[Milton-L] Remember, remember the fifth of November!

Dr. Carol Barton cbartonphd at earthlink.net
Fri Nov 5 17:15:26 EST 2004

Happy Quintum Novembris! This (below) courtesy of the new DNB -

Best to all,

Carol Barton

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Fawkes,  Guy (bap. 1570, d. 1606), conspirator
by Mark Nicholls

Fawkes,  Guy  (bap. 1570, d. 1606), conspirator, only son and 
second child of Edward Fawkes (d. 1579) of York and his wife, 
Edith Jackson, was born in the Stonegate district of York and 
baptized at the church of St Michael-le-Belfrey on 16 April 
1570. Edward Fawkes was proctor, later advocate in the 
consistory court of York, possibly registrar of the exchequer 
court like his father, and, so far as can now be discerned, a 
staunch protestant. Guy's paternal grandparents were William 
Fawkes (d. 155863) and Ellen Haryngton (d. 1575), daughter of a 
prominent York merchant. Edward Fawkes died in January 1579, and 
was buried in York Minster. By February 1582 his widow had 
married Denis Bainbridge of Scotton, in the West Riding, and it 
is supposed that young Guy Fawkes became a Roman Catholic as a 
result of his connection with this strongly recusant family. He 
was educated at St Peter's School, in York.

Military career

Guy Fawkes was by profession a soldier. In 1592 he sold the 
small estate in Clifton which he had inherited from his father 
and went to fight for the armies of Catholic Spain in the Low 
Countries; he was, by all accounts, conscientious and brave. He 
behaved gallantly at the siege of Calais in 1596 but had risen 
no higher than the rank of ensign by 1602. In 1599 he is 
described as being 'in great want'. During the early 1600s 
Fawkes travelled to Spain on perhaps two separate occasions, in 
1603 seeking support from a reluctant Spanish court for another 
military venture in aid of English Catholics. According to a 
description from the pen of a Jesuit priest and former 
schoolfellow, Oswald Tesimond, Fawkes was something of a 
paragon: devout, patient, 'pleasant of approach and cheerful of 
manner, opposed to quarrels and strife ... loyal to his 
friends', but at the same time 'a man highly skilled in matters 
of war'  (Edwards, 68-9). In his character sketches of the 
Gunpowder Plot conspirators Tesimond is generous with praise and 
sparing in his censure, but it was just this mix of sound faith, 
technical expertise, and moral integrity which encouraged the 
original plotters to seek Fawkes's support in the spring of 

The Gunpowder Plot

Knowledge of the conspiracy in its early days is heavily 
dependent on the confessions of two surviving ringleaders, 
Fawkes himself and the still more important Thomas Winter. 
Winter's confession, probably written for publication, certainly 
in his own hand, is one of the most remarkable accounts of 
intended treason in the pages of English history, and while not 
altogether free from obfuscation, it is substantially true. By 
comparison, Guy Fawkes's confessions show that, while he was 
privy to most secrets, he knew less than Winter. Winter, indeed, 
recruited Fawkes, albeit at the initial recommendation of the 
conspiracy's mastermind, Robert Catesby. The two men had much in 
common, both having travelled to Spain on similar missions 
within the previous two years. They met at Ostend early in 1604, 
during Winter's latest attempt to establish whether practical 
support from Spain might still be expected after the Stuart 
succession. Hugh Owen, the intelligencer on England at the court 
in Brussels, and Sir William Stanley both spoke highly of 
Fawkes, considering him entirely trustworthy, so the matter was 
pursued. In further conversation at Dunkirk, Winter told Fawkes 
that he and some friends were upon a resolution to 'doe some 
whatt in Ingland if the pece with Spaine healped us nott' 
(Salisbury-Cecil MS 113/54). After crossing the English Channel 
together, they called on Catesby at his London lodging late in 
April 1604.

