The story of 5th of November 1605 and the Gunpowder plot is one of the most famous in British history. Following years of Protestant rule and suppression of their faith, a group of Catholic dissidents planned to commit regicide against Protestant King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne of England. In a chamber beneath the House of Lords, the plotters stored the gunpowder with which they intended to blow up the King and all his ministers at the state opening of Parliament. The name Guy Fawkes has become synonymous with the plot, as it was he that was discovered on the morning of 5th November guarding the gunpowder after state authorities received a tip-off.

Guy Fawkes was born in York in 1570. The exact date of his birth is disputed, but historians generally agree he had an April birthday. When Guy was eight his father passed away and his mother, Edith, remarried into a Catholic family. It is through this that Fawkes is believed to have received his Catholic education, being sent to St. Peter’s School in York whose headmaster John Pulleyn had spent twenty years imprisoned for recusancy. (A recusant is a person who refuses to submit to authority and comply with regulation – At this time Catholicism was banned in England, it was not until 1829 that Catholics became fully emancipated) His peers at St Peter’s included brothers John and Christopher Wright, who would later become part of the group conspiring to assassinate the King.

In 1591 Fawkes travelled to the continent to fight for Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years War against the Dutch Republic. He was described as having fought well at the Siege of Calais in 1596 and by 1603 had been recommended for a captaincy in the Spanish army.

Upon returning to England in 1604, Fawkes became involved with Robert Catesby, a charismatic and influential man who was also regarded as a religious zealot, who had planned the gunpowder plot to assassinate King James I and replace him with his daughter, Elizabeth Stuart. Fawkes enthusiastically joined the group, having previously described King James as a “heretic” who intended to drive the Catholics out of England.  The plotters rented an undercroft beneath the houses of Parliament and in it, they stored 36 barrels of gunpowder, concealed by planks of firewood.

Fawkes’ role in the plan was confirmed in October 1605. It would be he who would light the fuse when the King was in Parliament and then escape by swimming across the Thames. He would then leave England and travel to the continent to explain his deeds to the Catholic monarchs. Despite their opposition to the English crown, the other European monarchs would still have viewed the regicide of James in an unfavourable light.

There was concern amongst the conspirators that Catholics would be killed in the explosion, and on 26th October an anonymous letter was sent to Catholic Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from the opening of Parliament. Despite being made aware of the letter by one of Lord Monteagle’s servants sympathetic to their cause, the plotters made no amendments to their plans and continued, thinking the letter story to be a hoax. Monteagle however, immediately presented the letter to the King and a search of the cellars beneath Parliament was immediately ordered. In the early hours of 5th November, Sir Thomas Knyvet discovered Fawkes leaving the cellar, armed with a slow-burning match and a watch, and apprehended him.

Fawkes was imprisoned in the Tower of London and was made subject to intense torture and interrogation. Sources state that throughout his torture he remained defiant, using the name John Johnson and admitting his intention to blow up Parliament and expressing his regret that the plan had failed. This defiance earned him the admiration of King James, who described Fawkes as having a “Roman resolution.” After two days of torture, Fawkes’ defiance waned. He revealed his true identity and over the following days began to reveal the identities of the other conspirators involved with the Gunpowder plot.

The trials of the plotters began on 27th January 1606, on a purpose-built scaffold outside Westminster Hall. The outcome of the trial was always pre-determined and despite the King’s admiration of Fawkes, he was not spared the grisly sentence of death by hanging, drawing and quartering. On 31st January, after been dragged through the streets from the Tower of London to Parliament, and following the hanging and dismemberment of his fellow plotters, Fawkes climbed the scaffold and asked for the forgiveness of the King and of the state, then jumped from the scaffold to the ground, breaking his neck and avoiding the agony of his punishment. His body was nevertheless quartered and sent to the “four corners of the kingdom” in a warning to other dissidents.

It became a tradition on the 5th November every year to celebrate the King’s escape by lighting bonfires around London. This soon became a countrywide celebration, and despite Fawkes being one of a thirteen-member group of conspirators, he is the one that has become most associated with the failed attempt on the King’s life and it is his effigy that is most commonly burned on top of a bonfire each year.