Guy Fawkes – a summary

Guy Fawkes was executed on 31 January 1606. Sinead Fitzgibbon offers a brief summary of his life, the Gunpowder Plot and his death.

Guy Fawkes was born in York around 13 April 1570. Although there is some uncertainty surrounding the exact date of his birth, church archives confirm that he was baptised on 16 April 1570 at the church of St Michael le Belfrey. His parents Edward and Edith Fawkes were Protestant, and as such, it is believed that Guy was raised in the Protestant faith.

When he was eight years old, the young Fawkes attended St Peter’s School in York. It was here that he first made the acquaintance of two brothers, Jack and Christopher Wright, who would become his comrades in the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament some thirty years later.

Catholic conversion

Guy’s father died in 1579 when Guy was just nine-years-old and within two years his mother had remarried a Catholic man called Denis Bainbridge. Many believe that Guy’s conversion to the Catholic faith was due to his stepfather’s influence. It is unclear exactly when Fawkes adopted Catholicism, but it is widely accepted that he was a confirmed and devoted Catholic by the time he turned 21.

The year 1591 proved to be a momentous one for Fawkes. As soon as he came of age, he sold the property he had inherited from his father and made preparations to leave England for the Continent. An active and passionate man of striking appearance, Fawkes wasted no time in signing up to the Spanish Army of Flanders. He was to spend the next 12 years as a mercenary soldier in the Low Countries, fighting with Catholic forces against Protestant resistance. It was during this time that Fawkes, who had earned the reputation of a good-living, loyal and brave soldier, gained a thorough knowledge of gunpowder – and it was this expertise which was to ultimately lead to his downfall.

The willing recruit

It may surprise many to learn that Guy Fawkes, despite his name being synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot, was not the main architect of the conspiracy. The scheme was proposed by a group of Catholic cousins in England, two of whom were Guy’s old school-friends, the Wright brothers. The leader of this tight-knit group of conspirators set about recruiting Fawkes on the strength of his reputation as a courageous soldier, his loyalty to his Catholic faith and, of course, his gunpowder expertise. Fawkes, who had by then adopted the name Guido, proved to be a willing recruit; he landed in England in April 1604, ready to take up the Catholic cause.

And so began Guido Fawkes’s involvement with the doomed plot to blow up King James I, Lords and Commons on November 5th, 1605. The scheme was foiled, and Guido was caught red-handed, on the night of 4 November, in a vault under the Palace of Westminster. This vault contained 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to blow the Houses of Parliament sky-high. He was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London and tortured. He succumbed on the night of 7 November  and confessed all to his inquisitors. His fate was sealed.

A traitor’s death

Fawkes’s trial took place on 27 January 1606. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by the grotesque means of hanging, drawing and quartering (this gruesome sentence was common for those convicted of betraying King and country). However, Fawkes’s execution, which took place on 31 January, was mercifully swift; the hangman’s noose broke his neck and he was thus spared the agony of a traitor’s death.

Every year on 5 November, as bonfires blazed throughout the Kingdom to commemorate the King’s deliverance from the terrorist plot, the legend of Guy Fawkes became inextricably linked with the story of the Gunpowder Plot, to the extent that 5 November has become known as ‘Guy Fawkes Night’. His legend continues unabated to this day.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

The Gunpowder Plot: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press, is available in various digital formats

See also Sinead’s summary of Guy Fawkes night and Robert Catesby, the real brains behind the Gunpowder Plot.

Read Sinead’s blog.