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Explosive Guy Fawkes Night: 5th November

"Remember, remember the fifth of November...Gunpowder, treason and plot."

The Gunpowder Plot 1605 remembered.

The Gunpowder Plot 1605 remembered.

A Traitor Is Born

“Remember, remember the fifth of November . . . ” Guy Fawkes was born around the 13 April 1570 in the English city of York.

He was the only son of Edward and Edith Fawkes. Edward died when Guy was nine years old. Edith married Denis Bainbridge from Harrogate, who was a devout Catholic. Bainbridge's influence and that of Guy’s teachers at St. Peter’s School formed and solidified Guy's devotion to the faith.

Fellow students from St. Peter’s were implicated in the Gunpowder Plot with Guy Fawkes. St. Peter’s was unwittingly a terrorist hub in the late 1500s.

Meeting With Fate

During the 1590s and early 1600s, Guy participated in the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Low Countries, on Spain’s side. In Spain, he was known as Guido Fawkes. Aside from the fighting, he attempted to generate interest in a Catholic rebellion in Protestant England, but he was met with little success at the Spanish court.

In spring 1604, Guy’s comrade Hugh Owen introduced him to Thomas Wintour. Wintour set up a meeting between Guy and Robert Catesby who revealed his plot to assassinate King James I of England/VI of Scotland by blowing up the Houses of Parliament as the king carried out the State Opening of Parliament in July 1605.

He intended to place James’ Catholic daughter Princess Elizabeth on the throne to ensure a Catholic succession and an end to the widespread persecution of Catholics. Their meeting was the start of Guy’s involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.

Guy Fawkes depicted by George Cruickshank.

Guy Fawkes depicted by George Cruickshank.

The Gunpowder Plotters Proceed

Back in London, the main conspirators gathered at the Duck and Drake Inn on 20 May 1604. Fawkes, Catesby, and Wintour’s fellow conspirators were Francis Tresham, Robert Wintour, Sir Everard Digby, Thomas Bates, John and Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, Robert Keyes, John Grant, and Ambrose Rookwood.

On 25 March 1605, Thomas Percy secured a lease to the undercroft beneath the home of John Whynniard, the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe. The house sat above the House of Lords.

Guy Fawkes’ role was to guard the gunpowder that was covertly stored in the undercroft. Under the guise of Thomas Percy’s servant and caretaker “John Johnson”, Guy took delivery of 20 barrels of gunpowder, and another 16 were added in July 1605 just before parliament was set to reopen. Fears about the plague reaching the city led to the postponement of the event.

By August, some of the gunpowder in the barrels showed signs of decay. These were replaced and the wait for the Catholic plotters' power grab continued.

Princess Elizabeth was to be the Catholic queen.

Princess Elizabeth was to be the Catholic queen.

Lord Monteagle's Letter

News arrived that parliament would reopen on 5 November 1605. The plotters arranged for a rebellion in the Midlands at the same time as the Houses of Parliament plot reached its fruition. This was to guarantee the capture of Princess Elizabeth.

Guy was to light the fuse to the gunpowder and flee to mainland Europe. Some conspirators grew concerned that their friends and family members would be in the Houses of Parliament as the building was blown to the high heavens. Warnings, cryptic and discreet, were issued.

The 4th Baron Monteagle received an anonymous letter on 26 October 1605 that warned him to retire to the safety of his country seat. It was attributed to Francis Tresham, brother-in-law of Monteagle. King James was shown the letter on 1 November 1605. The busy plotters decided that rumours about a letter were unfounded.

John Rocque's plan of the Houses of Parliament.

John Rocque's plan of the Houses of Parliament.

Guy Fawkes' Arrest

Guy Fawkes was stationed in the undercroft during the dying minutes of 4 November. When he left at around midnight, he was arrested. He gave the name “John Johnson” to his captors.

King James’ official Sir Thomas Knyvet discovered the gunpowder and the firewood that disguised the barrels. “Johnson” was presented to the King’s Privy Chamber and interrogated. He confirmed that he had intended to blow up parliament. King James was compelled to admire “Johnson’s” determination not to betray his fellow conspirators but his patience evaporated on 6 November. He ordered torture.

Taken to the Tower of London, “Johnson” was questioned in a room that was later renamed the Guy Fawkes Room. On 7 November, he confessed that he was Guy Fawkes, and on the 8th he offered the names of the other plotters. On the 9th, he disclosed the details of their plan.

Holbeche House

On the evening of 5 November 1605, the people of London were encouraged to make bonfires to celebrate the King’s survival and the downfall of his Catholic enemies. In 1606, an act of Parliament decreed that the 5th of November was to be a day of thanksgiving. Anti-Catholic sentiments ran higher than ever and lasted for centuries, and new restrictions were placed on Catholics.

By 8 November, the majority of the conspirators were secreted at Holbeche House in Staffordshire (now a care home). When the authorities reached the grounds, shots were fired. Catesby and Percy were said to have been killed by a single shot. It's a common misconception that most or all of the men were slain at Holbeche House.

The trial of the eight remaining terrorists, including Guy, was held on 27 January 1606. The king and his family secretly followed proceedings. Guy Fawkes pleaded not guilty to high treason. Unsurprisingly, all eight were sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered, an excruciating process for their heinous crime.

King James I of England/VI of Scotland circa 1606.

King James I of England/VI of Scotland circa 1606.

Fawkes: Martyr or Fallen Hero?

On 31 January 1606, Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Rookwood, and Keyes were dragged to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, which faced the very much intact Houses of Parliament. Fawkes watched the other men meet their fate. What happened next became the stuff of legend, depending on which side you were on.

Either Guy defied the authorities by climbing the ladder to the noose and then jumping, which broke his neck when he landed. He died as a martyr. Or, he slipped and went out with a whimper rather than a bang. Guy’s body was quartered and pieces of him were distributed around the realm as a warning to others tempted to commit treason.

Catesby and Percy were treated to exhumation and decapitation. Their heads were displayed outside the House of Lords.

An effigy burning on Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night.

An effigy burning on Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night.

Guy Fawkes Not Catesby Remembered

Guy Fawkes has overshadowed the original plot leaders for centuries. Hence Guy Fawkes Night instead of Robert Catesby Night. Fireworks were used to mark the event from the 1650s, and the tradition of burning an effigy of Guy started in 1673 when King Charles II’s brother and heir James, Duke of York (later James II/VII), converted to Catholicism.

Even now on the day of the State Opening of Parliament, the Houses of Parliament’s cellars are searched for explosives, a tradition that began in 1678. From the same year, the undercrofts were no longer rented out, but in November 1605 it occurred to no one that new security measures might be a good idea.

It was commented that Guy Fawkes was the last man “to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle