Unmasking Guy Fawkes: The Real Story of Guido Faukes

by JoHarrington

The historical Guy Fawkes has been kept famous by centuries of British Bonfire Nights, and the success of V for Vendetta and Anonymous. But who was the real Guy Fawkes?

Children knock on doors, hoisting a home-made mannequin between them, or wheeling it in a trolley. "Penny for the Guy!" They chorus, thus continuing centuries of British tradition. They get the money too.

Their parents take the stuffed Guy and propel it to the top of their bonfires. It's November 5th and thousands of him will be burned in effigy tonight.

Down in Westminster, an internet campaign has brought together hundreds of Anonymous Hacktivists. They've donned Guy Fawkes masks, ready to recreate one of the climatic scenes from 'V for Vendetta' movie and book. It's still political.

So who was Guy Fawkes; and what did Guy Fawkes do to deserve all of this?

Anonymous Guy Fawkes Mask | V for Vendetta Mask

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November...

... Gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

I used to love this time of year as a child.  I still do, but back then, it was so lucrative! 

Within the space of one week, we would be trick and treating for candy (and potentially money, if Halloween had crept up on certain house-holders), then we would be out with our Guy.  That was guaranteed to pull in the loot. 

You don't see the latter so much now.  Modern parents have been too panicked by lurid media stories, claiming danger at every corner.  Yet there was never an actual example of a child being beaten for their Guy.

I will tell the story first as I learned it then, trudging around the November night, chilled to the bone for cash.  Then I'll tell you what really happened.

The Story of Guy Fawkes for Kids

Pseudo-history to go with the bonfire, fireworks, and a nice walk around the streets with a stuffed mannequin in your Mum's shopping trolley.

Image: Guy FawkesGuy Fawkes was the leader of a gang of rebels, who tried to blow up the king. 

He crept under the Houses of Parliament, when the king was sitting with his government in the halls above.  Guy Fawkes had barrels of gunpowder, with fuses running into them.  He was caught attempting to light said fuses.

If he'd been successful, the whole of Westminster would have exploded in a mess of monarch and ministers.  (Which was a bad thing.)

Fortunately, King James I (or VI, if you're Scottish) was a clever man, who worked out what was going to happen.  He sent his guards down into the cellars to arrest Guy Fawkes.  Thus the kingdom was saved.  Hurrah!

So that no-one ever forgets the evil that was nearly done, we have Bonfire Night each year.  Instead of the king and the Members of Parliament being burned, it's our stuffed Guy.  That will teach him!

And so we recall why we're having so much fun, we have the rhyme:

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should EVER be forgot.

V for Vendetta - Remember, Remember...

A scene from one of the most important movies of the 21st century.

The Real Life Guy Fawkes Inspired V for Vendetta

Buy the graphic novel because it will probably change your life. Then buy the movie so you can understand the hype. Then you'll know the reason for the mask.
'V for Vendetta' is more than a film. It's an idea, and ideas are bulletproof, don't you know? If you don't, then you should. The very last inch of your freedom cries out for it.

The True History of Guy Fawkes

That wasn't his current name. He wasn't the ring-leader. He might not have even been there. The gunpowder couldn't have been lit. And King James solved nothing.

Image: Guy FaukesSometimes what a ruler and his government really needs isn't reality, but what is perceived to be so.  Only the very naive believe that it doesn't still happen now.

A Catholic terrorist plot, thwarted by a canny and astute monarch, was very convenient for the times.  It's barely even what we'd call a conspiracy theory today to say that Guy Fawkes was probably framed.

Let's start at the beginning.  Guy was born in Stonegate, York, on April 13th 1570.  He came from quite an illustrious family, particularly on his mother's side.  His great-grandfather, William Harrington, had been the Lord Mayor of York; and really it was that side of the family which led to all of the trouble.

They were Catholics; and Jacobean England was no place in which to be taking religious direction from Rome. 

Guy himself should have been fine.  His father, Edward Fawkes, was a proctor in the Church of England. He also oversaw cases in the ecclesiastical Consistory Court.  Guy and his siblings had all been baptized and raised within that faith. 

This is why it's so startling to find him at the center of a Catholic plot. But the big clue comes when you note that his father died when Guy was just seven years old.  His mother, Edith, returned home to her family - the recusant Catholics - and took her children with her.

From now on, the young Guy could see first hand the pressure and injustice placed upon 'Popists', in 16th century England. 

Guy Fawkes Mousepads | Anonymous Mousepads

The historical Guido Faukes is remembered in these V for Vendetta mousepads. They also symbolize the political and social campaigners Anonymous.

The Religious Treason of the Harrington Family

This was the first brush with the law for young Guy Fawkes; but it had more terrible consequences for those around him.

Image: Saint Edmund CampionWhen Guy Fawkes was eleven, an important visitor appeared at Mount St John, in Thirsk, Yorkshire, the home of his Harrington relatives.

(I'd better add a disclaimer here, considering the surname.  As far as I know, there is no genealogical link between my own family and this branch of Harringtons. It is amusing me though.)

The Harrington family were well known on the underground Jesuit circuit. Their house was full of priest holes, which were regularly put to good use.  Guy Fawkes would have been very familiar with illegal priests nipping in and disappearing into hiding places.

In the summer of 1581, the priest was just a little more high profile than usual. It was Edward Campion (later made Saint), who was making use of the facilities. His sermons were stirring enough that fifteen year old William Harrington immediately joined the priesthood.

Guy was still only eleven when Campion (pictured above) was seized in Norfolk and taken to the Tower of London. After four months of torture, including three sessions on the rack, Campion was tried and found guilty of High Treason.  He was hanged, drawn and quartered. 

It was a foreshadowing of precisely what would happen to Guy too.  Nor was it his only warning.

The whole Harrington family had been named as harboring him, and they too were indicted, losing property and status in the process. They openly converted to Protestantism to avoid further censure.

However, young William Harrington was in France by now, receiving holy orders. In 1592, he would return to spread the Catholic word around the South of England.  He wasn't alone in that and one of his fellow Jesuits was captured.  Henry Donne (brother of John) gave Harrington's name under torture. It saved Donne's life, allowing him to take orders in the Church of England instead.

For William Harrington, the cousin of Guy Fawkes, there was a much darker Fate.  Also taken to the Tower of London for torture, he refused to name names.  In 1594, he was conveyed to Tyburn and hanged.

There's no evidence that Guy Fawkes watched his relative die, but it's possible.  He left for Flanders that same year.

Books about St Edmund Campion and Blessed William Harrington (aka Venerable William Harrington)

Supremacy and Survival tells most about the Harrington family, particularly Guy Fawkes's cousin William.

Mary Pulleyne - The Possible Wife of Guy Fawkes

There is a wealth of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Guy Fawkes married a Catholic widow before he left for Flanders.

The only thing missing is the smoking gun of a record in the local Church of England register.  But as both were devout Catholics, that's hardly surprising.

Scotton Hall, in Yorkshire, was the probable setting for a wedding performed by an underground priest.  It would have taken place in 1590, before Guy left for the wars.

A key piece of primary evidence is the baptism record of Thomas Fawkes, on February 9th 1591, at St Michael-le-Belfrey Church. Their son?

Frustratingly, there is no record of his parents' names; and if Guy did marry, then we should imagine that he wasn't very popular back home for disappearing into Flanders for a decade.

Read about the 80 Years War

Philip of Spain was viewed by some as England's rightful ruler.

Guy Fawkes in Flanders | Guido Faukes the Soldier

The Eighty Years War (aka Dutch War of Independence) was raging in Europe. The reasons were as religious as they were territorial.

Image: Battle of NieuportGuy Fawkes had traveled to the continent with a Catholic priest, whom he'd met at Mount St John. 

(Obviously one who hadn't got the memo that the Harrington family are supposed to now be Protestant...) 

Guy was twenty-four years old and ready to fight for Catholic Spain.  As the English had sent their armies to support the beleaguered Dutch, he was battling against this own country.  To this end, he began calling himself Guido, a name which sounded more suitably Iberian.

He was not the only young Catholic Englishman to do this. It was a common pursuit for those who wanted to escape the heavy penalties of faith under Elizabethan rule. It also trained them to handle weaponry.  It wasn't like any Papist would ever be trained in an English militia!

For ten years Guido remained in the war, reaching the rank of alférez in the Spanish army. This was quite high-ranking.  A few centuries before, it had related only to the mounted guard around the king himself, but had broadened in scope since then.

Guido's movements become more hazy in the historical record, though he definitely saw action at the Battle of Nieuport (pictured above) in 1600.  It's believed that he was also in Calais in 1596 and Brussels in 1603.  Reports later placed him in Spain in 1603 too.  All of the above are probably true.

He fades back into view in 1604, when Guido returned to London.

Books About the Eighty Years War and the Dutch War of Independence

The ideas of Martin Luther had spread like wildfire through the Low Countries. Spain took all that new world wealth and fought back for Catholicism.

The Gunpowder Plot at the Duck and Drake

Guido was one of the original five conspirators, but he was by no means the ringleader.

Image: The Gunpowder Plotters

On May 20th 1604, five men met in the Duck and Drake public house, on The Strand, in London. Amongst them was Guido Faukes, who had been invited to attend by Thomas Winter. This was the (in)famous agreement, which launched the Gunpowder Plot.

The trouble with what happens next is that so much of it has been learned on the other side of governmental spin.

This is particularly true where it concerns Guido Faukes, who was painted as the biggest villain of the operation. He was not the brains, that was Robert Catesby; nor was he the well-connected one, that was Thomas Percy. 

Guido was the mercenary, the fighting man, the person who knew about gunpowder. The bigger picture was so little to do with him, that he actually went back to Flanders for several months, in the middle of the preparations.

However, I will attempt to make clear the Guy Fawkes facts from the considerable fiction.

The first is what he was doing there. It was no accident that Guido was in London.  He'd still been in Flanders, when Thomas Winter (aka Thomas Wintour) traveled there, in an attempt to persuade King Philip of Spain to spearhead a Catholic invasion of Britain.

The Spanish invasion was never going to happen. Philip wanted first to negotiate a peace with the newly crowned James. After all, it looked back then like James might be more favorable towards a Catholic alliance.

Perhaps amidst Philip's dismissal had come the comment that one of his own soldiers had petitioned such a thing just recently.  Thus Thomas met Guido. He convinced him that hordes of Catholics were ready to rise back home; maybe he intimated that they just needed an experienced military leader.

We will never know.  All that we know for sure is that Thomas Winter went on a diplomatic mission and came back with an ex-pat English soldier. 

Guido Faukes sat with Winter in the Duck and Drake.  He was introduced to the highly charismatic Robert (or Robin) Catesby, Thomas Percy and John Wright.  He heard their audacious plan to use gunpowder to assassinate King James, and he agreed to be the one lighting the fuse.

Then he went away and got on with his part in the plot.  He sourced the gunpowder.

Contemporary Print Poster of The Gunpowder Conspirators

From l-r: Thomas Bates, Robert Winter, Christopher Wright, John Wright, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and Thomas Winter.
Guy Fawkes - English Gunpowder Plotter with Fellow Conspirators

What Was the Gunpowder Plot?

This is the initial plan, as agreed inside the Duck and Drake Inn. It later developed into much, much more.

Image: Old Westminster PalaceThe plan was to use gunpowder to blow up Westminster Palace, during the state opening of Parliament.

Let us put this into perspective.  If it had succeeded then it would have been the worst terrorist attack in British history. 

The dead would have included not only King James, but Queen Anne, Prince Henry and Prince Charles too.  As Anne was a Danish princess, the shock would have been felt in Scandinavia too. The only member of the royal family who would have survived was Princess Elizabeth, who was in Coventry.

Also in the carnage would have been every single Member of Parliament, from all over Britain, as well as all of the judges and clerks. Westminster would also have been full of the majority of the country's adult male aristocrats.

Ordinary civilians, servants and merchants wouldn't have survived.  Westminster Palace was a thriving rabbit warren of commerce, tightly packed with all the life of a city within a city. They would have all died.

That is the human cost, but there's also infrastructure.  This was the heart of the capital. Historical buildings, archives, records, treasury, everything would have gone.

Catesby's plan relied upon creating a power vacuum.  It was into this chaos that a Catholic leader could emerge.  God would surely see to it.

A Physicist Imagines the Explosion in Westminster

There were thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.  That amounted to 10,000lbs of the stuff, enough to blow up the Palace of Westminster twenty times over.

Liam Dodd, a physicist studying at Swansea University, armed only with my description of the historical Westminster, explained what would have happened if it had blown.

The blast would have initially come upwards from below, with the force of 'a small nuclear bomb' (though not as hot nor radioactive). It would have then pushed outwards inside the House of Lords. He estimated that 400 megatonnes would have destroyed the floor and all the people in the hall.

It would have been felt 'like an earthquake' for hundreds of meters around.

All of the wooden interior would have been destroyed, though the supporting beams and the stone base walls may have survived. Fire would have raged afterwards, possibly igniting the Great Fire of London sixty years sooner.

Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend

This ITV documentary actually reconstructed AND blew up a replica of the original Palace of Westminster, exactly as Guido Faukes set it up.

Where did Guido Faukes Get the Gunpowder?

Illegally, from the docks in Essex. Don't believe the hype from other sources.

Image: Gunpowder Barrels

In the immediate aftermath of the plot being thwarted, the story came out that Guido had returned to Flanders to purchase the gunpowder.  It was the sensible tale to tell, as it would have stopped other potential rebels learning an unsettling truth.

It also threw in an element of nasty foreign types conspiring to terrorize good, English folk. That kind of thing always works wonders in the press.

Britain has always been good at making munitions and arms.  It's still a disturbingly large part of the country's export economy now.  Back in the 16th century, the arsenal industry had gone into overdrive, because Britain was at war with Spain.

Now that the Elizabethan period had given way to the Jacobean, things were a little more peaceful.  As we've already seen, King Philip of Spain wanted to engage James in talks, not cannon-fire.  The regime change had left an opening for negotiations to take place.

Which was really bad news for the Essex gunpowder manufacturers, who had whole warehouses of it ready to go.  They weren't allowed to sell it, except by license from the monarch. Those licenses weren't forthcoming, and the stock was in danger of being spoiled in storage.

If you knew the right people to approach, and discreetly slipped the right amount of hard cash, then no business-man then or now is going to turn down a deal.

Guido did not get his gunpowder in Flanders.  He bought it a few miles down the Thames in Essex.

Books about the Gunpowder Plot

Buy these histories to go deeper into the reasons behind the Catholic plan and how it was ultimately thwarted.

Guy Fawkes the Miner

Myth number two coming right up! Well, down and under, with a bit of water seepage.

Image: Miner MascotYou can always spot a good spin on the truth, when you're being asked to believe two contradictory things simultaneously.  Guido was a traitorous soldier; and Guido was a miner.

Once the Gunpowder Plot had been made public, the story was told that Guido had taken the gunpowder (from Flanders...) to Robert Catesby's home in Lambeth.  So far, so mostly true. 

There it went into storage in the cellar, while Guy used his mining skills to organize a tunnel being burrowed under the Thames.  It stretched from Catesby's basement on the south side to underneath the Palace of Westminster on the north side. 

