The beginnings of the Plot
The Gunpowder Plot was concocted in May of 1604 with Robert
Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Wintour
and Robert Wintour. Fawkes, who had considerable military experience
and a good understanding of explosives, had been introduced to Catesby
by a man named Hugh Owen. Some accounts indicate that Thomas Wintour
was the prime mover in all of this, and that Fawkes was the tool
towards the ultimate execution of the plot.
Planning and preparation
In March 1605, the conspirators rented a cellar beneath
Parliament through Thomas Percy (also spelt Percye); Fawkes assisted
in filling the room with gunpowder which was concealed beneath bric-a-brac
in the cellars of the House of Lords building. The 36 barrels belonging
to John Whynniard contained an estimated 2500 kg of gunpowder. The
explosion could have reduced many of the buildings in the Old Palace
of Westminster complex, including Abbey, to rubble and would have
blown out windows in the surrounding area for a distance up to almost
At around Easter 1605, Fawkes left Dover for Calais, travelling
to St Omer and thence to Brussels. According to the confession made
by Fawkes on November 5 1605, he there met with Hugh Owen, and Sir
William Stanley. After that he made a pilgrimage in Brabant. He
returned to England at the end of August or early September, again
by way of Calais.
There are suggestions that the original plan was to dig a tunnel
from the cellar of an adjacent building by mining and then plant
the explosives under the meeting chamber in the House of Lords.
Discovery and arrest
At around midnight November 4 or in the very early hours
of November 5th, Fawkes, posing as a Mr John Johnson, was arrested
in the cellar by a party of armed men led by Sir Thomas Knevytt
(or Knevett). In Fawkes' possession were a watch, slow matches and
touchpaper. On arrest Fawkes did not deny his intentions, stating
that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament.
Interrogation of the prisoners
Fawkes was brought into the king's bedchamber, where the
ministers had hastily assembled, at one o'clock in the morning.
He maintained an attitude of cool defiance, making no secret of
his intentions. He replied to the king, who asked why he would kill
him, that the pope had excommunicated him, that dangerous diseases
require a desperate remedy, adding fiercely to the Scottish courtiers
who surrounded him that one of his objects was to blow the Scots
back into Scotland.
Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated. He
was questioned on the nature of his accomplices, the involvement
of Thomas Percy, what letters he had received from overseas, and
whether he had spoken with Hugh Owen.
He was taken to the Tower of London and there interrogated under
torture. Since torture was forbidden except by the express instruction
of the monarch or the Privy Council, King James I in a letter of
November 6 stated: "The gentler tortours are to be first used
unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by increase
to the worst], and so God speed your goode worke". Initially
he resisted torture. On November 8, Fawkes verbally confessed revealed
the names of his co-conspirators, and recounted the full details
of the plot on November 9. He made a signed confession on November
10; his signature after torture on the rack is strikingly shaky.
A nominal trial then ensued on January 27, 1606 at which the sentences
had already been predetermined. On January 31, Fawkes, Wintour,
and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to
Old Palace Yard in Westminster. There they were hanged, drawn and
According to historian Antonia Fraser, the gunpowder was taken to
the Tower of London and would have been reissued if in good condition,
or otherwise sold for recycling. However a sample of the gunpowder
may have survived -- in March 2002 workers at the British Library,
investigating archives of John Evelyn, found a box containing various
samples of gunpowder and several notes: "Gunpowder 1605 in
a paper inscribed by John Evelyn. Powder with which that villain
Faux would have blown up the parliament." and "Gunpowder.
Large package is supposed to be Guy Fawkes' gunpowder." and
"But there was none left! WEH 1952".
According to historian Ronald Hutton, when it was moved to the Tower
of London magazine after Guy Fawkes was caught, it was discovered
to be `decayed'; that is, it had done what gunpowder always did
when left to sit for too long, and separated into its component
chemical parts, rendering it harmless. If Guy had plunged in the
torch with Parliament all ready above him, all that would have happened
would have been a damp splutter.
In England, the failure of the gunpowder plot is celebrated annually
on Guy Fawkes Night.
Guy Fawkes appears in the 2002 List of "100 Great Britons"
(sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public), alongside such
other greats as David Beckham, Aleister Crowley, Winston Churchill
and Johnny Rotten. Cynical Britons are sometimes known to comment
that Guy Fawkes was the only man to go to Parliament with honourable
In an interesting example of semantic progression, Guy Fawkes has
become immortalised by one of the most common words in the English
language, particularly in American spoken English. The burning on
5 November of an effigy of Fawkes, known as a "guy," led
to the use of the word "guy" as a term for "a person
of grotesque appearance" and then to a general reference for
a man, as in "some guy called for you." In the 20th century,
under the influence of American popular culture, "guy"
gradually replaced "fellow," "bloke," "chap"
and other such words there and the practice is spreading throughout
the English-speaking world.
The story of Guy Fawkes was a major inspiration for Alan Moore's
post-nuclear war tale of a fascist Britain, V for Vendetta. The
main character in that story is modeled on Fawkes.