Saturday, November 04, 2006

Guy Fawkes Day

I never yet knew a treason without a Romish priest
--Sir Edward Coke, January, 1606

Rumour, rumour, pump and derry,
Prick his heart and burn his body,
And send his soul to Purgatory.

--17th Century Children's Rhyme

Engraving of Guy Fawkes and the boyos, co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, complete with executions 'n heads stuck on pikes.

(Click to see larger image) From Left to Right: Thomas Bates, Robert Winter, Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, Guy "Guido" Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter.

(Just an aside... I like the fashions of the 17th century. I'd like to wear hats like that to work every day with a flourish. Too bad those hats and coats and doublets and sleeves were in fashion back then and not now, when personal hygeine is so much better.)

In the early hours of November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic who had served with the Spanish army in Flanders, was discovered in a storeroom under the Palace of Westminster--and with him, thirty-six barrels of gunpowder earmarked to obliterate England's royal family, top officials, and members of Parliament gathered for Parliament's opening day. Had it succeeded, this Gunpowder Plot--a Catholic conspiracy against the recently crowned Protestant King James I and his government--English history would have been shaped by a terrorist act of unprecedented proportions.

On November 5th, all of Great Britain and many of the Commonwealth nations celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, complete with bonfires and fireworks reminiscent of our Fourth of July.

A lot of debate goes around today on whether or not the gunpowder was too damp to have even ignited. Everyone agrees though, that the amount of powder was enough to blow Parliament sky-high and to kill the king and everyone else within it.

The real leader of the plot was Robert Catesby, but as the man found in the cellar of Parliament with the matches in his hands, Fawkes is the man of notoriety (as one quote I saw put it, modern British people remember him as "the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions!")

Here are excerpts from a writeup on the life of Guy Fawkes from the Gunpowder Plot Society by way of the Fawkesian Society Website:

Guy Fawkes was the only son of Edward Fawkes of York and his wife Edith Blake...

Edward Fawkes, who was descended from the Fawkes family of Farnley, was a notary or proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and advocate of the consistory court of the Archbishop of York. On his mother's side, he was descended from the Harrington family who were eminent merchants and Aldermen of York.

Fawkes became a pupil of the Free School of St. Peters located in "Le Horse Fayre", which was founded by Royal Charter of Philip and Mary in 1557. He counted there amongst his schoolfellows, John and Christopher Wright, Thomas Morton (afterwards Bishop of Durham), Sir Thomas Cheke and Oswald Tesimond. His time there was under the tutelage of a John Pulleyn, kinsman to the Pulleyns of Scotton and a suspected Catholic who some believe may have had an early effect on the impressionable Fawkes.

...Fawkes is believed to have left England in 1593 or 1594 for Flanders, together with one of his Harrington cousins who later become a priest. In Flanders he enlisted in the Spanish army under the Archduke Albert of Austria, who was afterwards governor of the Netherlands.

Fawkes held a post of command when the Spaniards took Calais in 1596 under the orders of King Philip II of Spain. He was described at this time as a man "of excellent good natural parts, very resolute and universally learned", and was "sought by all the most distinguished in the Archduke's camp for nobility and virtue". Tesimond also describes him 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".

Fawkes's appearance by now was most impressive. He was a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, flowing moustache, and a bushy reddish-brown beard. He had also apparently adopted the name or affectation Guido in place of Guy. His extraordinary fortitude, and his "considerable fame among soldiers", perhaps acquired through his services under Colonel Bostock at the Battle of Nieuport in 1600 when it is believed he was wounded, brought him to the attention of Sir William Stanley (in charge of the English regiment in Flanders), Hugh Owen and Father William Baldwin.

Fawkes severed his connection with the Archduke's forces on 16 February 1603, when he was granted leave to go to Spain on behalf of Stanley, Owen and Baldwin to "enlighten King Philip II concerning the true position of the Romanists in England". During this visit he renewed his acquaintance with Christopher Wright, and the two men set about obtaining Spanish support for an invasion of England upon the death of Elizabeth, a mission which ultimately proved fruitless.

Upon return from this mission, Fawkes was informed in Brussels that Thomas Wintour had been asking for him. About Easter time, when Wintour was about to return to England, Stanley presented Fawkes to him. It cannot be proved, but perhaps Wintour had already informed Fawkes of the conspirators' intentions, because in Fawkes' confession he states that "I confesse that a practise in general was first broken unto me against his Majesty for reliefe of the Catholique cause, and not invented or propounded by myself. And this was first propounded unto me about Easter last was twelve month, beyond the Seas, in the Low Countries of the Archduke's obeyance, by Thomas, who came thereupon with me into England".

