Who is Guy Fawkes?

Mary McMahon

Guy Fawkes was a British Catholic who is probably best remembered for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme to blow up the British Parliament which was developed in 1604. Although Guy Fawkes was not the mastermind of this plot, he came to be closely associated with it because he was caught in the bowels of Parliament concealing explosives on the eve of the planned attack. In Britain, people celebrate Guy Fawkes Day every year to commemorate the successful foiling of this attack.

Guy Fawkes was questioned in 1605 at the Tower of London about his role in the Gunpowder Plot.
Guy Fawkes was questioned in 1605 at the Tower of London about his role in the Gunpowder Plot.

Fawkes was born in 1570, into an England which was struggling with religious ideas. The country had swung radically from a Catholic nation to a Protestant one, thanks to Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I. Many Catholics struggled under Protestant rule; they were tortured, deprived of their rights, and generally made to feel unwelcome in the newly Protestant country. As a result, numerous groups of Catholics plotted against the crown, and Fawkes ultimately became involved in such a plot.

King James I was a target of the Gunpowder Plot, partly planned by Guy Fawkes.
King James I was a target of the Gunpowder Plot, partly planned by Guy Fawkes.

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Guy Fawkes was at least partially educated, as he attended St. Peter's School as a youth. During this time, he also met a number of Catholic radicals, who may have planted the seeds for his later life. When Fawkes left school, he initially took a position in service, and then ended up working with the Spanish army in the Netherlands. His service under Spain earned him the nickname “Guido,” which appears on many of the legal documents pertaining to his life and death.

In 1604, Guy Fawkes fell in with a group led by Robert Catesby. Catesby masterminded the Gunpowder Plot; he realized that a major Parliament event on 5 November, 1605 could present a chance to destroy the Protestant king, James I, along with most of the Protestant elite, potentially laying the groundwork for re-establishing a Catholic monarchy, and avenging the British Catholic community.

Fawkes was selected to deal with the explosives, as the plotters believed that his experience in the Spanish army made him especially qualified. The plotters seeded around two tons of gunpowder in Parliament, concealing it with a variety of disguises; unfortunately for Fawkes, the Parliament guards apprehended him on the night of the 4th, and the plot was foiled. Fawkes was tortured by the authorities in an attempt to get him to yield the names of his co-conspirators, and he was eventually executed on 31 January, 1606.

5 November was designated an official holiday by the British to celebrate the averted Gunpowder Plot. Over time, 5 November celebrations have occasionally veered into a celebration of Fawkes himself, along with his revolutionary spirit. On Guy Fawkes Day, Britons can participate in rowdy social events which include large bonfires on which images of Guy Fawkes are sometimes burned in effigy, and they have historically produced plays and pantomimes commemorating the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes, its most famous member.

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