Remember remember the fifth of November. The rhyme tells us it’s important to make the 'gunpowder, treason and plot' stick in our memory, but how much of this grisly tale of rebellion and religion do we really know?
It was actually law to ‘remember’ this day for around 250 years with an act of Parliament passed to make it a day of thanksgiving for the “joyful deliverance of James I” from these evil Catholic plotters.
But modern celebrations of Bonfire night, with their dazzling displays of fireworks, crunchy toffee apples and sparklers sanitize the gruesome reality of this tale.
The man we remember, Guy Fawkes, was actually just the hired muscle. Robert Catesby was leader of this revolutionary band and thought to be far better looking and charismatic than poor tortured Guido (who, to be fair, had his own favourable qualities-loyalty being one).
Catesby was born wealthy, of “ancient, historic and distinguished lineage”, according to author Henry Hawkes Spinks Jr. He was six-feet-tall and an accomplished swordsman. Fawkes by comparison, who was recruited later, was a soldier who had already sold the estate inherited from his father to fund his travels. He was brought on board because of his expertise with gunpowder and his devout Catholicism.
Fawkes was a redhead (or at least had “reddish brown hair”) Historian and author Dame Antonia Fraser, describes him as “a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, flowing moustache, and a bushy reddish-brown beard. So those Guy Fawkes masks aren't strictly accurate. But you knew that.
To carry out his part in the Gunpowder Plot Guy Fawkes went undercover as a parliament caretaker called “John Johnson”. When he was first discovered and interrogated as to why he had so much gunpowder he replied: “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.” (according to Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s Gunpowder Treason and Plot).
He was a lot less incendiary three days later. We are not sure what exact torture Fawkes underwent in the Tower and whether he was put on the rack.. Torture was still technically illegal and had to be approved by the King himself. Fakes signature, three days later, is thought to show the horrors he underwent after 72 hours of the most agonizing torture at the hands of James I interrogators. Although he did eventually ‘confess’, James I was reportedly impressed with his ability to withstand such brutality, praising his "Roman resolution." The Tower room he was tortured in has become known as the Guy Fawkes Room
Fawkes was not hanged drawn and quartered. He was incredibly weak when he was led to the gallows but with help managed to climb up high enough that he could throw himself off and break his own neck. Otherwise he would have been cut open while still conscious, his guts pulled out and his testicles sliced off.
Guy Fawkes truthers: there are some that have suggested the whole plot was set up, unbeknownst to Fawkes, Catesby and the other six conspirators.
The whole gunpowder plot was actually orchestrated by a rogue MP, with fingers pointing to Sir Robert Cecil, James chief minister, who hated Catholics with a passion.
The discovery of the gunpowder plot would convince James I once and for all that Catholics were evil and those who uncovered the plot would win favour with the king. Those who support this theory point to the many unanswered questions surrounding the plot: why were men known to be Catholics allowed to rent out a house so close to parliament, how did they get their hands on so much gunpowder (36 barrels)? How did they move 36 barrels from that house to the cellar of the Houses of Parliament, considering if it got wet it would be destroyed? Wasn’t it rather convenient that Fawkes was found just as he was about to light the fuse? Why did one of the plotters die of poison in a Tower of London cell? Why was the soldier who shot and killed Catesby and Thomas Percy so handsomely rewarded considering their interrogation would have been far more valuable?
The Guy Fawkes masks, featuring a stylized Fawkes have only become popular over the last fifty or so years and only very recently become to symbolise protest in any form. Although comics sold Halloween style Guy Fawkes masks on the front of comics as early as the 1960s, it was V for Vendetta that really made Guy Fawkes and his protest synonymous with one vigilante's rise against the masses.