May of 1604, Guy Fawkes met with Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright and Thomas Wintour at an inn called the Duck and Drake in the fashionable Strand district of London, and agreed under oath along with Percy to join the other three in the Gunpowder Conspiracy. This oath was then sanctified by the performing of mass and the administering of the sacraments by the Jesuit priest John Gerard in an adjoining room. (My note. This is not true. It was not Fr. Gerard) Fawkes assumed the identity of John Johnson, a servant of Percy and was entrusted to the care of the tenement which Percy had rented. Around Michaelmas, Fawkes was asked to begin preparations for work on the mine, but these plans were delayed until early December as the Commissioners of the Union between England and Scotland were meeting in the same house. Eventually the work in the mine proved slow and difficult for men unused to such physical labours, and further accomplices were sworn into the plot.

About March 1605, the conspirators hired a cellar beneath Parliament, once again through Thomas Percy, and Fawkes assisted in filling the room with barrels of powder, hidden beneath iron bars and faggots. He was then despatched to Flanders to presumably communicate the details of the plot to Stanley and Owen.

...On 26 October, the now famous Monteagle Letter was delivered into the hands of William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle. Concern quickly erupted amongst the conspirators, but the letter's apparent vagueness prompted Catesby to continue with their plans...

On Wednesday 30 October, Fawkes, apparently ignorant of the letter's existence inspected the cellar again and satisfied himself that the gunpowder was still in place and had not been disturbed. On Sunday 3 November, a few of the leading conspirators met in London and agreed that the authorities were still unaware of their actions. However, all except Fawkes made plans for a speedy exit from London. Fawkes had agreed to watch the cellar by himself, having already been given the task of firing the powder, undoubtedly because of his munitions experience in the Low Countries where he had been taught how to "fire a slow train". His orders were to embark for Flanders as soon as the powder was fired, and to spread the news of the explosion on the continent.

On the following Monday afternoon, the Lord Chamberlain, Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, searched the parliament buildings accompanied by Monteagle and John Whynniard. In the cellar they came upon an unusually large pile of billets and faggots, and perceived Fawkes whom they described as "a very bad and desperate fellow". They asked who claimed the pile, and Fawkes replied that it was Thomas Percy's in whose employment he worked. They reported these details to the King, and believing, by the look of Fawkes "he seemed to be a man shrewd enough, but up to no good", they again searched the cellar, a little before midnight the following night, this time led by Sir Thomas Knyvett, a Westminster Magistrate and Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Fawkes had gone forth to warn Percy that same day, but returned to his post before night. Once again, the pile of billets and faggots was searched and the powder discovered, and this time Fawkes was arrested. On his person they discovered a watch, slow matches and touchwood. Fawkes later declared that had he been in the cellar when Knyvett entered it he would have "blown him up, house, himself, and all".

Early in the morning of 5 November, the Privy Council met in the King's bedchamber, and Fawkes was brought in under guard. He declined to give any information beyond that his name was Johnson and he was a servant of Thomas Percy. Further interrogations that day revealed little more than his apparent xenophobia. When questioned by the King how he could conspire such a hideous treason, Fawkes replied that a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy, and that his intentions were to blow the Scotsmen present back into Scotland.

...The following day he recounted the events of the conspiracy, without naming names, then on the 9 November he named his fellow plotters, having heard that some of them had already been arrested at Holbeche. Guido's final signature, a barely legible scrawl, is testament to his suffering. There is no direct evidence as to what tortures were used on Guy Fawkes, although it is almost certain that they included the manacles, and probably also the rack...

On Friday, 31 January 1606, Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood and Robert Keyes were taken to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster and hanged, drawn and quartered "in the very place which they had planned to demolish in order to hammer home the message of their wickedness". Thomas Wintour was followed by Rookwood and then by Keyes. Guido, the "romantic caped figure of such evil villainy" came last. A contemporary wrote:

"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".

David Jardine, in his book "A Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot" (1857), says that "according to the accounts of him, he is not to be regarded as a mercenary ruffian, ready for hire to do any deed of blood; but as a zealot, misled by misguided fanaticism, who was, however, by no means destitute of piety or humanity".

A Dutch engraving showing the executions of the conspirators

Play the BBC’s Gunpowder Plot Quiz game – Race through the cellars against the burning fuse… I missed foiling the plot by a second.

For all of your Guy Fawkes Day party and bonfire needs, check out...

Elaine’s Guy Fawkes page

The Main Menu of the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot Pages:
The Internet's Primary Source for The Gunpowder Plot, Its Commemoration, and Times!

Some ditties...

Remember, Remember

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,'twas his intent
to blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow:
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!
A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah!

Polemical song in the style of "a Jesuit priest"

There's a plot to beguile
An obstinate isle.
Great britain that heretic nation.
Why so slyly behav'd
in the hopes to be saved
By the help of the curs'd reformation.

There's powder enough
And combustible stuff
In thirty and odd trusty barrels,
We'll send them together
The Lord can tell whither
And decide at one blow all their quarrels.

When the King and his son
And the parliament's gone
And the people are left in the lurch
Things will take their old station
In the curs'd nation-
And I'll be the head of the Church.