Or was that from the basement of the house, adjacent to the Prince's Chambers, which Thomas Percy had leased?

Either way, they had to stop when noises were heard directly overhead, which turned out to be a widow cleaning out an undercroft.  It was actually a much better idea to just nip up there and hire said undercroft off her.

But stop!  Rewind and re-read what has just been said.  'Guy used his mining skills', I believe I wrote; and you'd all be forgiven for scrolling up to the top to work out when those were acquired. (They weren't.  It didn't happen.)

It might also be worth noting that the only sources for information about this tunnel came from the confessions of Winter and Fawkes.  Both were extracted under torture.  Both had to be prompted in the tale by the king's intelligencer (we'd call him spymaster now), Robert Cecil. (Because it didn't happen.)

No sign of the famous tunnel has ever been located in the cellars of either building.  (Mostly because it didn't happen.)

Guido Faukes in Westminster Part One

He was stationed in a house near to the Prince's Chambers, receiving the gunpowder.

What we do know for sure is that Guido, after procuring the gunpowder in Essex and having it delivered to Catesby's house in Lambeth, now moved into Westminster.

Thomas Percy had hired quarters in a building close to the House of Lords.  So close, in fact, that the other residents included an official committee formed to work out how to merge Scotland and England, culturally and in law.

Guido ferried the barrels over the River Thames from Lambeth to the cellar of this house. It didn't happen overnight.  Even on the black market, someone would have asked questions if he'd bought and conveyed them over the river all at once.

For several months, those thirty-six barrels came singularly or in pairs.  He wouldn't have used the same warehouse merchant twice. No doubt Guido also spent the time trying to work out how to actually position them for maximum destruction.

The big break came when the old Palace kitchens, underneath the Parliamentary chambers themselves, came up for rent in March 1605.  Thomas Percy snapped it up and Guido organized rolling the barrels in.

This might sound incredible to modern minds - steeped as we are in governmental security - but Westminster then was a very different place.  It was a rabbit warren of buildings and add on buildings.  It had been royal premises since 1016, though the Palace itself dated from 1045. A lot of add-ons can happen in six centuries.

Image: Westminster in the 16th century
Image: Westminster in the 16th century
The Builder magazine, 1884

It was also a bustling, cluttered place.  Warehouses, storehouses, merchant houses and all of the offices of government sprang up around the court itself. Private residences sat alongside business premises and all the infrastructure needed to rule the land.

Don't look at the Palace of Westminster now and think that you are seeing it.  The original burnt down in 1834.

Hence it wasn't too strange that a young nobleman like Thomas Percy could not only want a large storage space, but could actually procure one. Even in a position which rendered the halls above so vulnerable.  Lessons get learned from history and this was one of them.

(Though there is an argument to be made that the sudden availability of the old kitchens was a little too convenient.)

Image: The Gunpowder Conspirators' Undercroft.
Image: The Gunpowder Conspirators' Undercroft.

The barrels were rolled into the Undercroft.  Guido stacked them up and covered them with faggots of firewood.  Then he left the country for Flanders again. 

There is no evidence that he had anything more to do with the Gunpowder Plot until November 1605.  He was primarily a soldier.  He had a job to do over on the continent above and beyond the distractions in England.

Guy Fawkes Decals | Anonymous Revolution is Coming Stickers

Guido Faukes in Westminster Part Two

Last time was just preparation, this time it was for real. He was there to light the fuse on what could have been Britain's biggest terrorist attack of all time.

Image: The arrest of Guy FawkesTowards the end of October, beginning of November 1605, Guido was back in Westminster.  A date of November 5th had been given for the State Opening of Parliament, so it was time for his services to be employed again. 

Guido would have entered the undercroft with some sense of foreboding.  Not through any psychic means, but because he was a highly experienced military man, who knew about gunpowder.  That's why he was there.