Winter's conclusion that Spain was manifestly unwilling to 
support the intransigent English Catholics seems to have 
persuaded Catesby that there was now only one way forward. 
Dreams that a Spanish army might invade England, overturn the 
heretic regime, and restore Catholicism along with a Catholic 
monarch were now effectively shattered. Catesby and his friends 
realized that they would now have to act on their own. So far 
Catesby had disclosed his plan to destroy parliament with 
gunpowder to no one apart from Winter and John Wright, but when 
another friend, the earl of Northumberland's cousin and estate 
officer, Thomas Percy, visited him in May fulminating against 
the inactivity of right-thinking Catholics, Catesby took the 
opportunity to take both Fawkes and Percy into his confidence, 
making sure that both had first taken an oath of secrecy. The 
scheme seems to have been well received. On 24 May 1604 Percy, 
trading on the personal goodwill of Dudley Carleton and John 
Hippesley, fellow officers in Northumberland's household, leased 
a small house adjacent to the Lords' chamber from one Henry 
Ferrers of Baddesley Clinton, who in turn rented the property 
from John Whynniard, keeper of the Old Palace of Westminster.

The initial idea was that the plotters should drive a mine from 
the cellars of this dwelling straight under the Palace of 
Westminster, through the foundations of parliament house. 
Fawkes, 'becaus his face was the most unknowen', adopted the 
name John Johnson and took charge of the building, pretending to 
be Percy's servant  (Salisbury-Cecil MS 113/54). Catesby's house 
in Lambeth-the old Vauxhall manor house on the south bank of the 
Thames-offered a convenient store for gunpowder and mining 
paraphernalia; it was a comparatively straightforward task to 
ferry these over to Westminster at dead of night. A sixth man, 
Robert Keyes, was brought into the conspiracy in order to look 
after the Lambeth end of the operation. When they heard that a 
severe outbreak of plague in the city had prompted a further 
prorogation of parliament, until February 1605, the plotters 
dispersed into the countryside, gathering once again in London 
at the start of the Michaelmas law term.

For a time their schemes were frustrated: Scottish commissioners 
negotiating the proposed union between England and Scotland took 
over Percy's conveniently located lodgings for their 
deliberations. Just before Christmas, however, the conspirators 
began to dig their mine. By Christmas eve they had tunnelled up 
to the wall of parliament, but then news came through of yet 
another prorogation and work was suspended until early February. 
At this point they rowed all the gunpowder over from Lambeth and 
concealed it in Percy's house. Here was a decision born of 
pragmatism: as Winter explained, 'wee were willing to have all 
our dainger in one place'  (Salisbury-Cecil MS 113/54). Another 
fortnight passed in laborious efforts to hack their way through 
solid foundations. Alarmed by the slow progress, the plotters 
secured the services of three new recruits, Christopher Wright 
(John's brother), Robert Winter (Thomas's brother), and John 

Now, however, fortune smiled. As they were tunnelling they heard 
a rushing sound over their heads. Fearing discovery they sent 
Fawkes-the unknown face-out to reconnoitre, but he came back 
with encouraging news that the tenant of a ground-floor vault 
below the Lords' chamber, a coal merchant appropriately named 
Ellen Bright, was vacating her premises. Percy at once set about 
securing the lease from Whynniard and the conspirators 
gratefully abandoned their mine, planning instead to stack up 
their powder in the vault. All of a sudden there was nothing to 
do but wait, and plan for success. Hours spent in the mine had 
allowed the plotters many opportunities to work out how best to 
capitalize on their deadly strike, but it is fair to say that 
their strategy was never really thought through. They hoped to 
kidnap the next heir and worked on the assumption, by no means a 
secure one, that Prince Henry would be blown up with his father. 
Percy, who thanks to Northumberland's patronage was a gentleman 
pensioner (one of the king's personal bodyguard), undertook to 
abduct James's second son, Prince Charles, the duke of York, 
hastening him away from court in the general confusion under 
colour of conducting the boy to a place of safety. However, 
Percy's colleagues appear to have doubted the feasibility of 
this scheme-London was enemy territory, far from their Catholic 
refuges in the midlands. They pinned their hopes on securing the 
young Princess Elizabeth, then residing with John, Lord 
Harington, at Combe, 4 miles from Coventry. The means to this 
end would be an armed force of mounted Catholic gentry, and 
Catesby invited friendly midland squires to gather-ostensibly to 
hunt-near his home at Ashby St Ledgers on 5 November.

