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The Gunpowder Plot: Guy Fawkes and a Plan to Blow up Parliament

Guy Fawkes

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Fawkes 'very violently gripped Master Doubleday by the fingers of the left hand. Through pain thereof Master Doubleday offered to draw his dagger to have stabbed Fawkes, but suddenly better thought himself and did not; yet in that heat he struck up the traitor's heels and withal fell upon him and searched him, and in his pocket found his garters, wherewith Master Doubleday and others that assisted him bound him' (John Stow, Annals, 1631).

On the night of November 4-5 1605, Guy (Guido) Fawkes was caught in the cellars of Parliament under the House of Lords sitting near 36 kegs of gunpowder. Dressed in riding gear, he was discovered by Sir Thomas Knyvett and Edmund Doubleday based on a tip in an anonymous letter.

Fawkes, a British soldier and gunpowder expert, was part of an English Catholic conspiracy to blow up the houses of Parliament. He and his gentlemen co-conspirators wanted to bring down the monarchy and government of Protestant king James I and replace it with Catholic leadership.

James I had little religious tolerance. Though his wife, Anne of Denmark, was a Catholic, in a 1604 speech to Parliament James I said he “detested” the Catholic faith. Days later he ordered all Jesuit and Catholic priests to leave the realm.

The Gunpowder Plotters

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The “Gunpowder Plot” involved 18 men, including Fawkes. The plan was to blow up the House during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5 and to make way for James’ daughter, Elizabeth, to take the throne. The hope was that Elizabeth would marry a Catholic.

After Fawkes’ capture (under the alias “John Johnson”) he was taken to the Tower of London and questioned by the King and his Privy Council. Fawkes was defiant and would not implicate his friends by name. Fawkes was tortured on the rack until he signed a confession.

Fawkes regretted his failure to “blow [the] Scotch beggars back to [their] own native mountains”.

Guy Fawkes’ signature before and after torture.

Image courtesy of

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Once the conspiracy and Fawkes were discovered, most of the conspirators fled to the Midlands, and orders were issued for their arrests. There was a brief shoot-out: Catesby, the mastermind of the plot, Thomas Percy, and Christopher and Jack Wright were killed. Thomas Winter and Ambrose Rookwood were captured and brought to London.

Sir Everard Digby, Thomas Bates, Robert Keyes and Francis Tresham were arrested over the next few days, whilst many others were seized under suspicion of involvement. Robert Winter evaded arrest until January 1606. All were put to torture in the Tower.

On January 27, 1606, Fawkes and his co-conspirators were tried for high treason by the Crown Court in Westminster Hall. All were found guilty . Three of Fawkes’ fellow plotters were hanged, drawn and quartered on January 30 in St. Paul’s churchyard.

Fawkes came to Westminster Palace yard on January 31 along with Winter, Rookwood, and Keyes. He was the last to be hung. He appealed to the King and state for forgiveness. With the rope around his head, he either jumped or fell from the platform and died by broken neck. As a final act of defiance, he spared himself a horrendous death by drawing and quartering.

Guy Fawkes Day, Lewes, England 2012

Photo credit: Luke MacGregor

The celebration of Guy Fawkes Day began on the one-year anniversary of Fawkes’ capture, and is still celebrated every year in the United Kingdom and a number of countries once part of the British Empire. Celebrations include parades, fireworks, bonfires and food. Straw effigies of Fawkes are tossed on the bonfire. Children traditionally carried these effigies, or “Guys”, in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day and asked passersby for “a penny for the guy”.

Remember, remember the fifth of November

Gunpowder treason and plot

We see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot...

18th c. poem

Why do you think Guy Fawkes’ Day is still celebrated in the United Kingdom?





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