The barrels had been sold to him over a year previously, because the manufacturers had been afraid that it would spoil.  They did not want damaged goods in their warehouses.  At the time, Guido had expected to be using it quickly, but the state opening had been delayed through fear of an outbreak of plague in the capital.

Now it had been sitting in an underground storeroom, with the River Thames lapping against the stonework outside.  Guido must have known that it would be damp and useless, before he even looked.

This might explain why he hung about.  After the Monteagle letter officially tipped the authorities off about the existence of the plot, every cellar was searched.  Guido was found in the undercroft by guards, but talked his way out of it.  The barrels were never opened.

Guido could have fled at that moment.  Whether Catesby et al. had even told him about the letter is debatable, but he certainly knew now that the game was up.  Maybe it was bravado.  Maybe it was the sense that the Catholic cause had never been so close to success.  Maybe he was just too used to risk and duty to even contemplate leaving.

He stayed and prepared a slow-burning, eight hour fuse instead.

When King James heard the reports from the searches, he seized upon this one and ordered Guido's arrest.  That occurred just after midnight, in the early hours of November 5th 1605.

Remember, remember the fifth of November...

Discovery of Guido Fawkes by Suffolk and Monteagle Wall Decal

Did Guido Stay in Westminster?

If we're following the official version of the story of Guy Fawkes, then there is a stumbling block here.

Image: Robert CecilIt's a given that some aspects of the story were stage-managed or fabricated by Robert Cecil (pictured) after the event.  The tunnel is a case in point.

There's no doubt that Cecil knew all about the plot by now. He admitted that he'd allowed it to ripen, in the hope of catching more Catholic big names.  It could have played out as the history books will have it.

Yet why would Guido Faukes, an experienced soldier, blithely sit making a fuse for gunpowder which he knew to be useless?  Why remain as a sitting duck, in full knowledge that guards had been and reports would be made?

Such questions are usually dismissed with the explanation that he was a religious zealot. They are neither sane nor rational.

He's also a soldier.  Nothing is being served for his cause by the actions that he is currently taking; and he knows that.

If I was Guido Faukes, I would have been in one of three places: 

  1. Back in Essex trying to source more gunpowder.  Though that's very risky, given that he'd hardly have time to get it up the river and in place before the grand opening.
  2. Contacting Thomas Percy and the Winters, so they could get a message to Robert Catesby that it was game over.  Parliament could not blow that day.
  3. On the first boat back to Flanders and out of the whole mess.

However there's another argument that even deteriorated gunpowder, in sufficient quantities, would ignite to the same effect of the lesser, good amount.  Guido had certainly stock-piled a very large amount of it.  Was that to off-set the damp?  Had he already planned in advance how to see the plan through with dodgy munitions?  If so, then staying looks more likely.

Whatever action he took or attempted to take obviously led to the same outcome.  He was arrested by the King's guards and thrown into the Tower of London.

What do you believe happened that day?

The official version of events is full of drama, intrigue and makes the King and Cecil look good; which is why it was told.
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'To Blow You and all your Lords Back to Scotland Where You Belong'

No reigning monarch interrogated those suspected of treason! But King James did, and he did it in Westminster.

Image: King JaImagine if Osama bin Laden had been hauled into the Oval Office and personally interviewed by Barack Obama. 

Not seeing it?  Trying to imagine the raised eyebrows of judges and reporters?  Good! Then you have a perfect picture of the scene when King James decided to have Guido Faukes brought to him.

Monarchs just didn't do that!  There were people employed for such messy businesses as dealing with traitors.  What most kings would have done was distance themselves and their families entirely.

But King James wanted to be at the center of this uncovering. It was possibly a public relations stunt, but more likely it was James himself. He'd involved himself in famous trials in Scotland too.

Guido Faukes was brought into the monarch's presence.  The interview lasted for a long time. Guido never denied his part in the plot, but nor would he offer any further details. 