A young girl, though, could not rule alone; she would stand in 
need of champions, or, indeed, a protector, a man of birth and 
political stature. Minor gentlemen could not fill such a role, 
but if the plotters themselves were unable to take on the task, 
who could? Here is entered a dark country. The same question was 
asked over and again by the Jacobean government in the months 
following the discovery of the plot, but never received a 
satisfactory answer. Indeed, if the surviving conspirators are 
to be believed, the matter was glossed over with extraordinary 
insouciance. All that Fawkes and Winter would say later was that 
a decision had been deferred until after the blast, when it 
might be clear which noblemen were still available. In 
principle, they had agreed to preserve as many peers 'as were 
Catholick or so disposed'  (Salisbury-Cecil MS 113/54). More 
than once Catesby assured new recruits who scrupled at the 
possible deaths of patrons and friends that favoured noblemen 
would be dissuaded by 'tricks' from attending the opening of 
parliament. However, it is doubtful if he meant to honour such 
pledges. Robert Keyes recalled one occasion on which the mask 
slipped. Speaking contemptuously of the English nobility, 
Catesby 'made accompt of them as of atheists, fools and 
cowards'. Rather than risk failure he was fully prepared to see 
each and every man among them blown to perdition  (PRO, SP 

Summer was spent far from London, in the countryside or, in 
Fawkes's case, overseas. He was in Flanders from Easter to 
August 1605, keeping his head down. But the time was not all 
wasted. While in Brussels he acquainted Hugh Owen with the 
plotters' design, in order that Owen might speak for them in the 
courts of continental Europe after the fact. At home, meanwhile, 
Catesby took stock of an increasingly pressing problem. He had 
borne the financial burden alone for upwards of one year and was 
unable to do so much longer. With the agreement of his 
colleagues, Catesby now widened the circle of conspirators in an 
attempt to bring in wealthy supporters-men who might foot the 
bill for the projected rebellion in the midlands. Late in the 
summer he confided his secret to Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard 
Digby, and, fatally, Francis Tresham, having sworn all three to 

None took the news particularly well, although Digby and 
Rookwood were soon persuaded that cruel necessity must have its 
way. Tresham, while apparently honouring his vow of silence, was 
clearly much perturbed, promising Catesby large sums of money if 
he would only call a halt to so perilous an enterprise. Catesby 
dissembled, but had no intention of backing down. Fawkes and 
Winter brought fresh gunpowder into the vault, fearing with good 
reason that the existing stock might have become damp. On 3 
October parliament was once again prorogued, this time for a 
month. The new date for the state opening was set at 5 November. 
Winter, attending the ceremony in Lord Monteagle's entourage, 
must have taken comfort in the presence of Salisbury and other 
leading members of the council.

At the end of October the principal plotters began to converge 
on London. About the 26th Catesby and Fawkes returned to White 
Webbs in Enfield Chase, home of the Catholic Anne Vaux. There 
they had news from Winter that Prince Henry would not be 
accompanying his father to parliament on 5 November. Catesby at 
once resolved to attempt the capture of the heir apparent, but 
once again there does not seem to have been anything in the way 
of precise planning. On the night of Sunday 27 October Winter 
learned from someone in the peer's household that Monteagle had 
received a general warning against attending the opening of 
parliament, and had immediately taken the message to court. 
Winter panicked. He went to White Webbs, trying to persuade 
Catesby that the game was up, but Catesby showed a steady nerve. 
He would, he declared, 'see further as yett', sending Fawkes out 
on reconnaissance  (Salisbury-Cecil MS 113/54). No one ever 
questioned Fawkes's courage: he duly put his head in the noose, 
checking the cellar and reporting that nothing had been 

On Friday 1 November Winter and Catesby met an agitated Tresham 
at Barnet. They accused him of betrayal; he denied it, 
redoubling his efforts at dissuasion. Winter was by now inclined 
to discretion himself, but Catesby remained determined to give 
the plot every opportunity for success. The final chance to 
abandon the enterprise passed on the evening of 3 November, at a 
meeting between Winter, Catesby, and Thomas Percy, recently 
arrived from the north. It was Percy who said what Catesby 
clearly wanted to hear, that they should see the business to its 
conclusion. He went to Syon House to dine with Northumberland on 
4 November-a point that would tell heavily against the earl 
thereafter-and returned to his colleagues declaring that all 
seemed well  (PRO, SP 14/216/126). So Fawkes took up his station 
in the vault, with a slow match, and a watch, sent to him by 
Percy via Robert Keyes 'becaus he should knowe howe the time 
went away'  (PRO, SP 14/216/100).

