Guy Fawkes: A Biography


Born: 13 April 1570, Stonegate, Yorkshire
Died: 31 January 1606, Old Palace Yard, Westminster

Guy Fawkes was the only son of Edward Fawkes of York and his wife Edith Blake. Prior to Fawkes’s birth, Edith had given birth to a daughter Anne on 3 October 1568, but the infant lived a mere seven weeks, being buried on 14 November of the same year. Two sisters followed Guy, another Anne (who later married Henry Kilburns in Scotton in 1599) on 12 October 1572, and Elizabeth (who later married William Dickenson, also in Scotton, in 1594) on 27 May 1575.

Edward Fawkes, who was descended from the Fawkes family of Farnley, was a notary or proctor of the ecclesiastical courts and advocate of the consistory court of the Archbishop of York. On his mother’s side, he was descended from the Harrington family who were eminent merchants and Aldermen of York.

Fawkes became a pupil of the Free School of St. Peters located in “Le Horse Fayre”, which was founded by Royal Charter of Philip and Mary in 1557. He counted there amongst his schoolfellows, John and Christopher Wright, Thomas Morton (afterwards Bishop of Durham), Sir Thomas Cheke and Oswald Tesimond. His time there was under the tutelage of a John Pulleyn, kinsman to the Pulleyns of Scotton and a suspected Catholic who some believe may have had an early effect on the impressionable Fawkes.

On 17 January 1578, Edward Fawkes was buried at St. Michael-le-Belfry. Edith spent nine years as a sedate and respectable widow before moving to Scotton between 18 April 1587 and 2 February 1588-89. There she married Dionysius (or Dennis) Bainbridge, son of Philip Bainbridge of Wheatley Hall and Frances Vavasour of Weston (who had previously allied herself to the Fawkes family through her first marriage to Antony Fawkes of York who died in 1551). Dionysius was described by a contemporary as “more ornamental than useful”, and both he and Edith appeared to have made use of Guy’s meagre inheritance while it was still in their powers to do so.

It is possible that Fawkes married, for the International Genealogy Index (IGI) compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints records a marriage between Guy Fawkes and Maria Pulleyn in 1590 in Scotton, and it also records the birth of a son Thomas to Guy Fawkes and Maria on 6 February 1591. However, these entries appear to be taken from a secondary source and not from actual parish register entries, and so they cannot be clarified further.

Fawkes came of age in 1591 and proceeded to dispose of parts of his inheritance. The first documentary proof of this is through an indenture of lease dated 14 October, 33 Eliz.

A transaction is recorded between “Guye Faux of Scotton in the Co. of Yorke, gentilman, and Christopher Lomley of Yorke, tailor”, to whom Fawkes leased for twenty one years, “three and a half acres in Clifton, with one other acre there, and a barn and garth attached to Gilligaite”, a suburb of York. Robert Davies who found these documents in 1830, says that “On the seal appended to one of them, though the impression is nearly effaced, the figure of a bird is just discernible, apparently a falcon”. This apparently confirms Fawkes’ descent for the falcon is the crest of the family of Fawkes of Farnley.

Another document, an indenture of conveyance is dated 1 August, 34 Eliz., between “Guye Fawkes of the cittie of Yorke, gentilman, and Anna Skipseye, of Clifton, spinster”, which indicates that Fawkes was no longer in Scotton. For a brief period after this, he was employed as a footman by Anthony Browne, 2nd Lord Montague, a member of a leading recusant family.

Fawkes is believed to have left England in 1593 or 1594 for Flanders, together with one of his Harrington cousins who later become a priest. In Flanders he enlisted in the Spanish army under the Archduke Albert of Austria, who was afterwards governor of the Netherlands.