When asked by James why he would even contemplate blowing up the State Opening of Parliament, Guido is on record as replying, "To blow you and all your Lords back to Scotland where you belong."

All political reasoning eventually exhausted, James apparently turned to the emotive issue of the the twelve year old Stuart prince and heir - Henry Frederick - who would have been in attendance.  This was a father asking if there was any justification for killing his innocent child? 

Guido responded in words which echoed those spoken by Robert Catesby on other occasions. He said, "So deep a disease requires so sharp a remedy."

James ultimately ordered Guido to be taken back to the Tower of London and tortured for information.

If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded in 1605, Princess Elizabeth would have been abducted and made queen. She was only nine years old.

Books about Torture in 17th Century England

Torture was officially being phased out during the Jacobean period, but it was still used, notably on Guido Faukes.

The Torture and Forced Confessions of Guido Faukes

In Jacobean England, torture was much more rare than is usually supposed; and only applied in specific circumstances. It also went through degrees of use.

Image: Guy FaukesGuido Faukes could have only been tortured if his guilt had already been established beyond the shadow of a doubt.

The fact that he'd been caught in situ, stacking barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords was a bit of a give-away.  His unwillingness to deny it was admission of guilt from his own mouth.

This placed him squarely within the legal boundaries where torture was now allowed. It would be used to get the names of his co-conspirators and to fill in the fine details of the Gunpowder Plot.

At first, Guido would have been shown the instruments of torture.  This was psychological distress and many did break without them even being used.  He was not one of those people.

Next, Guido was fastened to the wall with manacles.  His feet dangled so that all of the weight of his body was held by his wrists.  This was known as 'light' or 'soft' torture, insofar as it didn't kill anyone.  But it did maim.  Many victims would be left with disfigured hands from this treatment.

It must also be supposed, though not expressly recorded, that beatings and possibly the lash were used to further hurt him.  And people hanging from walls do not get proper refreshments; nor a toilet break.

He still didn't talk, so the worst implement available to his torturers was pressed into service.

There was only one rack left in the country and that was in the Tower of London.  It could only be used with the express permission of the monarch. 

Not Guy Fawkes, but a graphic dramatization of the use of the rack nontheless. Implicitly graphic and not for the faint-hearted.

Distance of time and history has rendered an almost romantic notion of the rack.  Let's dispel that image with the reality.  The victim was tied spread-eagle upon it.  Their wrists and ankles were secured by rope, which in turn was attached to rollers.

As the levers turned the rollers, the victim's limbs would be stretched to their limits. Then beyond.  Shoulders and hips dislocated. Cartilage, ligaments and tendons snapped.  Bones were yanked in two.  This happened slowly, not all at once, bit by bit, with the victim conscious throughout.

If they did faint from shock and pain, the torturer simply revived them with water and then carried on.

Guido Faukes was tortured on five separate occasions.  Twice he was stretched on the rack.  The second time, he named names.  He had held out much longer than most.

The rack would be made illegal in Britain in 1628, just twenty-five years after its use on Guido.

Image: The Tower of London's Torture Rack
Image: The Tower of London's Torture ...
Guy Fawkes's signature before torture.
Guy Fawkes's signature before torture.
Guy Fawkes's signature after torture.
Guy Fawkes's signature after torture.

The Horrific Execution of Guido Faukes in London

With the state out to make an example of him, the death of Guy Fawkes was not going to be easy. He was framed as the arch-villain of the piece.

Image: Execution of Guy Fawkes

Despite the fact that Guido Faukes was not the only conspirator killed that day, he was the one that the crowd had come to see.

His name, stripped of its Spanish flourishes to Guy Fawkes again, had peppered the pamphlets and sermons since he had first been captured.  He was the perfect bad guy of the story. He was a traitorous Catholic, who had spent the last ten years killing English men on the fields of Flanders.

Not to mention the fact that his would have been the hand which lit the fuse.

