If you ever find yourself in London on November 5, you may see the bursts of fireworks around the city, accompanied by burning effigies in the neighborhood square. Also known as Bonfire Night, this celebration does not mark Britain’s independence, but rather its salvation from the nefarious plans of its most infamous villain, Guy Fawkes. Publicly celebrated for more than four centuries, his failed plot to kill James I, King of both England and Scotland, was considered a frightful brush with death for the crown and arguably the most dramatic criminal discovery in British history.
Now coined the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, this twisted, religion-fueled misdeed led to a charge of high treason for Fawkes—who was captured red-handed with 36 barrels of gunpowder—and a condemnation so gruesome, a court agreed the guilty traitors should be “put to death halfway between heaven and earth, as they are unworthy of both.” Eventually sentenced to extreme torture, hanging, and mutilation so their bodies could be displayed as “prey for the ravens of the air,” it soon became clear that hell was, indeed, the only place left for these unfortunate souls.
To understand why Guy Fawkes would do something drastic enough to warrant this kind of punishment, it’s necessary to examine the religious state of England at the time. Heavily repressed under the fiercely Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of the infamous couple Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, England saw scores of Catholic priests die under her reign, and Catholics were forbidden to pray or marry according to their own religious doctrine.
When she died in 1603, a new hope emerged around the coronation of King James I, who had a Catholic wife and was, after all, the son of Mary Queen of Scots. For those who dared to dream, it seemed likely he may even convert himself and finally deliver on a long-awaited Catholic dominion. Alas, James was a disappointment in this regard, as he not only remained Protestant, but he condemned Catholicism as a superstition in 1604, ordering all priests to leave England and issuing fines to those who refused to adhere to his spiritual beliefs.
Even though many English Catholics had organized failed conspiracies against Elizabeth and were now even more incensed by the disappointing views of King James, no plots to overthrow him seemed to gain traction. That is until a handful of Catholic dissidents—Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Tom Wintour, Jack Wright, and Thomas Percy—met one night at a popular London pub and concocted a plan so brazen and outrageous, they were convinced it couldn’t possibly fail. All they had to do was find a way to burrow beneath the House of Lords, stockpile gunpowder within, and light the fuse during the new session of Parliament when all would be present.
The King, his son, and all his contemporaries would be blown sky-high, while Fawkes, who would provide the flame, could escape by boat across the Thames. Once pandemonium struck, an uprising would soon follow, and they could easily kidnap King James’s daughter Elizabeth and place her on the throne as a puppet queen until she could be married off to a nice Catholic man, thereby restoring the monarchy. What could go wrong?
While it’s worth noting Guy Fawkes was not the ringleader of the conspiracy, he remains the most memorable character of the doomed plot, partly because he was found with a lit match and a lot of gunpowder under the House Of Lords, but also because he was a man of distinction. He was described as “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner” and “highly skilled in matters of war.” Tall and powerfully built, with bushy reddish-brown hair and a ruddy beard, Fawkes was a man of action, a man of both intelligence and stamina.
After his capture, it took two full days to break him under torture, and even when his confession did spill forth, he told his surprised captors he did it “to blow you, Scotch beggars, back to your native mountains.” He then went on to say he was only regretful that he had failed to do so. His steadfast manner and defiant endurance even earned him the praise of King James himself, who claimed the villain indeed had “a Roman resolution.”