Sunday, 3 November 2013

Fun Fact special: Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November; Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

Preamble: My fascination with Guy Fawkes comes from a lot of local knowledge, since a lot of the events that relate to the Gunpowder Plot happened not far from where I was growing up. What I am about to do is talk about the Gunpowder Plot from a "local" point of view, although some things have had to be researched to fill in the gaps. Enjoy!

It is London, sometime on the evening of Saturday 5th November. A number of men have gained entry to the cellars below the House of Commons, with the intention of destroying the protestant institution that is (at the was) King James I, who had only acceeded to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1603, and his government lackeys, who can be described as little more than "yes" men at this time. Their tools of destruction? 36 barrels of Gunpowder. They carefully and quietly worked all night to prime the gunpowder, waiting for the king to arrive into Parliament. They left some of their men to guard the gunpowder for a few hours. Nothing could go wrong now, surely? 

But then, after a tip-off, they were attacked by officers of the law and a number of the conspirators were captured (some were killed duing the attack), who were later interrogated and executed. The remainder escaped back up to the midlands. This episode would go down in legend as the "Gunpowder Plot". One of these men, Guy Fawkes, has recieved more attention than any other member of the Plot, but he wasn't actually the ringleader!

Why is this the case, and what motivated a group of wealthy men to risk their lives to kill the monarch? I'm going to delve briefly into the world of 17th century England to reveal why this is the case, and who this man actually was.

Guy (or Guido) Fawkes was born in 1570 in York, into a reasonably well-off protestant family (History Learning Site). The house in York where he was probably born, in Stonegate, York, still stands today. He was baptised at St.Micheal-Le-Belfry as a protestant too.  It is likely that he lived in Bishopthorpe (St. Andrew), just to the South of York, and that he went to the Grammar school in York (Lewis 1848, p.267). He converted to Catholicism in 1586 (Sharp 2005;p.24), so it is likely that his family were not Catholic. Guy became a soldier and went on to fight in the Low Countries for Spain in the late 16th century, where he learned how to use gunpowder for explosives (who owned modern day Belgium and parts of the Netherlands, who were largely non-Catholic) (History Learning Site).

Photo of plaque
Image 1: The plaque commemorating the baptism of Guy Fawkes in Yok (Open Plaques)

Robert Catesby, meanwhile, was born into a very wealthy midland family in Leicestershire (Lathbury 1841; 18), with property all over the midlands, including Catesby manor at Ashby St. Ledgers in Northamptonshire, where he spent a good deal of his time (Incidientally, his ancestor, William Catesby, who was buried under a marble slab within the same manor, was a favourite of Richard III, who was recently excavted in Leicester!). The manor still exists today, as does the church of The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Leodegarius, which contains some wonderful medieval features. In fact, a lot of the landscape in this area of the midlands has largely survived from this time up to the present day, preserving the scene of what it would have looked like around the 17th century (see here for more information)! Robert's grandparents had died as Catholic martyrs during the pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 (Walsh 2004; p.78).

With the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, Catholics like Robert and Guy hoped that James Stuart (James VI of Scotland/I of England) would be more tolerant of Catholics, and perhaps give equal status to them. But he didn't. Catholic lives more miserable thorugh even more harsher laws that meant they couldn't even go to court if they were owed rent! This was in addition to the laws that meant simply being Catholic could put you in prison. For Robert Catesby, enough was enough. He told people like Thomas Wintour (Winter), who introduced Guy to Robert, and from here more conspirators were added. They devised a plan, or plot, to kill the king in such a way that would take down the government of the day with him. This scheming led to the Gunpowder plot!

Image 2:The gunpowder Plot Conspirators; there were thirteen in all. they were Robert Catesby, Robert Winter, Thomas Percy, Thomas Winter, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Everard Digby (a knight!), Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham, John grant, Robert Keys and Guy Fawkes. (History Learning Site, Lathbury 1841; 17)

Among the many places where the conspirators met to discuss the plot was at Bisley in Gloucestershire, just 10 miles south east of Gloucester (Lewis 1848). This would have been because of the constant threat of arrest for being Catholic, but also because they could avoid being arrested thanks to Catesby's connections. It is reputed that they met at Catesby's manor in Ashby St. Ledgers before going to London on the 4th November, 1605. They had hired out some cellars undeneath the Houses of Parliament, with the intention of stuffing them with gunpowder barrels that they had acquired. Fawkes's knowledge of gunpowder from fighting in Europe would serve their plot well.

Image 3: The front of Catesby manor, Ashby St. Ledgers (English Buildings 2010)

They thought it was all going to plan; they had their 36 barrels of gunpowder inside the cellars, ready to blow when the king arrived. But in reality it is likely that the king knew of this attempt on his life, and they were waiting for the right moment to catch the perpetrators in the act. In the end, a mixture of luck (catching them before they set off the gunpowder!) and poor planning on Robert Catesby's part (for telling so many people about his plot) led to the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Robert escaped up to the Midlands with some of the others, originally to Coombe Abbey, near Coventry. But was later killed by soldiers at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, in a stand-off with the Sheriff of Worcestershire (History Learning Site).

So why does Guy Fawkes get so much attention? He got captured during the attack under the Houses of Parliament, and tortured (see his signatures below!), before he was charged with treason and executed. Being used to explosives, he could be caught in the act red handed. His name became synonymous with Catholic sentiment across England around this time, as a sort of martyr, but it also justified to many non-catholics that Catholics were not very nice people, and deserved the second class rate they had been given. Fawkes's execution also recieved a lot more publicity than Catesby's death, so his name stuck with the Gunpowder Plot.

Image: (after) English School - Signature of Guy Fawkes (1570-1606)
Image 4: The signature of Guy Fawkes before and after his interrogation (MyArtPrints). 

So poor Guy Fawkes got the publicity for the botched plan, and Catesby largely gets away with little of the notoriety. Bonfire night was originally used as a celebration to remind English people about the evils of catholicism! Thankfully today this isn't the case. Today, the cellars under the houses of Parliament, the buildings in York discussed above, and a number of the manors and houses that were used around the Midlands for the plot still stand, albeit some have been heavily modified. But the best example of the 17th century landscape lies in North West Northamptonshire, where the plotters spent their final full evening together 4th November, 1605. Well worth a visit!


History Learning Site, last updated unknown, Robert Catesby, last accessed 27/10/2013,

Lathbury, T., 1841, Guy Fawkes, Or, A Complete History of The Gunpowder Plot, A.D. 1605: with A Development of the Principles of the Conspirators, and Some Notices of the Revolution of 1688, John E. Parker, West Strand, London

Lewis, S (ed.)., 1848, A Topographical Dictionary of England, Institute of Historical Research, pp.267,

Sharpe, J., 2005, Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, Profile Books, London

Walsh, B., 2004, Empires and Citizens: Book 2, Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham pp.78-


Image 1: Open Plaque, last accessed 4/10/2013,Plaque no. 6302,, last updated unknown.

Image 2: History Learning Site, last accessed 27/10/2013, Robert Catesby,, last updated unknown

Image 3: Philip Wilkinson, last accessed 3/11/2013, Ashby St. Ledgers, Northamptonshire,, last updated November 2010 

Image 4: MyArtPrints, last accessed 4/10/2013, Signature of Guy Fawkes,, last updated unknown

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