he was scarce able to go up the ladder, yet with much ado, by the help of the hangman, went high enough to break his neck by the fall.
'He made no speech, but with his crosses and idle ceremonies made his end upon the gallows and the block, to the great joy of all the beholders that the land was ended of so wicked a villainy.’
The body parts of the Gunpowder Plotters were displayed throughout London as a warning to others of the dangers of treason.
In 1608, Sir William Waad had a large marble memorial erected in an upper room of the Queen’s House, known as the Council Chamber.
Strange as it may seem, this memorial celebrates his success in foiling a national disaster and to remind other prisoners of the terrible fate that awaited traitors – it must have helped to loosen some tongues!
The monument records the names of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, alongside those of the Privy Councillors who conducted their interrogation.
Underneath there is a quote from the Old Testament in Hebrew and repeated in Latin below. It translates as ‘He discovererth deep things out of darkness and bringeth out to light the shadow of death.’ Job XII.22. This may refer to the capture and questioning of the plotters.
This is possibly the earliest permanent commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot that survives today.
In January 1606 James I passed a thanksgiving act to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and his deliverance from danger.
Called the Observance of 5 November Act 1605, it involved a special church service, bonfires and fireworks.
It remained in force until 1859 although celebrations still take place today.
Another tradition that still lives on is the ceremonial search before the State Opening of Parliament, when the Yeomen of the Guard look for hidden explosives in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster.
James I and VI (1566-1625) c. 1620 by Paul Van Somer. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
Yeoman Warder Sprake in Water Lane at the Tower of London, with group of servicemen and women in 1945. Sprake is pointing to the Council Chamber in the King's House where Guy Fawkes was interrogated.
© Historic Royal Palaces/Yeoman Warder Archive
Although Guy Fawkes was not the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot, he certainly became its figurehead. Unfortunately for him, he was the one caught red-handed, the first of the plotters to be arrested and taken to the Tower of London and the last to be executed.
Over 400 years’ later, Guy Fawkes’ image persists as a symbol of rebellion with protesters across the globe wearing masks of his stylised face.
Today, you can visit the Tower Torture exhibition to uncover the methods of torture used at the Tower of London and see replicas of instruments which inflicted such appalling pain on prisoners like Guy Fawkes.
Journey back in time to unmask the mysterious figures behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with a new immersive experience by Layered Reality™ inside the Tower Vaults.
From May 2022
Tower of London
Wednesday - Sunday, 10:00-18:30
Separate ticket (advance booking required)
Discover our decadent range of goblets and tankards inspired by our Historic Royal Palaces. The perfect gift for a medieval fan our goblets are made in a selection of leathers, glass and pewter.