Gunpowder, treason and a familiar plot
For four centuries, Guy Fawkes has been the symbol of religious animosity... so, what’s really changed?
IF there’s one thing that history can show us, it’s that humans used to be way more insane.
Consider the true story of the man who for the last 412 years, has had today’s date named after him.
Guy Fawkes was a 35-year-old dude who in 1605 was part of a plot to blow up the British parliament, with the express intention of killing the king and as many MPs has possible
But he wasn’t even the leader of the group. That was a charismatic Catholic figure named Robert Catesby. Robert Catesby Day doesn’t nearly have the same ring as Guy Fawkes Day, so perhaps it’s just as well November 5 is named after Fawkes.
Perhaps Fawkes earnt the honour because he took on the riskiest job: lighting the explosives.
The group might have succeeded but, in late October, they’d written to Catholic MPs warning them to stay away from London. One letter was made public, there was a police search and, on November 5, Fawkes was found with 36 barrels of gunpowder – enough to destroy the building (although some experts now think the explosives had decayed and possibly wouldn’t have gone off).
Fawkes was tortured on the rack for four days, before he narked on the other 12 men. And then they were all given punishments that you’d have to say were a bit over the top.
Just for starters, Fawkes faced having his testicles cut off and burnt before his eyes. He’d then be dragged around by a horse, his head on the ground, before having his heart and bowels cut out, this head chopped off and his remains left out for the birds. Anything still available after all that would be quartered and sent to different corners of the country as a warning to other Catholics.
Wow. Back then, they really didn’t muck around. That’s pretty comprehensive.
No wonder Fawkes decided to take things into his own hands and leapt to his death from the gallows.
English media have this week been revealing rarely known details about his life. He was eight years old when his dad died. His mumthen married a Catholic and, when he was a teen, he converted – something that was a life-risking move in 17th century Britain. The Church of England was in charge, and, having no tolerance for Roman Catholics, drove their services underground.
When Fawkes turned 21, he had gone to Europe to help Spanish Catholics fight the Protestant Dutch in a war that lasted eight whole years.
During this time Fawkes changed his first name to Guido, apparently because it sounded more continental. He returned to England and was drawn into the Gunpowder Plot while working as a footman for a wealthy family that Catesby had married into.
Such was the uproar at the attempt to blow up parliament, that, before the end of that November, ‘‘Guy’’ had became a term of abuse for anyone considered ugly or repulsive. Over time that meaning has become blurred and, now, a bit hilariously, it’s just another slang word for a male.
Time, too, has changed how Guido Fawkes has been remembered – in 2002, he was even voted the 30th greatest-ever Briton.
But, while the UK’s collective memory may have changed, the environment that led to that 17th century plot remains strangely familiar.
Fawkes’ whole life unfolded during a time of hate between religions. Through modern eyes, the fact such prejudice existed, should be hard to imagine. But that hasn’t really changed.
Time, too, has changed how Guido Fawkes has been remembered – in 2002, he was even voted the 30th greatestever Briton.’