Case Study #3: Guy Fawkes | The Man Famously Known for Being a Part of The Gunpowder Plot

Following Case Study #2 comes Case Study #3, and this case study will focus on Guy Fawkes, who is the man famously known for being behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Born on the 13th April 1570, Guy Fawkes was educated in York. His father died when he was just 8 years old, after which his mother would marry a recusant Catholic. Guy Fawkes later converted to Catholicism and also left the continent, where he had fought in the Eighty Years’ War on the side of Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch reformers in the Low Countries. He would go on to travel to Spain to seek support for a Catholic rebellion in England, but was later unsuccessful. However, he later met Thomas Wintour, with whom he had returned to England.

Thomas Wintour then introduced Guy Fawkes to Robert Catesby, who would plan to assassinate King James I and to also restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. The plotters were able to secure the lease to an undercroft that was beneath the House of Lords, and Guy Fawkes was placed in charge of the gunpowder that they would stockpile there. Being prompted by the receipt of an anonymous letter, the authories would search Westminster Palace during the early hours of the 5th November, which resulted in Guy Fawkes being caught whilst guarding the explosives.

Over the next few days, just after being caught guarding the explosives, Guy Fawkes was questioned and also tortured, and also eventually broke. Just before his execution on the 31st January 1606, he jumped from the scaffold where we was due to be hanged, and he broke his neck, allowing him to avoid the agony of the mutilation that would have followed. Fawkes had become synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot, the failure of which has always been commemorated in Britain since the 5th November 1605, and his effigy is traditionally burned on a bonfire, which is commonly accompanied by a firework display, also known for the 5th November to be known as Bonfire Night.

The Gunpowder Plot

In 1604, Guy Fawkes became involved with a small group of English Catholics, which was led by Robert Catesby, who had planned to assassinate the Protestant King James, and also replace him with his daughter, third in the line of succession, Princess Elizabeth. Fawkes was described by the Jesuit priest and former school friend, Oswald Tesimond as: “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife … loyal to his friends”. Tesimond had also claimed that Fawkes was: “a man highly skilled in matters of war”, and that it was this mixture of piety and professionalism which would endear him to his fellow conspirators.

The author, Antonia Fraser, describes Guy Fawkes as being: “a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, a flowing moustache in the tradition of the time, and a bushy reddish-brown beard”, and that he was: “a man of action … capable of intelligent argument as well as physical endurance, somewhat to the surprise of his enemies.”

The first meeting of the 5 central conspirators took place on Sunday 20th May 1604, at an inn that was called the Duck and Drake, in the fashionable Strand district of London. Catesby had already proposed at an earlier meeting with Thomas Wintour and John Wright to kill the King and also his government, by blowing up “the Parliament House with gunpowder”.

Wintour, who did initially object to the plan at first, was convinced by Robert Catesby to travel to the continent to seek help. Wintour then met with the Constable of Castile, the exiled Welsh spy, Hugh Owen and Sir William Stanley, who said that Catesby would receive no support whatsoever from Spain. Owen did, however, introduce Thomas Wintour to Guy Fawkes, who had by then been away from England for many years, and thus was largely unknown in the country.

Thomas Wintour and Guy Fawkes were contemporaries; each was militant, and had also had first-hand experience of the unwillingness of the Spaniards to help. Wintour had told Fawkes of their plan to: “doe some whatt in Ingland if the pece with Spaine healped us nott”, and then, in April 1604, both the men returned to England. Wintour’s news, however, didn’t surprise Robert Catesby, because, despite the positive noises from the Spanish authorities, he feared that “the deeds would nott answere”.

Thomas Percy, who was one of the conspirators at this time, was promoted in June 1604, in which he would gain access to a house that was based in London, which had belonged to John Whynniard, the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe. Guy Fawkes was installed as the caretaker and had begun to use the pseudonym, John Johnson, the servant to Percy. The contemporaneous account of the prosecution (which was taken from Thomas Wintour’s confession), claimed that the conspirators would attempt to dig a tunnel from beneath Whynniard’s house to the Parliament, although this story may have been a government ‘fabrication’; no evidence for the existence of a tunnel was presented by the prosecution, and no trace of one has ever been found; Fawkes himself did not admit the existence of such a scheme until his fifth interrogation, but even then, he couldn’t locate the tunnel. If the story was to be deemed true, then by December 1604, the conspirators were busy tunnelling from their rented house to the House of Lords. They ceased their efforts, however, because, during tunnelling, they heard a noise from above. Fawkes was then sent out to investigate, and had then returned with the news that the tenant’s widow was clearing out a nearby undercroft, which was directly beneath the House of Lords.

At this stage, the plotters then purchased the lease to the room, which had also belong to John Whynniard. Unused and also filthy, it was often considered to be an ideal hiding place for the gunpowder, where the plotters had planned to store it. According to Guy Fawkes himself, the 20 barrels containing the gunpowder were brought in at first, followed by 16 more on the 20th July. However, on the 28th July, the ever-present threat of the plague would delay the opening of Parliament until Tuesday 5th November 1605.

