You there! Stop poste haste! Thine pornstache is in most poor taste, forsooth!
The mythos surrounding Guy Fawkes has gotten so diluted that even your average English hooligan probably can’t offer any more descriptive an explanation of the events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot than “Well he was this guy that tried to blow some stuff up, but didn’t, and now we have these sweet masks we wear and HOLY SHIT IS THAT A PILE OF STICKS. I WANT TO LIGHT THAT PILE OF STICKS ON FIRE. SOMEONE GET ME FIFTY BEERS I NEED TO LIGHT THAT PILE OF STICKS ON FIRE.”
The truth of the matter is, Guy Fawkes was both as involved and as uninvolved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 as you think he was. He wasn’t exactly the brains behind the failed operation: that honor fell to Robert Catesby, known affectionately to his friends as “Ol’ Protestant Hatin’ Bob.” In fact, Fawkes was only one of a whopping thirteen men involved in the conspiracy. But he was the poor jerk caught literally holding a match near a bunch of barrels of gunpowder and kindling and wood. Circumstantial evidence, sure, but Fawkes wasn’t quick enough on his feet to suggest the possible albeit unlikely scenario that he was just walking the cellar corridors to check on his army of trained rats. So, arrested he was.
But first, a bit of the Gunpowder Plot, explained to you as if you were five.
In the sixteen hundreds in England, the two main religions really hated each other. The Protestants thought the Catholics were stupid pee-heads, and the Catholics thought the Protestants had poop for brains. Unfortunately for the Catholics, King James I was a Protestant, and didn’t want to give Catholics in England the freedom to worship freely or hand out “I Heart Pope Paul V!” buttons to passersby. This made a few Catholics in England super bummed. A guy named Robert Catesby thought it would be a good idea to gather twelve of his closest Catholic pals and try to blow up King James while the State Opening of England’s Parliament was going on in the House of Lords. After that they planned to put his nine year old daughter Elizabeth (who was apparently a Catholic, if nine year olds can really be anything other than annoying) in charge of the country, because I guess that seemed like a good idea. Get your finger out of your nose, I’m trying to tell a story.
Anyway, Guy Fawkes was one of the Catholic dudes that Catesby wrangled to help him with his plan to blow up one of the most powerful kings in Europe. Soon some of Catesby’s bros remembered that, oh, there are actually going to be a few Catholics in there as well. One of them, with the ridiculous title of Baron Monteagle, got an anonymous letter warning him that something real bad was going to happen at Parliament, possibly, who knows, and that he should stay away on the day of the State Opening, probably, maybe, wink wink nudge nudge. Monteagle told this guy and this guy told that guy and that guy told the KING. OOPS. So James was like, “Guys, go check below Parliament. See if there’s any blowey-uppey stuff down there.”
And guess what! There was! And also some idiot holding a match! So Fawkes was arrested, he and his pals were executed I mean sent to live with their Aunts on a farm, and England was free to hate Catholics something fierce for the next couple hundred years. Hooray!
My point is, although Guy* currently shoulders the brunt of the historical responsibility for the failed attempt on the King’s life, he was far from being the a lone conspirator. But his name alone remains popularly attached to the plot, probably because of the intrigue and drama of having nabbed the guy who was about to flip the proverbial switch. Guy simply drew the short straw, so to speak, and had to sit on thirty six barrels of explosives holding a slow-burning match. I like to think that decision making process went something like this:
Catesby: Okay, we’ve all sworn our oaths of secrecy on the prayer book, we’ve all taken the Eucharist, we’ve all practiced the secret Assassination Plot Handshake a few times, let’s get this planning started! Keyes, you’re watching my house where we’re storing all this explodey shit, right?
Keyes: On it, boss.
Catesby: And Percy, you’re hauling all of it into the Undercroft tomorrow night, right?
Percy: Where there’s a wheelbarrow, there’s a way.
Catesby: Bitchin’! Okay I guess that just means we need someone to send down there to light all of it, and hopefully maybe but probably not escape in time to not also get blown up. Any takers?
Guy: (picking nose) Sir?
Catesby: You wanna…maybe…do that for us?
Guy: Do what, sir? (eats booger)
Catesby: Have you even been…look, nevermind. Just take this match and light the fuse when we give you the signal, okay? I promise nothing bad will come of this.
Guy: (brandishing match) FOR SPAIN!
Catesby: England, Guy.
Guy: FOR ENGLAND!
Thanks to seventeenth century England’s fair and totally objective judicial system, Guy was tried and found guilty under the “You Better Not Try to Kill the King, You Hear Me?” Law. Guy and seven of his fellow conspirators were to be, I kid you not, drawn backwards behind a horse until they were nearly dead, then have their genitals cut off, eyes burnt out, bowels and hearts and heads removed, and whatever remained would be displayed so they may become “prey for the fowls of the air.”
After watching the six other men endure the aforementioned fate, Guy rightly said “fuck that noise” and tried to jump off the gallows, breaking his neck. They quartered him anyway and strung up his parts as warning to potential conspirators, because I guess the five second rule applies to dead political scapegoats as well as Cheez-Its you drop on the floor: it’s still good.
An Act of Parliament designated November 5th as a day of remembrance, and although the act only stood until 1859, cities throughout Britain still celebrate Guy Fawkes Night by lighting fireworks and bonfires. The Edenbridge Bonfire Society in Edenbridge, Kent even chooses one celebrity a year to take the place of Guy Fawkes to be burned in effigy. This year they’re burning Lance Armstrong, because I mean wouldn’t you? If you could?
