‘Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.’
So the rhyme we remember from school (those of us of a certain age anyway) beseeches us to never forget the dreadful plot of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. But has the story of the Gunpowder Plot been forgotten after all these hundreds of years? When we’re ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ at the bangers and the Catherine wheels and writing names with our sparklers (I still love doing that) do we truly remember the religious persecution that drove the plotters to such drastic measures? Or the heinous plot that we would today see as terrorism and was indeed regarded as such at the time? My next novel ‘Remember, Remember’ retells the story of the 5th of November, and my research so far has thrown up some interesting facts. I’d thought I’d share some of them today as we prepare to throw poor old Guy onto the flames once more – an end he might have preferred to the one he actually got!
- Although it is the effigy of Guy Fawkes that we burn each year on our bonfires, he wasn’t actually the leader of the plot. Blowing up parliament was only part of a much wider rebellion, led by Robert Catesby. Catesby’s family were prominent recusant Catholics– refusing to take part in Anglican religious activity, recusants were often punished by fines, property confiscation, and imprisonment. In Catesby’s plan, Fawkes would blow up Parliament, killing the Protestant king James I. This would then start a revolt, during which a Catholic monarch would take the throne.
- Guy Fawkes had a successful military career before becoming involved in the plot. However, his allegiances would not have pleased King James. In 1591, Fawkes sold the estate he had inherited (his father died when Fawkes was eight) and used the funds raised to travel to the continent in order to fight in the Eighty Years War. This war was between Catholic Spain and the new Dutch Republic. Fawkes fought on the side of the Spanish. Although there were not any land battles at that time between England and Spain, technically the two countries were still at war. The Spanish Armada was a relatively recent event, happening in 1588, and Spain was still very much seen as an enemy of England.
- Although we know a lot about Fawkes’ military life, his involvement in the plot and his horrible end, relatively little is known about his personal life. The documents that relate his imprisonment, torture and death do not mention any family. However, there is one reference (and, it seems, only one) to a marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) has an extensive collection of genealogy records. They do this in order to establish the details of the ancestors of their members. Their International Genealogy Index (IGI) records a marriage between Guy Fawkes and Maria Pulleyn in 1590 in Scotton. There is also a record of the birth of a son, Thomas, on 6 February 1591, the year that Fawkes went to fight for the Spanish. So why only one record? The general consensus is that this is another Fawkes. However, the two families did have links so a marriage is credible. It may be that Fawkes, as a Catholic, and his bride wanted to marry in the traditions of their church – there are stories of Catholics marrying in secret at the dead of night. Perhaps this is why there are no other records of their marriage.
- Guy Fawkes managed to avoid the severe penalty that befell most of his co-conspirators, although he certainly did suffer at his death. He was, along with Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes drawn through the streets of London to his death. They were dragged from the Tower of London where they had been imprisoned, to the Old Palace Yard at Wesmtinster. His fellow conspirators were hung and quartered. Fawkes was the last to meet his doom. Although broken by torture, Fawkes managed to jump from the scaffold, breaking his neck and avoiding the long, painful death suffered by the others.
- Effigies of Guy Fawkes weren’t always burned on Bonfire Night. Although the tradition of lighting bonfires was begun on the first anniversary of the treason, it wasn’t until later in that century that effigies were burned – usually those of the Pope. Burning the ‘guy’ is a modern tradition, although nowadays we often burn the effigies of unpopular politicians or celebrities.
So tonight, when you are watching the bright lights of the fireworks and toasting your marshmallows while the figure of whoever your personal Guy is crackles in the flames, do ‘Remember, Remember’ and spare a thought for the horrors that poor old Guy and his friends underwent and remember too that he may have had a wife and son that mourned his horrible end.