The transition of King James VI of Scotland to James I of England was not a happy one. He was unpopular with many English Catholics who felt that his laws were designed to control their rights. He needed some publicity that would show him in a better light or at least win him some sympathy. Step forward Guy Fawkes and his fellow Gunpowder Plot conspirators.
Fawkes was born in York in 1570. He was raised as a Protestant, but when he was 10 years old his stepfather persuaded him to convert and he became a zealous Catholic. In 1593, he joined the Catholic Spanish army to fight against the Protestant Dutch republic, and served until 1604. Then, at the invitation of Catholic gent Robert Catesby, he was smuggled back to England to unite in a conspiracy, with Ambrose Rookwood, Everard Digby and Francis Tresham. Fawkes joined the plotters because he considered the king to be a heretic. As he put it: ‘Desperate diseases require desperate remedies.’
The plan was to destroy the king and his parliament by setting explosives under the Palace of Westminster during the opening of parliament on 5th November 1606. Fawkes was very skilful with explosives, so his role was to acquire and set the gunpowder and then detonate the blast.
Yet as it turned out, the king was never in any danger. Tresham and others, uneasy at the prospect of their friends being killed, betrayed their fellow plotters. It seems that the authorities decided to let the plan go ahead to catch them in the act of treason. Twelve hours before the king was due in parliament, soldiers, forewarned, searched the cellars and came across 36 barrels of gunpowder, with Fawkes in the act of laying the explosive. They arrested him.
Fawkes was unaware that he had been betrayed. Despite horrific torture on the rack, it was two days before he revealed his name and several more days before he gave up details of the plot and the names of the others involved, not knowing that they had already been identified and arrested or killed.
Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitor’s death, namely to be hanged, drawn and quartered. However, when he stood on the gallows he jumped, thus breaking his neck and saving him from the agonies of being cut down and eviscerated while still alive. Even so, his body was cut up and sent to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to others.
Far from removing a troublesome Protestant king, Fawkes was unwittingly part of a scheme that saw James I’s position strengthened, while fear and hatred of the Catholics increased. Some sources even say the king respected Fawkes as a man of ‘Roman resolution’.
Fawkes was neither the instigator nor the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, but his story caught the public imagination and his name remains synonymous with the event. It hardly seems fair. Catesby, the actual leader, was killed while trying to evade capture.