Guy Fawkes: Innocent fall guy with a severely ill-deserved reputation? Not really. Singular mastermind behind a failed assassination that could have changed the course of Western history? Nope, not that either.
Thankfully, lest we should forget the events that transpired that fateful night, we have a handy nineteenth century nursery rhyme to remind us. “Remember remember the fifth of November! The gunpowder treason and plot! I doo bee da doo bee sha doo boo mer herr doo should ever be forgot!”
*Who HILARIOUSLY went by “Guido Fawkes” when he was fighting for Catholic Spain in the Dutch Low Countries. What can I say? The bro didn’t make wise choices.
Previously in the Know Your Fucking History series:
The Forbidden Fruit
Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth
Around midnight on Monday 4 November 1605, Sir Thomas Knyvett was ordered to carry out a search of the rooms below the hall in which Parliament, crammed with MPs and Lords, would be opened the following day by King James. There he met a man coming out of a room packed with firewood who gave his name as John Johnson. Knyvett arrested him and searched the wood to find hidden within it 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to blow up the entire Palace of Westminster and everyone in it. Johnson carried fuses and a timer. He was taken straight to the Tower of London to be questioned.
King James’ men had decided to search the Palace because of a letter that Lord Monteagle had received a few days before. Monteagle took the letter straight to the government.
Look at the letter and other documents below and see if you can unravel this Gunpowder plot.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, followers of the Roman Catholic religion in England had faced serious difficulties including harsh fines and the risk of imprisonment or violence. Catholic priests, vital to the practice of the religion, were banned and government spies tried hard to round up those who were secretly working in the kingdom.
When James I came to the throne Catholics in England thought that things would get better for them, but James kept all of Elizabeth’s tough laws against Catholics. Very early in his reign a group of Catholic noblemen decided that the King would have to be killed for things to change.
On 26th October 1605 Thomas Ward, a servant of the Catholic Lord Monteagle, was given a letter by an ‘unknown man’ to give to his master. When Monteagle read the letter he found it was a warning to stay away from the opening of Parliament, due in a few days. He gave the letter directly to the Privy Council and the King in Whitehall.
Although the conspirators knew the letter had been passed to the government they decided to go ahead as planned, trusting that their explosives expert was unknown to the authorities. The plot did not succeed.
This lesson is suitable for History Key stage 3 unit 1: Section 1: Who is the most important person I know about in history? Or unit 22: units 1- 6: The role of the individual for good or ill?
Additional simplified transcripts are provided to support all pupils as the language used within the documents is often challenging. Teachers could adapt this lesson if they wish to carry out a group-based activity. Small groups could work on printed versions of the different sources and present to the rest of class. They could also work in small groups at a whiteboard and present to the class that way. Alternatively, teachers might wish to approach the topic through the last task (5d) alone.
Teachers could use the evidence to construct a role play activity investigating the plot with the key characters: King James, Lord Monteagle, ‘Johnson’, Percy and others.
After the explosion, the plan was that some of the plotters would lead an uprising in the Midlands. They would kidnap Princess Elizabeth, James’ nine year old daughter, from her household at Coombe Abbey, to use as a figurehead through whom they could rule the country and restore the rights of Catholics. However, their explosives expert was disturbed as he arrived to light the fuse…
The trial of the eight surviving conspirators was held in the same room they had tried to blow up: Westminster Hall, within the Parliament building. All eight were found guilty and by the end of January 1606, all eight had been executed. The plotters were hung, drawn and quartered. Their heads were then set upon poles as a warning to others. Teachers might wish to discuss with their pupils what would have happened if the plot had succeeded.
As result of the plot, James I became more popular having survived an attempt on his life. However, it became harder for Catholics to practise their religion or play a part in society. Finally, there is no doubt that Guy Fawkes is remembered incorrectly as the main plotter, a myth perpetuated as generations of children celebrate Bonfire Night.
The documents in this lesson are all taken from SP 14/216, the ‘Gunpowder Plot Book’, a collection in three volumes, of the most significant government documents relating the plot.
The image of James I and VI used is from KB 27/1522.
The Gunpowder Plot
More background and resources on the plot produced by Parliament.
Civil War and Revolution
What if the gunpowder plot had succeeded?
1. This is the letter sent to Lord Monteagle a few days before parliament.
- What two steps does the writer want Lord Monteagle to take?
- Why does the writer suggest that Lord Monteagle should follow this advice?
2. This is a copy of the examination of John Johnson.
- Who do you think John Johnson might be?
- What did Johnson plan to do to parliament?
- Name one of the other plotters whom Johnson mentions
- Was Johnson worried about any Catholics who might have been there?
3. This is a proclamation (royal demand) made after the plot was discovered.
- Why does the government want Thomas Percy to be captured alive?
- Who else has Thomas Percy tried to blow up apart from the King and Parliament?
- Why do you think the plotters might have wanted to kill these other people?
- Read the description of Thomas Percy. Do you think it is enough information for him to be found?
4. Soldiers tracked Thomas Percy to Holbeach House in Staffordshire. This is a statement given by Thomas Wintour, another one of the plotters who was there:
- Who were the plotters present at the house?
- What happened when the ‘company beset’ (soldiers attacked) the house?
5. Guy Fawkes/John Johnson has been questioned and given more information. Read this extract and answer the following questions:
- What was the plotters’ plan for Princess Elizabeth?
- Does this support the evidence provided in Source 2?
- Why do you think Fawkes seems to have changed his story?
- Finally, look at all of the sources again and write a report on the plot including the following:
- Who was involved?
- What was the plan?
- Did it have any weaknesses?
- What was the outcome?