On 5 November, as the Bonfire or Guy Fawkes’ Night skies fill with smoke and fireworks, have you wondered about the people involved in the Gunpowder Plot? The leader of the Catholic conspirators who wanted to kill Protestant King James I and his government by blowing up Parliament wasn’t Guy Fawkes. It was Robert Catesby, so why do we remember Guy?
As the man discovered beneath Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder, he had the key role on the day. But what transformed Guy Fawkes from Yorkshire schoolboy to religious terrorist?
Religion and the Fawkes family
Guy was born in central York in 1570. His father Edward was a legal official for the Protestant state Church of England. Although Guy’s mother Edith’s family had been Catholic, the family were Protestant. In Elizabethan England, people were legally obliged to attend Protestant church services. Catholics who refused to do so were called recusants and fined or imprisoned.
Attending Catholic Mass was illegal. During Elizabeth I’s reign, support for Catholicism became increasingly synonymous with treason. The situation wasn’t helped in 1570 (the year of Guy’s birth) when the Pope issued a Papal Bull declaring Elizabeth a heretic and encouraging England’s Catholics to remove her from the throne.
As a young lad, Guy attended St Peter’s school in York. The headmaster John Pulleyn was tasked with running a strictly Protestant establishment. In 1571, the Archbishop of York Edmund Grindal stated schoolmasters should be “of good and sincere religion, use no vain books and not teach anything contrary to the order of religion set forth”.
Deviation from this approach could place a schoolmaster in peril. Pulleyn’s predecessor discovered this when he was sent to prison for Catholic leanings. Little surprise then that Headmaster Pulleyn kept his Catholicism secret.
Fellow pupils at St Peter’s included brothers Kit and Jack Wright. The Wrights came from a well known Catholic recusant family in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Their sister Martha would go on to marry another Gunpowder Plotter, Thomas Percy. Sitting alongside Guy and the Wrights at school was Robert Middleton. In future, Robert would leave England to train as a Catholic priest and be arrested and executed for his faith on his return.
Increasing Catholic influences
Although his home life was Protestant, Guy was surrounded by Catholic influence sat school. When he was 8 years-old, his family life also changed. The untimely death of his father Edward was a key event which changed the course of his life. When Guy’s mother Edith remarried, her new husband Dionysius Bainbridge was a Catholic.
Guy’s friends and family were increasingly Catholic. Detailed records no longer exist, but it’s believed Guy continued to attend St Peter’s until the mid 1580’s. In March 1586, another event occurred which many believe had a significant impact.
In 1570, Margaret Middleton married local butcher John Clitherow. The couple raised a family in the Shambles, the narrow street where York’s butchers lived and traded. Margaret converted to Catholicism. As a recusant, Margaret refused to go to church and was sentenced to several spells in York Castle prison, where she shared a cell with other recusants. The time in gaol further radicalised the women.
By the mid 1580’s some, including Margaret, began to host Catholic masses and hide Catholic priests in their houses. In 1585, aiding a Catholic priest became a capital offence. In March 1586, Margaret was accused, arrested and stood trial for the crime.
Margaret’s story is complex and fascinating. Her treatment was cruel and heart-breaking. Despite claims she was pregnant, Margaret was executed in York by being crushed to death.
Margaret and Guy lived a short distance from each other. By now, Guy and his mother were Catholics. The families were part of York’s underground Catholic community. To see this potentially pregnant woman with young children killed in a barbaric way for allowing Catholic priests to hide in her home may have been too much for young Guy Fawkes to bear. Perhaps he swore vengeance?
Margaret’s execution wasn’t the only ill treatment of Catholics in York at this time. Numerous recusants languished in prison. Some, like Margaret’s friend Dorothy Vavasour, died due to the poor conditions. Others, including Catholic priests and people who helped them, were executed in York for religious reasons, hanged, drawn and quartered as Guy, himself, would be in 1606.
Guy’s military experience and formation of the Gunpowder Plot
Not long after Margaret Clitherow’s tragic death, Guy left York to work for a Catholic family in Sussex. He returned to Yorkshire briefly in 1591 aged 21. He took control of his father’s properties, sold them off and left England to fight for the Catholic Spanish army against Protestant rebels in the Low Countries. We don’t know the horrors of war Guy encountered during this time, but we know he became an explosives expert.
In 1603, Elizabeth was succeeded by her cousin James I. Having pledged religious tolerance, James began to harden laws and attitudes against England’s Catholics. Robert Catesby decided enough was enough. He devised a new plot, assembled a group of conspirators and planned for regime change.
Catesby sent his right-hand man Thomas Wintour to seek Spanish support for what would become known as the Gunpowder Plot. As the group needed an explosives expert, Wintour was tasked with recruiting the Wright brothers’ schoolfriend. Now known as Guido, Fawkes was smuggled into England under an assumed name. During the summer of 1605, he and others smuggled gunpowder from Catesby’s house in Lambeth across the Thames into Westminster until there was enough to blow Parliament sky high.
Although committed to the cause, Fawkes wasn’t a suicide bomber. When arrested beneath Parliament on the eve of its opening on 5 November, he was wearing a pair of spurs.
Torture and execution
Guido was sent to the Tower of London and tortured. Although he held out for a while, he eventually confessed and gave the names of his colleagues. They were already being pursued. During a shoot-out in the Midlands, Catesby, the Wright brothers and several of the other plotters were killed. The remainder were rounded up and arrested. In January 1606, eight were tried, found guilty and executed. Fawkes was the last to climb the scaffold.
Ever since, each year on 5 November we celebrate Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters’ failure. Could Guy’s life and our history have been different if his father had lived longer or if the authorities had treated Margaret Clitherow more leniently? It’s such a fascinating area of history to research, with many relevant lessons for the today.
Tony Morgan is an Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. He’s written three historical novels, including the acclaimed The Pearl of York, Treason and Plot. His latest book Power, Treason and Plot in Tudor England is a non-fiction history, which takes a fresh look into the religious and power struggles of Tudor England, the impact on York and the life and death of Margaret Clitherow. (Tony gives history talks to many local groups and societies, contactable via his website, Facebook and Twitter).