Thursday, 5 November 2009

Guy Fawkes: Quite Some Guy

Four hundred and four years ago today, Guy Fawkes was at the Tower of London being tortured for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot – or Gunpowder Conspiracy, as it was known in 1605. As we all remember-remember from our school days, the Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by a group of British Catholics to blow up the Palace of Westminster and kill the Protestant King James I and most of the aristocracy. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was caught red-handed in a cellar in the early hours of 5 November 1605, and the rest, as they say, is bonfires, fireworks and ill-fashioned effigies constructed from bin bags and papier-mâché.

But what else? Given that, until I was about 10, I thought Guy Fawkes was a national hero whose marvellousness was celebrated annually by means of brilliant fireworks, a few choice facts seem to have slipped through the net.

It’s strange, once someone has passed into popular mythology in the way Guy Fawkes has, to imagine that that person actually had a date of birth (13 April 1570) or parents (Edward and Edith) or a day job (soldier and occasional waiter), and quite possibly also a wife (Maria) and a son (Thomas). It is likely that Fawkes’s extensive military experience is what qualified him to be put in charge of the 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden under the Houses of Parliament in readiness for the State Opening of Parliament.

Three things I did not know about the Gunpowder Plot until today:

1. The plot had been in the planning stages for a year and a half, since May 1604, and was postponed a few times due to a plague that delayed the State Opening of Parliament. As a result, the gunpowder had actually been sitting in the cellars since March 1605.
2. The conspirators intended to kidnap the king’s children, install one of them as a Catholic monarch, and incite a popular rebellion beginning in the Midlands.
3. They had rented a house next to the Palace of Westminster and begun digging a tunnel into the cellars. By a rather splendid piece of luck, however, the underground storeroom they were trying to burrow into came up for rent, so they simply laid down some cash and wandered on in.

The whole plan started to unravel in late October, however, when someone involved in the plot sent an anonymous letter to a Catholic member of the House of Lords, Lord Monteagle, advising him:

‘to devise some excuse, to shift your attendance at this parliament; for God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time And think not slightly of this advertisement but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.’

Lord Monteagle made the letter public – possibly so that the conspirators would hear that they risked being rumbled – and the cellars were searched in the early hours of 5 November on the orders of the king. When asked by the startled searching officer who the devil he was, Guy Fawkes quick-wittedly answered ‘John Johnson’ (‘…but everyone here calls me Vicky’ – So I Married an Axe-Murderer), which presumably provided evidence enough that this shifty-looking gentleman clutching 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Palace of Westminster at midnight on a Tuesday had something fishy to hide.

Long story short, ‘John Johnson’ soon revealed his true identity after some good old-fashioned torture, the whole plot was discovered, King James commanded his subjects to commemorate the event with public fires and general thanksgiving merriment, and Fawkes and his co-conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on 31 January. On the day itself, Fawkes contrived to avoid the drawing and quartering part of his death by leaping from the gallows, thus ensuring he died instantly.

So, all in all, an unfortunate sort of tale. But – and this is the facty cherry atop the facty cake – when children began cobbling together Guy Fawkes effigies in the nineteenth century and demanding ‘a penny for the Guy’, the word ‘guy’ gradually came to mean ‘funny-looking fellow’, and thence passed into the language as another word for ‘chap’. And that’s a fact.

1 comment:

  1. Guy Fawkes is a Hero.

    Fuck Imperialism.