Every year in Britain on November 5th, thousands of us make life-size effigies of the that most infamous of men in British History – Guy Fawkes. We then proceed to set him on fire and then let off lots of fireworks to celebrate the foiling of a dastardly Catholic plot to blow up both Parliament and the then king, King James I.
Once an urban myth enters popular imagination its very hard to shake it off and the reason behind the execution of Guy Fawkes, which is what we’re effectively celebrating, is one of those, as it turn out that …
In 1605, Guy Fawkes’ actions were branded as treachery and treason. Today, we would probably call him a terrorist. But does Fawkes truly deserve the animosity of centuries?
Conventional wisdom would say that …
Guy Fawkes, along with his co-conspirators, was angry at the state for its anti-Catholic prejudice. He brought together a team of like minded men intent on killing King James and his ministers during the State Opening of Parliament. Under the cover of night they broke into the House of Lords and loaded the cellar with barrels of gunpowder. The plot was, however, discovered on the eve of success, thanks to an anonymous tip-off. Fawkes was arrested, tortured and eventually gave the names of his co-conspirators. All were eventually captured and executed.
But this story is wrong in many respects.
The true facts of the matter are …
Fawkes was not the ringleader. He was merely the first to be captured when the guards caught him red-handed and alone in the gunpowder cellar. The true mastermind was Robert Catesby. He led the team of 13 conspirators – Fawkes had no special place in the hierarchy, but was chosen to light the fuse at the assassination attempt.
In addition and contrary to popular belief, the conspirators did not break into the Houses of Parliament. In fact, they took a lease out on the undercroft and had lawful access to the space. The gunpowder stash was built up over a number of months before the plague-delayed opening of Parliament on 5 November.
Fawkes did indeed receive the death penalty for High Treason, and was dragged to the gallows in Old Palace Yard to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This terrifying procedure would first see the condemned man dangle by the neck until barely conscious. After being cut down, his genitals would be sliced off and his belly opened. His entrails would then be scooped out and burnt with his testicles. Finally, the fading man would be chopped into parts, which would, in gory sequel, be displayed in public locations as a warning to others.
It didn’t quite happen like that, though. Before the executioner could begin the gruesome act, Fawkes leapt from the gallows, breaking his neck and sparing himself the excruciating fate the law had set out for him. In short, he was not executed, but took his own life.
Other conspirators also escaped the chop. Ringleader Robert Catesby and several others were killed in a gunfight with authorities in Staffordshire, while another plotter died from illness at the Tower of London before he could stand trial.