Meanwhile the privy council was treading carefully, anxious not 
to alarm any conspirators into premature flight, but still half 
believing that the curiously worded 'Monteagle letter' signified 
little. On the afternoon of 4 November the earl of Suffolk-who 
in his capacity as lord chamberlain had responsibility for 
ensuring that arrangements for the new session were in hand-made 
a tour of inspection, accompanied among others by Monteagle. 
They looked over the Lords' chamber, and then descended into the 
ground-floor cellars which ran the length of the building. 
Inevitably, they noticed the unusually large pile of firewood 
covering the gunpowder, and asked Fawkes, in his guise as John 
Johnson, whose fuel this was. Hindsight later prompted Suffolk 
to record that the servant was 'a very tall and desperate 
fellow', but to all outward appearances the party was satisfied 
when Fawkes told them the wood belonged to his master Thomas 
Percy  (Oldys, 3.256). Returning to court, however, Monteagle 
expressed surprise that Percy, an old acquaintance, rented 
property in Westminster. He also mentioned that Percy was a 

That sufficed to stir King James's latent fears, and he ordered 
a further search of the vaults which, still with an eye to 
avoiding undue alarm, was to be carried out under the pretence 
of looking for some 'stuff' and hangings that had strayed from 
the wardrobe stores  (Oldys, 3.257). The task fell to a 
Westminster magistrate and gentleman of the privy chamber, Sir 
Thomas Knyvett, keeper of the Palace of Westminster. In 
contemporary accounts of the subsequent search chronology varies 
slightly, but no more than one might expect given the scope for 
rumour and embellishment in so thrilling a tale  (Gardiner, 
114-37). About midnight Knyvett led his party into the cellar. 
They met Fawkes, fully clothed and in his boots, emerging from 
the room. Thinking him oddly dressed for so late an hour Knyvett 
had the suspect arrested, while his men hauled away the faggots 
and brushwood, uncovering thirty-six barrels-nearly a ton-of 

Imprisonment, trial, and execution

There followed Fawkes's finest hour. Examiners wrote grudgingly 
of his fortitude, his 'roman' resolution  (Oldys, 3.258). 
Confronted with a barrage of questions he refused to implicate 
his colleagues, apart from Percy, whose crimes were manifest. 
Fawkes admitted having recently travelled to Flanders, but when 
pressed for a reason mocked his examiners, declaring that he had 
set out 'to see the countrey and to passe away the time'  (PRO, 
SP 14/216/6). When he did speak plainly, it was to express his 
dislike of Scots, evident in his communications to the Spanish 
crown in 1603. According to tradition Fawkes wasted no time in 
telling the horrified king that he would have blown both James 
and his fellow countrymen at the court back to their northern 
mountains. Otherwise, he remained silent, muttering defiantly: 
'you would have me discover my frendes'  (PRO, SP 14/216/16A). 
Not until 7 November would he admit to his real name, and he did 
this only when the shaken interrogators, at last getting round 
to examining the contents of his pockets, found a letter 
addressed to a Mr Fawkes.

It soon became clear that these heroics were in vain. The 
midland rising headed by the principal conspirators rapidly 
fizzled out in mass desertion and a brief skirmish at Holbeach 
House in Staffordshire, where Catesby, Percy, and the brothers 
Wright all perished. Winter was among those taken prisoner. News 
of this denouement filtered through to London on the 9th. On the 
one hand this made Fawkes's testimony still more important, 
since he was one of the two surviving members from the 
conspiracy's inner ring, but on the other all conceivable danger 
was now past, and the authorities held the precious prize of 
Thomas Winter. The privy council now relaxed a little and were 
prepared to wait, looking on Fawkes's testimony given on 7, 8, 
and 9 November as a provisional summary of the treason  (PRO, SP 
14/216/49 and 54). It seems almost certain that torture of some 
kind had been employed in those critical days when king and 
council faced revolt in the shires. James had authorized its 
use, recommending that the 'gentler tortures' be tried first, 
progressing to something more savage should the prisoner prove 
reticent. Once the menace of a midland insurrection had passed, 
such extremities were set aside: Fawkes alone suffered in this 