Fawkes held a post of command when the Spaniards took Calais in 1596 under the orders of King Philip II of Spain. He was described at this time as a man “of excellent good natural parts, very resolute and universally learned”, and was “sought by all the most distinguished in the Archduke’s camp for nobility and virtue”. Tesimond also describes him as “a man of great piety, of exemplary temperance, of mild and chearful demeanour, an enemy of broils and disputes, a faithful friend, and remarkable for his punctual attendance upon religious observance”.

Fawkes’s appearance by now was most impressive. He was a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, flowing moustache, and a bushy reddish-brown beard. He had also apparently adopted the name or affectation Guido in place of Guy. His extraordinary fortitude, and his “considerable fame among soldiers”, perhaps acquired through his services under Colonel Bostock at the Battle of Nieuport in 1600 when it is believed he was wounded, brought him to the attention of Sir William Stanley (in charge of the English regiment in Flanders), Hugh Owen and Father William Baldwin.

Fawkes severed his connection with the Archduke’s forces on 16 February 1603, when he was granted leave to go to Spain on behalf of Stanley, Owen and Baldwin to “enlighten King Philip II concerning the true position of the Romanists in England”. During this visit he renewed his acquaintance with Christopher Wright, and the two men set about obtaining Spanish support for an invasion of England upon the death of Elizabeth, a mission which ultimately proved fruitless.

Upon return from this mission, Fawkes was informed in Brussels that Thomas Wintour had been asking for him. About Easter time, when Wintour was about to return to England, Stanley presented Fawkes to him. It cannot be proved, but perhaps Wintour had already informed Fawkes of the conspirators’ intentions, because in Fawkes’ confession he states that “I confesse that a practise in general was first broken unto me against his Majesty for reliefe of the Catholique cause, and not invented or propounded by myself. And this was first propounded unto me about Easter last was twelve month, beyond the Seas, in the Low Countries of the Archduke’s obeyance, by Thomas Wintour, who came thereupon with me into England”.

Between Easter and May, Fawkes was invited by Robert Catesby to accompany Thomas Wintour to Bergen in order to meet with the Constable of Castile, Juan De Velasco, who was on his way to the court of King James I to discuss a treaty between Spain and England.

In May of 1604, Guy Fawkes met with Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright and Thomas Wintour at an inn called the Duck and Drake in the fashionable Strand district of London, and agreed under oath along with Percy to join the other three in the gunpowder conspiracy. This oath was then sanctified by the performing of mass and the administering of the sacraments by the Jesuit priest John Gerard in an adjoining room. Fawkes assumed the identity of John Johnson, a servant of Percy and was entrusted to the care of the tenement which Percy had rented. Around Michaelmas, Fawkes was asked to begin preparations for work on the mine, but these plans were delayed until early December as the Commissioners of the Union between England and Scotland were meeting in the same house. Eventually the work in the mine proved slow and difficult for men unused to such physical labours, and further accomplices were sworn into the plot.

About March 1605, the conspirators hired a cellar beneath Parliament, once again through Thomas Percy, and Fawkes assisted in filling the room with barrels of powder, hidden beneath iron bars and faggots. He was then despatched to Flanders to presumably communicate the details of the plot to Stanley and Owen.

At the end of August, he was back in London again, replacing the spoiled powder barrels, and residing at “one Mrs. Herbert’s house, a widow that dwells on the backside of St. Clement’s Church”. He soon left this accommodation when his landlady suspected his involvement with Catholics. On 18 October he travelled to White Webbs for a meeting with Catesby, Thomas Wintour, and Francis Tresham to discuss how certain Catholic peers could be excluded from the explosion. On 26 October, the now famous Monteagle Letter was delivered into the hands of William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle. Concern quickly erupted amongst the conspirators, but the letter’s apparent vagueness prompted Catesby to continue with their plans.