On January 31st, 1606, his battered and broken body was tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets of Westminster. The hurdle was fundamentally a board, fastened to the back of a horse. It forced them to pass at knee height to the people, thus breathing lower air to them.

While not pleasant, especially for an injured body, it was mostly a psychological and symbolic statement.

Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood and Robert Keyes, all captured as part of the plotter's dragnet, were with him.  Four others had been executed the day before in St Paul's Courtyard, but it was to Westminster and Parliament Square that Guy was brought.

He had to be helped up the scaffold onto the gallows, too weak to climb the steps by himself.  There he stood, while the charges were read out, before a noose was placed over his neck.  A lot could go wrong with hanging.  It could be a quick or lingering death.  That was not Guido's concern, for it wasn't his mode of execution. It was merely the warm up.

Guido Faukes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  It was the slowest, and most terrible, killing method in Jacobean England.  He dangled from the noose just long enough to be strangled to the point of unconsciousness.  Then he was cut down.

Once revived enough to know what was happening to him, Guido was stripped naked and his genitals were cut off.  They were burned on a fire in front of him.  It was another statement, that even his capacity to sire children was being ritually destroyed.

Next his stomach was sliced, so that his intestines fell out.  Even this is still survivable, at least for a short while, if the torturer-executioner is skilled.  The next isn't so much.  Guido's chest was cut open and his heart was removed, then thrown onto the same fire.

Ideally, from the point of view of the sadistic killers who devised this, the victim should still be conscious for the precious last seconds that it took to now behead them. 

That was being hanged, drawn and quartered; and it happened to not only Guy Fawkes, but all of the Gunpowder Conspirators who survived to be arrested.  Then, afterwards, their bodies were hacked into four pieces and the parts were displayed on public view as a warning to others.

Their decapitated heads formed a grisly display on Tower Bridge.

Books about Guy Fawkes

Three very different literary portraits here. King James's version of events; a biography sympathetic to Guy Fawkes; and the cultural traditions which sprang from his actions.

Guy Fawkes: A Convenient Terrorist and Freedom Fighter

Who hasn't day-dreamed about getting rid of a building full of despotic politicians before now?

Even within his life-time (albeit at the torturous end of it), Guy Fawkes was being used as a figure-head symbol. 

Back then it was for the state.  His destruction was proof that King James was a wise, canny and brilliant monarch; and that evil would be rooted out.  The first bonfires were lit the night that Guido was arrested.  They've developed into the Bonfire Night tradition in Britain that survives to this day.

But the popular, cultural messages, which have utilized Guy Fawkes ever since, are not those sanctioned by the crown.  From Milton's Paradise Lost to today's Anonymous symbolism, the anti-establishmentarian thread runs through. 

Fawkes temptingly left the fuse unlit and generations of disaffected civilians have been haunted by that.  It's rendered Guy Fawkes potentially more dangerous than if the plot had been a success; because people do 'remember, remember the fifth of November' and they wonder what could have been.

The Levellers: What a Beautiful Day

We were singing about Guy Fawkes in the 1990s, before Anonymous even read V for Vendetta.
Updated: 11/07/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 11/10/2012

No, the one further down, about exploding the House of Commons. It's an hour long, but very much worth it. I was totally immersed in watching it.

Mike_W on 11/10/2012

Hi Jo, I didn't watch any of the videos. Are you talking about one of the animated videos near the top?

JoHarrington on 11/09/2012

Thank you and I'm glad. :D Did you watch the documentary too? It was really interesting.

Mike_W on 11/09/2012

Great work Jo. I enjoyed reading that.

JoHarrington on 11/08/2012

I'm glad that you think so; and thanks for the extra information. I did wonder how Bonfire Night is celebrated in Guy Fawkes's home town. Or not celebrated, as the case appears to be!

whitemoss on 11/08/2012

Excellent and very comprehensive!
Friends of mine went to St Peter's school, York, Guy Fawke's school. November 5th Bonfire Night has never been celebrated there.

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