The surviving principal conspirators languished in the Tower 
until January 1606. Then the assembly of a parliament eager to 
see the plotters receive their just deserts, and only too ready 
to pick up an infelicitous suggestion by the king in his 
November prorogation speech that the prisoners should be tried 
in parliament, spurred the council into action. On 27 January 
eight Gunpowder plotters stood trial in Westminster Hall on 
charges of high treason. All but Sir Everard Digby pleaded not 
guilty, refuting certain points within the indictment 
while-inevitably-admitting to the whole. The trial lasted a day 
and commanded high prices as a public spectacle, one MP 
complaining that while he had paid 10s. for standing room, 
others had been let into the same enclosure for much smaller 
sums  (Parliamentary Diary of Robert Bowyer, ed. D. H. Willson, 
1931, 10). Both king and queen are supposed to have attended in 
private  (John Hawarde, Les reportes del cases in camera 
stellata, 1894, 257). The attorney-general, Sir Edward Coke, 
launched into the prisoners in his usual bombastic style and the 
earl of Northampton delivered an immensely tedious speech 
defending the king from charges made by Digby that James had 
gone back on promises of toleration for English Catholics. The 
outcome of the trial was never in doubt, and verdicts of guilty 
were duly returned. Four of the condemned men were executed on 
30 January in St Paul's Churchyard. The following day Thomas 
Winter, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, and, finally, Fawkes 
suffered the same fate in the Old Palace Yard, Westminster; his 
body was quartered, in fulfilment of his sentence.

Historical significance

On 5 November 1605 the inhabitants of London were encouraged to 
light bonfires in celebration of the king's apparently 
providential deliverance, always provided that 'this testemonye 
of joy be carefull done without any danger or disorder'. The 
citizens were happy to oblige, John Chamberlain marvelling at 
the 'great ringing and as great store of bonfires as ever I 
thincke was seene' (CLRO, journal of common council, 27, fol. 4; 
The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. F. McClure, 2 vols., 
1939, 1.213). Bonfires and the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot 
have gone hand in hand ever since, a curious circumstance given 
that by any objective assessment the plot was just another in a 
line of failed conspiracies against the state. Right at the 
start it was the lingering uncertainties, the unresolved loose 
ends, and the king's own perception of God's divine hand which 
nourished collective memory. James saw great significance in the 
fact that he had been delivered from both Gowrie conspiracy and 
Gunpowder Plot on a Tuesday the 5th. Parliament passed an act 
for an annual public thanksgiving, gunpowder sermons were 
preached at court throughout his reign, and although the wording 
changed over time, prayers of thanksgiving for deliverance from 
the plot remained in the calendar of the established church 
until 1859.

Over a much longer timescale, numerous circumstances have 
conspired to preserve commemoration in some form or other of 
events on 5 November 1605. Among these the most important have 
been repeated attempts either by the state or by some particular 
group within the country to focus the minds of Englishmen on a 
particularly horrific manifestation of Catholic perfidy. 
Gunpowder Plot commemoration was appropriated by the puritans in 
the 1630s and 1640s as they countered the creeping popery 
perceived in Charles I's court. Fireworks are observed from at 
least the 1650s, and the burning of effigies became fairly 
common after the much publicized torching of the 'whore of 
Babylon'-adorned with symbols of papal office-by London 
apprentices in 1673, following the conversion to Catholicism of 
the heir presumptive, James, duke of York. The Popish Plot 
frenzy and the exclusion struggles generated a fresh intensity 
in 5 November celebrations. James II's government failed in its 
attempt to ban fires and fireworks, and the fact that William of 
Orange landed at Torbay on 5 November 1688 once again magnified 
the date in the minds of many protestant Englishmen. From that 
day to this, as the old rhyme observes, gunpowder treason has 
'never been forgot'. The fifth of November persisted as a day on 
which rowdy youths took the opportunity for challenging local 
authorities up and down the land: at that level there was little 
perception of the original conspiracy, just as today the 
historical facts are, for many, submerged beneath spectacle and 
consumerism. Commemoration was given yet another lease of life 
in the 1850s by the antagonisms generated by Catholic 
emancipation, and the re-establishment of a Catholic religious 
hierarchy in England.

