10 Facts About Guy Fawkes: Britain’s Most Infamous Villain?

Alice Roberts

4 mins

31 Oct 2019

Guy Fawkes is famed across the world for attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

But did you know that he fought in the Spanish army, that the cellars of Parliament are still checked today, or that there is a tropical island named after him?

Here are 10 of the best facts about Britain’s most famous villain.

1. He wasn’t born a Catholic

Guy was born in 1570 in York. His parents were loyal members of the Church of England, although his mother’s family were recusant Catholics, and his cousin became a Jesuit priest. Guy was later described by a school friend, Oswald Tesimond, as

‘pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife … loyal to his friends’

St Peter’s School in York in the 19th century.

2. He fought for the Spanish army

In 1592, aged 21, Fawkes sold the estate he had inherited and set sail for Europe to join the Catholic Spanish army, to help wrench the Netherlands back from the Protestant Dutch forces.

Rising through the ranks of the Spanish military, he was promoted to captain and developed great knowledge of gunpowder – which would come in handy later. He also adopted the Italian name, ‘Guido’.

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3. Fawkes joined the plot later

In 1604, he became involved with a small group of 13 English Catholics who were plotting to assassinate the Protestant King James. Let by Robert Catesby, they sought to replace him with his daughter, Princess Elizabeth.

A contemporary image showing 8 of the 13 conspirators. Fawkes is third from the right.

4. They almost got away with it

The original plan was to dig a tunnel under the Houses of Parliament and use it to transport the gunpowder under Parliament’s walls.

Fawkes took the false identity of John Johnson, and pretended to be a servant. However, the conspirators managed to rent a basement in the House of Lords, and the tunnel plan was abandoned. Soon, it was loaded with 36 barrels of gunpowder, and concealed as a pile of firewood.

It was only on a second thought that the barrels of gunpowder were discovered.

On 4 November 1605, the basement was searched and Fawkes was questioned. He begged his innocence by saying he was storing firewood, a claim that was initially believed.

However, suspicions were raised again, and another search was conducted. 36 barrels of gunpowder were found stored under the wood. The game was up; Fawkes was arrested.

5. King James admired his determination

When Fawkes was interrogated about storing 36 barrels of gunpowder under the seat of government, he declared it was

‘to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains’

From the outset, he took ownership of his traitorous actions, and even showed remorse at its failure. This dogged determination to stay loyal to his cause impressed King James, who admired the ‘Roman resolution’.

Guy Fawkes brought before King James.

6. There was no bonfire to be seen

Fawkes was never burnt on a bonfire, as many people believe. He was condemned as a traitor, and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. On the cold morning of 31 January 1606, he took to the scaffold to endure the first part of his execution. So weakened from torture, he had to be carried to the gallows.

The execution took place on a freezing January morning.

When the noose was secured, he fell – some say jumped – and broke his neck, dying instantly and avoiding the rest of the brutal punishment. His corpse was cut into quarters and distributed for public display across the country.

The torture he endured is visible in his signature before (bottom) and after (top).

7. The cellars of parliament are still checked

The cellar within which Fawkes stored his ammunition no longer exists, as it was destroyed by the 1854 fire which ravaged the old Houses of Parliament. Nevertheless, the cellars which remain are still checked annually before the State Opening of Parliament.

A drawing of the cellars where the gunpowder was stored.

8. The plan may have been doomed to fail

If Fawkes had succeeded in lighting a match, he would have left an enormous explosion that would have decimated Parliament, and scarred the surrounding buildings – not to mention the obliteration of the entire political class.

However, some experts now claim the gunpowder had ‘decayed’, and would have failed to explode, even if properly ignited.

A page from a bible of the 17th century, presenting the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 as a providential victory of Protestants over Catholics. Image source: Hispalois / CC BY-SA 4.0.

9. His school refuses to burn an effigy

The tradition to burn an effigy caught on pretty quickly. In the 1660s, effigies were filled with live cats in order to make it seem like the figure was screaming in the flames. Today, it’s a widespread tradition – apart from at St. Peter’s School, York, his alma mater. In honour of the ex-pupil, all celebrations are forbidden.

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10. There is a Guy Fawkes Island

Perhaps the most surprising tribute to Guido is an uninhabited outcrop of the Galapagos Islands: Guy Fawkes Island. The origins of the name remains mysterious, but it may be a tribute to his years spent as a mercenary in the Spanish army.

The two crescent islands that together make ‘Isla Guy Fawkes’ is located near Santa Cruz. Image source: Jim Boone / CC BY-SA 3.0.