Guy Fawkes’ Endurance of Torture

Guy Fawkes gave his name as John Johnson, and was first interrogated by the members of the King’s Privy chamber, where he would remain defiant. When he was asked by one of the lords what he was doing in possession of so much of the gunpowder, Fawkes had answered that his intention was: “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.” He did identify himself as a 36 year old Catholic from Netherdale in Yorkshire, and had also given his father’s name as Thomas and his mother’s name as Edith Jackson.

The wounds on his body, noted by his questioners he explained as the effects of pleurisy. Guy Fawkes had admitted his intention to blow up the House of Lords, and had also expressed his regret at his own failure to do so. His steadfast manner, however, did earn him the admiration of King James, who had described Guy Fawkes as possessing “a Roman resolution”.

James’ admiration, however, did not prevent him from ordering on the 6th November 1605 that “John Johnson” would be tortured, to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. He had directed that the torture be the light at first, referring to the usage of manacles, but more severe if necessary, authorising the use of the rack: “the gentler Tortures are to be first used unto him et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur [and so by degrees proceeding to the worst]”.

From there, Guy Fawkes was transferred to the Tower of London. The King had composed a list of questions to be put to “Johnson”, such as: “as to what he is, For I can never yet hear of any man that knows him”, “When and where he learned to speak French?”, and: “If he was a Papist, who brought him up in it?” The room in which Guy Fawkes was interrogated subsequently, became known as the Guy Fawkes Room.

Sir William Waad, the Lieutenant of the Tower, had supervised the torture and also obtained Guy Fawkes’ confession. He also searched his prisoner, and also found a letter, which was addressed to Guy Fawkes. To Waad’s surprise, “Johnson” had remained silent, revealing nothing about the plot or its authors. On the night of the 6th November, he spoke with Waad, who had reported to Salisbury: “He [Johnson] told us that since he undertook this action he did every day pray to God he might perform that which might be for the advancement of the Catholic Faith and saving his own soul”.

According to Waad, Guy Fawkes managed to rest through the night, despite being warned that he would be interrogated until “I had gotton the inwards secret of his thoughts and all his complices”. His composure was broken at some point during the following day.

The observer, Sir Edward Hoby remarked: “Since Johnson’s being in the Tower, he beginneth to speak English”. Fawkes revealed his true identity on the 7th November and has also told his interrogators that there were five other people involved in the plot to kill the King. He began to reveal their names on the 8th November, and told how they intended to place Princess Elizabeth on the throne. His third confession that came on the 9th November had implicated Francis Tresham.

Following the Ridolfi plot of 1571, the prisoners were made to dictate their confessions, before copying and signing them, if they still could. Although it is uncertain he was tortured on the rack, Guy Fawkes’ scrawled signature bears the testament to the suffering he had endured at the hands of his interrogators.

Guy Fawke’s Trial & Execution

The trial of 8 of the plotters began on Monday 27th January 1606, and Guy Fawkes would share the barge from the Tower to Westminster Hall with seven of his co-conspirators. They were kept in the Star Chamber before being taken away to Westminster Hall, where they were displayed on a purposely built scaffold. The King and his close family, who were watching in secret, were among the spectators as the Lords Commissioners read out the list of charges. Guy Fawkes was identified as Guido Fawkes, “otherwise called Guido Johnson”. He pleaded not guilty, despite his apparent acceptance of guilt from the moment he was captured.

The outcome was never to be within doubt. The jury had found all of the defendants guilty, and the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Popham proclaimed them guilty of high treason. The Attorney General, Sir Edward Coke, told the court that each of the condemned would be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, and with his head near the ground. They were to be “put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy or both”. Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and then their bowels and hearts would be removed. They would then be decapitated, and then the dismembered parts of their bodies would be displayed so that they might become: “prey for the fowls of the air”.

Fawke’s and Tresham’s testimony, regarding the Spanish treason was read aloud, as well as the confessions that related specifically to the Gunpowder Plot. The last piece of evidence that was offered was a conversation between Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour, who had been kept in adjacent cells. The two men had apparently thought that they were speaking in private, but their conversation was actually intercepted by a government spy. When the prisoners were eventually allowed to speak, Guy Fawkes had explained his not guilty plea as the ignorance of certain aspects of the indictment.

On the 31st January 1606, Guy Fawkes and 3 others – Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes – were dragged (i.e. drawn) from the Tower on wattled hurdles to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, opposite the building that they had attempted to destroy. His fellow plotters were then hanged and quartered. Guy Fawkes was the last to stand on the scaffold. He did ask for forgiveness of the King & state, while keeping up his “crosses and idle ceremonies”.

However, because he was weakened by the torture and then aided by the hangman, Guy Fawkes began to climb the ladder to the noose, but either through jumping to his death, or by climbing too high so that the rope was incorrectly set, he did manage to avoid the horrific agony of the latter part of his execution by breaking his own neck. His body, lifeless after breaking his neck, was quartered, and as well as the custom, his body parts were then distributed to “the four corners of the kingdom”, to be displayed as a signalled warning to the other would-be traitors.


The saying always circulates to this day, which is called: “Remember, Remember the 5th of November”. The anonymous masks also symbolise who Guy Fawkes was, and also for what he was famously known for.

This concludes the 3rd in the series of the Case Studies that have been done so far. There’s more to come over the course of December, which slowly draws 2014 to a close.

Thank you for viewing this case study.

Alex Smithson

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