In 1790 The Times recorded boys begging in the street 'to burn 
Guy Faux'. By Victoria's reign, Fawkes-the cloaked figure in the 
cellar-was burnt in effigy almost everywhere, rather than the 
pope or the devil, and he has, in an increasingly secular and 
religiously tolerant age, held his place of dishonour atop the 
bonfires ever since, joined occasionally by the transient 
demon-figures of state politics or the popular press: 
suffragettes, the Kaiser, and Margaret Thatcher among them. 
Through the twentieth century celebrations have become more 
orderly, more tame. Even back-garden firework displays, 
widespread as late as the 1970s, have been frustrated by safety 
considerations, and the pull of large, organized shows. Those 
few surviving examples of vehement anti-Catholic ritual on 
bonfire night-at Lewes in Sussex, for example-are noteworthy in 
their rarity. Gunpowder Plot day has become Guy Fawkes' night, 
bonfire night, or firework night, but the durability of this 
particular manifestation of Englishness-its ability to reinvent 
a reason for continuing-remains remarkable.

Perhaps this is only right. Though a failure, the plot came very 
close to success. Theories, as old as the treason itself, that 
the government either knew of the conspiracy from an early 
stage, or that it actually manipulated the conspirators through 
one or more agents provocateurs, draw unwarranted conclusions 
from the surviving evidence, fail to advance any credible motive 
for such chicanery, and were, indeed, effectively demolished 
long ago by S. R. Gardiner (in What Gunpowder Plot Was, 1897; 
see Nicholls, 213-20). The magnitude of Fawkes's intended 
treason should never be underestimated. Ordnance records state 
that the 18 hundredweight of powder transferred from the cellar 
to the Tower of London was 'decaied', but modern calculations 
suggest that, decayed or not, few if any in the Lords that 
afternoon would have survived a combination of devastating 
explosion and the noxious fumes thrown out by the combustion of 
seventeenth-century gunpowder. Guy Fawkes, the experienced 
soldier, knew this only too well.

Mark Nicholls

Sources  Gunpowder Plot book, PRO, SP 14/16, 14/216 + Hatfield 
House, Hertfordshire, Salisbury-Cecil MSS + M. Nicholls, 
Investigating Gunpowder Plot (1991) + F. Edwards, ed., The 
Gunpowder Plot: the narrative of Oswald Tesimond, alias Greenway 
(1973) + His majesties speach in this last session of parliament 
... together with a discourse of the maner of the discovery of 
this late intended treason, joyned with an examination of some 
of the prisoners (1605); repr. in W. Oldys, ed., The Harleian 
miscellany, 10 vols. (1808-13), vol. 4 + State trials + A. J. 
Loomie, 'Guy Fawkes in Spain: the "Spanish treason" in Spanish 
documents', BIHR, special suppl., 9 (1971) [whole issue] + S. R. 
Gardiner, What Gunpowder Plot was (1897) + D. Jardine, Criminal 
trials, 2 vols. (1832-5) + H. Garnett, Portrait of Guy Fawkes: 
an experiment in biography (1962) + W. Oldys and T. Park, eds., 
The Harleian miscellany, 10 vols. (1808-13), vols. 3-4 + R. 
Davies, The Fawkes's of York (1850) + D. Jardine, A narrative of 
the Gunpowder Plot (1857) + K. M. Longley, 'Three sites in the 
city of York', Recusant History, 12, 1-7 + N. A. M. Rodger, 
'Ordnance records and the Gunpowder Plot', BIHR, 53 (1980), 
124-5 + S. Middelboe, 'Guy certainly was not joking', New Civil 
Engineer, 5 (Nov 1987), 32-4 + D. Cressy, Bonfires and bells 
(1989), 68-90 + D. Cressy, 'The fifth of November remembered', 
Myths of the English, ed. R. Porter (1992), 68-90 + R. Hutton, 
The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual years in 
Britain (1996), chap. 39 + J. Wolffe, The protestant crusade in 
Great Britain, 1829-1860 (1991)
Likenesses  group portrait, line engraving, c.1605 (The 
Gunpowder Plot conspirators, 1605), NPG [see illus.]

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