On Wednesday 30 October, Fawkes, apparently ignorant of the letter’s existence inspected the cellar again and satisfied himself that the gunpowder was still in place and had not been disturbed. On Sunday 3 November, a few of the leading conspirators met in London and agreed that the authorities were still unaware of their actions. However, all except Fawkes made plans for a speedy exit from London. Fawkes had agreed to watch the cellar by himself, having already been given the task of firing the powder, undoubtedly because of his munitions experience in the Low Countries where he had been taught how to “fire a slow train”. His orders were to embark for Flanders as soon as the powder was fired, and to spread the news of the explosion on the continent.

On the following Monday afternoon, the Lord Chamberlain, Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, searched the parliament buildings accompanied by Monteagle and John Whynniard. In the cellar they came upon an unusually large pile of billets and faggots, and perceived Fawkes whom they described as “a very bad and desperate fellow”. They asked who claimed the pile, and Fawkes replied that it was Thomas Percy’s in whose employment he worked. They reported these details to the King, and believing, by the look of Fawkes “he seemed to be a man shrewd enough, but up to no good”, they again searched the cellar, a little before midnight the following night, this time led by Sir Thomas Knyvett, a Westminster magistrate and Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Fawkes had gone forth to warn Percy that same day, but returned to his post before night. Once again, the pile of billets and faggots was searched and the powder discovered, and this time Fawkes was arrested. On his person they discovered a watch, slow matches and touchwood. Fawkes later declared that had he been in the cellar when Knyvett entered it he would have “blown him up, house, himself, and all”.

Early in the morning of 5 November, the Privy Council met in the King’s bedchamber, and Fawkes was brought in under guard. He declined to give any information beyond that his name was Johnson and he was a servant of Thomas Percy. Further interrogations that day revealed little more than his apparent xenophobia. When questioned by the King how he could conspire such a hideous treason, Fawkes replied that a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy, and that his intentions were to blow the Scotsmen present back into Scotland.

King James indicated in a letter of 6 November that “The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad mia tenditur [and so by degrees proceeding to the worst], and so God speed your goode worke”, as it [torture] was contrary to English common law, unless authorised by the King or Privy Council. Eventually on 7 November Guido’s spirit broke and he confessed his real name and that the plot was confined to five men. “He told us that since he undertook this action he did every day pray to God he might perform that which might be for the advancement of the Catholic Faith and saving his own soul”. The following day he recounted the events of the conspiracy, without naming names, then on the 9 November he named his fellow plotters, having heard that some of them had already been arrested at Holbeche. Guido’s final signature, a barely legible scrawl, is testament to his suffering. There is no direct evidence as to what tortures were used on Guy Fawkes, although it is almost certain that they included the manacles, and probably also the rack.

On Monday 27 January 1606, the day of the capture of Edward Oldcorne and Henry Garnet, the trial of the eight surviving conspirators began in Westminster Hall. It was a trial in name only, for a guilty verdict had certainly already been handed down. The conspirators pleaded not guilty, a plea which caused some consternation amongst those present. Fawkes later explained that his objection was to the implication that the “seducing Jesuits” were the principal offenders.

On Friday, 31 January 1606, Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood and Robert Keyes were taken to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster and hanged, drawn and quartered “in the very place which they had planned to demolish in order to hammer home the message of their wickedness”. Thomas Wintour was followed by Rookwood and then by Keyes. Guido, the “romantic caped figure of such evil villainy” came last. A contemporary wrote:

“Last of all came the great devil of all, Guy Fawkes, alias Johnson, who should have put fire to the powder. His body being weak with the torture and sickness he was scarce able to go up the ladder, yet with much ado, by the help of the hangman, went high enough to break his neck by the fall. He made no speech, but with his crosses and idle ceremonies made his end upon the gallows and the block, to the great joy of all the beholders that the land was ended of so wicked a villainy”.

David Jardine, in his book “A Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot” (1857), says that “according to the accounts of him, he is not to be regarded as a mercenary ruffian, ready for hire to do any deed of blood; but as a zealot, misled by misguided fanaticism, who was, however, by no means destitute of piety or humanity”.

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Weekely News, Monday 31 January 1606


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