Guy Fawkes

As midnight fell on the morning of 5 November 1605, just hours before the reopening of parliament, a suspicious-looking man, dressed in a black cloak and hat, visible only by the glow of a solitary lantern was discovered to be keeping guard over four hundred barrels of gunpowder, hidden beneath the parliament house. His name was Guy Fawkes; his purpose to set light to the powder and achieve by fire what the Spanish Armada of 1588 had failed to do: Return England to the Catholic Church.

The story of Guy Fawkes and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot remains as vividly entrenched into the national psyche as it was on that cold morning in the third year of the reign of King James I. Immortalised through literature, history and media, and ravaged by fire every 5 November through the iconic ritual of burning straw mock-ups, forever known as guys, the legacy of Guy Fawkes continues to enthral children and adults alike, never willing to forget his infamous attempts to destroy the government of his day. And in doing so, the memory of this enigmatic man has created an altogether more appealing celebration: the tradition that the cold late-autumn night becomes alive with the explosion of fireworks.

While the plot itself provides a reality check on the complexities of an age when the way a country was governed waxed and waned in accordance with the religious beliefs of the monarch, and when men were willing to lay down their lives for their principles, the role of the individuals involved in the plot is altogether a more complex tale. In particular, the last four hundred years has seen a tendency to focus the attention on Guy Fawkes as the chief villain of the piece, something that has failed to diminish, at least in the eyes of the masses; and in doing so has given rise to a distorted understanding of the plot, with the result that the identities of his co-conspirators have fallen into partial anonymity. The image of the skulking, cloaked, darkened figure, roaming the vaults beneath parliament, ready to light the fuse has provided a powerful symbol illustrating the severity of the plot. However, in truth, it offers only a small window into the true story of not only the complexity of the age, but the complexity of the man.

The purpose of this section is to provide the reader with an additional insight into the life of Guy Fawkes, at last putting his life into perspective, and not just centring on that one moment for which he is remembered. The section also provides an introduction to my in-depth study on Guy Fawkes, Pity for the Guy, the first biography to date that views Guy Fawkes in the round, thus building on the biographies of the past and allowing the collection of many strands of research over the last four centuries.