"Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot."
Lots of people know the rhyme. Every year, crowds turn out throughout England to shoot off fireworks and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. But how many of them know the real story?
The current mythos makes Fawkes an utter villain, the fanatic who was singlehandedly almost responsible for destroying an entire monarchy and throwing England into chaos and possibly civil war. V for Vendetta does the opposite, making Fawkes a hero, a misunderstood crusader for the downtrodden. Like most such myths, both sides are right, and wrong.
Guy Fawkes went most often by the name Guido. Though born English, he had also been born a fervent Catholic, and since that wasn't such a comfortable thing to be in the England of the mid to late 1500's, he had hardly set foot in his home country for years before the Plot began. Far from being the head of the conspiracy, Fawkes was a hired hand, a mercenary who made his living as a tough soldier of fortune working for whatever (Catholic) cause would pay his fee.
The leader of the plotters was actually the charismatic Sir Robert Catesby, called Robin. Like most of the group, he was young and ambitious, and knew his ambitions would never be fulfilled as long as he remained Catholic. To advance in the court or indeed in any occupation at that time, one had to swear an oath of fealty, one which no Catholic could swear to in good faith as it denied the authority of the Pope and the Catholic church. Celebrating a Catholic mass was forbidden, and anyone caught harboring a Catholic priest could face death. It had been hoped by many that the new king, James I, would relax or drop these restrictions -- though himself Protestant, his wife was a Catholic, and upon his accession to the throne, he had promised religious tolerance -- a tolerance that never came. His refusal to follow through on his promised reforms helped give birth to the plot.
The core group of the plotters consisted of thirteen men -- which at the time provoked references to the thirteenth apostle, Judas, and his betrayal -- all related by blood or marriage, and several of their wives. Catholics all, this group saw their lives and dreams slipping away from them, and decided to take action -- not through the law, as they had seen that fail too many times, but through a stunning application of force that might be called the first ever terrorist action.
The plan was simple enough -- on the day the House of Lords opened to conduct business, tradition had it that every member must attend, with only the most serious injuries or illnesses acceptable as an excuse; and also that the king and his heirs would be there, to officially begin the session. This, the plotters realized, was their golden opportunity.
At that time, there was a cellar beneath the House that was available for rent as storage. Using false names and a sort of 'dummy corporation', the plotters duly rented the space and began to pack it full of gunpowder. (In V for Vendetta, V uses the alias Mr. Rookwood, a reference to one of the plotters who helped in obtaining the gunpowder. Rookwood's friends in the film, Percy and Keyes, are also named after conspirators.) Helping with the movement of the powder was one "John Johnson", servant to one of the plotters -- actually Guido Fawkes under an alias.
Fawkes was brought into the plot late -- technically as a hired hand, though he was also fervently in favour of more rights and freedoms for his fellow Catholics. He was needed, the other plotters felt, because he had been so long absent from England, and an unfamiliar face might be invaluable. Also, he had seen enough death on the various battlefields that he did not shrink from the task of lighting a fuse that would kill not only virtually all of the lords of the land, but also the king's eldest son, then eleven years old, and possibly also his younger son, just four.
One of the few members of the royal family who would not be at the House of Lords was James' oldest daughter, Elizabeth, then nine years old. With her father and brothers dead, the plotters intended to ride to her and proclaim her queen, while raising her in the good Catholic faith. Unknown to the plotters, even at that tender age, Elizabeth was a fervent Protestant, who would have been difficult indeed for them to convert.
But such was their plan, and they went ahead with their scheme, slowly bringing in the gunpowder and waiting anxiously for the House to open. That opening day was postponed several times, using the recent outbreak of the Black Plague as an excuse, making the plotters even more uneasy, and as it turned out, the delay was fateful in several ways.
Foremost was the Monteagle letter – an anonymous message to Lord Monteagle, brother-in-law of one of the Plotters and a prominent Catholic peer, cautioning him to stay away from the House on that first day. Whether this truly came from someone who knew of the scheme and wished to save an ally; some agent provocateur determined to stir things up; or even from Monteagle himself, no one knows. Some say the Gunpowder Plot was, from beginning to end, the brainchild of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and chief minister to the king, who wanted to draw the dangerous Catholics out.
Whatever its origins, the letter was the beginning of the end for the plot. The authorities cannily waited until the last moment to spring the trap openly, catching poor Guido Fawkes in the storeroom, ready to set the powder alight.
Guido was put to the torture in the Tower (first the "gentler Tortures", which included being manacled and left to hang by the wrists, then progressing to such horrors as the rack). When, after three days, Fawkes finally signed his first confession, his signature was almost unrecognizable as his. He was a broken man afterwards, in more ways than one.
But the leading light, Robin Catesby himself, was not yet caught. He and a few of the others had fled upon learning of Fawkes’ capture, running through the countryside with only their horses and the few possessions they’d been able to grab as they left. Lost and friendless – even their fellow Catholics did not dare hide them now, with the entire army hunting for the plotters – they rode through the rain until, exhausted, they took shelter in an empty home, Holbeach House.
With their few belongings soaked through, their guns were also useless, the powder in them too wet to fire. They were forced to spread the powder out before the fire to dry it, though they knew the danger better than anyone; and when the powder did in fact catch a spark, several of them, including Catesby, were wounded in the resulting explosion.
Another conspirator betrayed their hiding place, trying to win mercy for himself, and soon they were beseiged by two hundred soliders. In the resulting battle -- more of a massacre -- several men were wounded and captured alive to be tortured and executed; others, as they lay dying, were brutally seized by the soldiers and stripped of all their possessions. Catesby himself died at Holbeach, clutching a Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary, which was taken and displayed as a sample of the "superstitious and Popish idols" that had inspired the plot.
The final irony lay in the gunpowder they had so carefully stockpiled below the House. In those days, powder could easily decay as it aged, becoming useless; and that was what had happened to their stock. Even had Fawkes been allowed to light the fuse, it’s doubtful that there would have been more than a very small explosion – almost certainly not enough to do any real damage to the building or its inhabitants.
In the end, the final legacy of Robin Catesby's fervent dreams was in a tightening of the restrictions on and oppression of his fellow Catholics, which would last for generations.