One of the most controversial aspects of the plot is that in the arrests and executions that followed in the aftermath, Fr. Henry Garnet SJ, who had been hiding in crawlspaces and hidden rooms in the homes of sympathetic Catholics for years, was implicated in the plot, captured, and put to death. I'll be writing more on that and the role of the Jesuits later.

Here is Fr, Garnet's last letter before his execution, written to Catholic supporter Anne Vaux:

Should the celebrations as they are currently held be considered as anti-Catholic? This XT3 article opines:

So are fireworks, and ‘bonfire night’ in particular, anti-Catholic celebrations? It all depends how connected we are with the origins. November 5th was designated by King James I (via an Act of Parliament) as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance" and remained in place until 1859. On the actual night of the foiled plot, it is said that Londoners celebrated the defeat by lighting fires in the streets.

But today, surely few are either consciously celebrating the failure of a terrorist act and the punishment of the plotters or revelling in anti-Catholic feeling? For most people, neither religion nor terrorism figures in their thinking. Instead most are simply up for a loud, bright and exciting visual extravaganza they can share with their family and friends for one explosive night.

What about ‘Penny for the Guy’? Well, that’s basically a quick and easy way for young ‘uns to make a few quid. Ask them who the rag bloke in the pull-along trailer’s supposed to be, you’ll probably receive a shrug or a “dunno mate”.

The Gunpowder Plot is both a compelling and fascinating story that has weathered the test of time and its history is worth revisiting. The lesson to be learnt from it is that as a society, we should always stand united against both acts of terror and the religious persecution of any group. Christianity demands nothing less.


crystal said...

I'm very interested in the Gunpowder Plot too. When I was a kid in Bermuda we celebrated Guy Fawkes Day, but I didn't really understand what it was about. Mostly I remember my stepfather saying often to my mother that she looked like a Guy Fawkes (meaning her clothes were too wild :-)

I've read about the Jesuit who was killed ... can't help thinking that anti-catholic feelinf fueled some of this plot (entrapment). Things were very hard for catholics then - I believe they couldn't own land, go to Oxford, practice their religion, hold public office, etc.

Rashfriar said...

Peace! Interesting post. I'm not sure how many would know about the details of Guy Fawkes, but I was in England last June with some friars and can say that there is still a latent anti-Catholicism there. At Tyburn, where many Catholic martyrs were killed, there is hardly anything except a concrete disk, hard to get to as it is in the middle of a traffic island, marking the spot. Fortunately, there is a convent nearby and a shrine. God bless!

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Bermuda must have been an interesting place to live in as a child. I can't imagine what that must have been like.

Henry Garnet SJ was really caught between a rock and a hard place. The Crown's agents used the incident to really go after the Jesuits they'd been scouring the country for for years. Garnet had a pretty good idea of what Robert Catesby was up to. He'd expressed his concerns to the Jesuit Superior General, who warned him that they should actively discourage acts of violence, and not to get involved in them in any way. Garnet tried his best to steer Catesby away from this line of thinking, but was ultimately not successful. Later, Garnet heard something about the rumors of a plot from someone else under the seal of the confessional.

When Garnet was caught and put on trial and confronted with the evidence against him, they made a big deal out of his "equivocation" in trying to hide behind the confessional. They didn't really convict him of being a plotter. They prosecuted him for knowing about the plot and not alerting the proper authorities... for being a traitor to his king. On the other hand, that's a bit of equivocation on the part of his prosecutors too, because he'd already been a fugitive in their eyes just for being a priest. It was illegal for him to be in England in the first place. What was he to do?

Jeff said...

Hi Rashfriar,

I think you may be right about that. There was quite a stir in the British press and in political circles a few years ago when people were speculating that Tony Blair might have been interested in converting to Catholicism. A lot of that old stuff started to bubble up once more.

Interesting postscript... My brother-in-law is a Jesuit scholastic who's going to be studying theology in London. He recently moved into the Wimbledon area. He sent an email yesterday (his birthday) telling us about all of the fireworks celebrations going on... not for his birthday, of course, but for Guy Fawkes.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the interesting post. I didn't know much about the story. Have you seen V for Vendetta? Not a great film, but worth watching, and it's very much about Guy Fawkes.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

You know, I didn't see V for Vendetta when it came out in the theaters, and I didn't realize there was a Guy Fawkes association until I was nearly done researching this. Now my interest is piqued, and I'll have to check it out.

Anonymous said...

V for Vendetta is an unusual film. Were it not for the parallels with 9/11 it would not be remarkable, but the idea of a fascist government using a false-flag operation to consolidate power rings familiar. One question from the film, spoken by a police inspector to a colleague, speaks volumes. "If your government was responsible for the act of terrorism that caused the deaths of (100,000) of our citizens, would you want to know?" Apparently, many American citizens answer "No".