Guy Fawkes: The Man Who Tried to Blow Up Parliament

The Protestant Reformation was a dangerous time to be Catholic. In an attempt to restore the Catholic faith in England, Guy Fawkes and other conspirators planned to blow up Parliament.

Jun 11, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
guy fawkes portrait painting
Guy Fawkes portrait painting, via Historic Royal Palaces, London


In the 16th century, England faced religious turmoil and rising rebellions fueled by enraged Roman Catholics as Protestants took over the country. Guy Fawkes, along with other conspirators, rallied together to act on their frustrations by mustering up the Gunpowder Plot. The plot was designed to blow up Parliament, kill the king, and make England a Catholic country once again.


Religious Mayhem Prior to Guy Fawkes

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Print edition of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther, 1517, via The London Library


The Gunpowder Plot resulted from decades of quarrels and rebellion between Protestants and Catholics. In order to understand why Guy Fawkes and other conspirators were so infuriated with King James I of England that they wanted to blow him up, the build-up of events must be noted. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, much of Europe was heavily Roman Catholic, and the Pope was the authority. Priests were in charge of telling the truths of the Bible as most common people could not read Latin.


A law student turned monk, Martin Luther, began pointing out the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. In their beliefs, Roman Catholics had a middle ground between heaven and hell called purgatory. Purgatory was a place for those who were sinful enough to not make it to heaven but pure enough to not be sent to hell. Luther frowned upon the sale of indulgences, which were used as donations to the church that common people could buy to limit a person’s time in purgatory. He also argued that the priesthood was a human invention.


Martin Luther authored the notable 95 Theses, which outlined the beliefs that the Bible was the true authority and salvation could be reached through faith and the grace of God alone. Luther translated the Bible into German, which allowed common people to form new interpretations of the Bible’s meaning. As a result, denominations formed, such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Puritans, and Anglicans. The Protestant Reformation turned into a social revolt as Protestant monarchs began condemning Roman Catholics.


King James I Disappoints the Catholics of England

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Portrait of King James I of England, via The Royal Household, London

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After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Catholics had high hopes that King James I would be more accepting of the Catholic faith. His wife, Anne of Denmark, converted to Catholicism, and his mother was a devout Catholic. However, King James continued in Queen Elizabeth’s footsteps with the persecution of Catholics as he was under pressure from House of Commons members who were anti-Catholic. Two years before the Gunpowder Plot, other plotters conspired against the king, including the Bye Plot and Main Plot in 1603, but both were unsuccessful.


Early Life of Guy Fawkes

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Illustration of Guy (Guido) Fawkes, via Historic UK, London


Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido Fawkes, was born in York in 1570, which was a difficult time to be Catholic. Queen Elizabeth I reinstated several anti-Catholic laws in the latter half of the 16th century that were previously removed during the reign of Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s predecessor. The new laws abolished the Pope’s authority in England, expelled Roman Catholic priests from the country, and allowed for the persecution of Roman Catholics. Catholic rebellions were a common occurrence that had deadly consequences for those who led them, as rebelling against the queen was a form of treason. Fawkes’ father was a church lawyer and a staunch Protestant, but he died when Fawkes was eight. Fawkes’ mother remarried a Catholic, leading Fawkes to convert to Catholicism.


After attending St. Peter’s School of York, Fawkes enlisted as a Catholic Spanish soldier for the Eighty Years’ War and fought against the Protestant Dutch. He was 21 at the time and became known for his technical expertise in explosives. Fawkes continued his career in the military for ten years. While in Spain, Fawkes met Thomas Wintour, who was trying to recruit Catholics to join a conspirator group in England. Wintour told Fawkes of their plot to kill the king, and Fawkes agreed to join the group. He went to England with Wintour in 1604.


Gunpowder Plot Conspirators

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Engraving of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, Crispijn de Passe the Elder, circa 1605, via National Portrait Gallery, London


Guy Fawkes is the face of the Gunpowder Plot, but he was not the mastermind behind the plan, and several other conspirators were involved. Robert Catesby conjured up the plan of the Gunpowder Plot. He was raised in a Roman Catholic household in Warwickshire, England. Catesby had previously been imprisoned in 1601 for participating in the Essex’s Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. He was on the English government’s radar and was also arrested upon Queen Elizabeth’s death as a precaution. In 1604, Catesby began rallying a group of conspirators to carry out the Gunpowder Plot.


Thomas Wintour was one of the first conspirators that Catesby recruited. Wintour was born in a Catholic family, and his uncle was a Catholic priest. His brother, Robert Wintour, was drawn into the plot a year later, in 1605. John and Christopher Wright were brothers who knew Catesby and also attended St. Peter’s in York with Fawkes. The Wright brothers, along with their relative Thomas Percy, were frustrated with King James for failing to put a stop to Catholic persecution. They were initiated into the plot by Catesby.


Other conspirators brought into the plot included Francis Tresham, Robert Keyes, John Grant, Thomas Bates, Ambrose Rookwood, and Sir Everand Digby. Along with Catesby, several other plot members also participated in Essex’s Rebellion and were deemed dangerous by the English government. Catesby managed to rally the group of conspirators together between 1604 and 1605. The conspirators’ motives were fueled by their frustrations with the king for not being more accepting of Catholics.


Guy Fawkes & the Gunpowder Plot

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Illustration of Guy Fawkes caught in the cellar underneath the Houses of Parliament, via Historic UK, London


The plan of the Gunpowder Plot was to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening and kill the king in hopes that his daughter, Elizabeth, would take the throne and marry a Catholic prince. The goal was to stop the oppression and torment that Catholics had endured since the start of the Protestant Reformation. The conspirators occupied a house next to the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament had planned to meet in November. The house’s basement included a cellar that extended under the Parliament meeting place.


Guy Fawkes was in charge of the explosives in the operation because of his technical experience and background in the military. Fawkes and the conspirators placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar, and Fawkes was to light a fuse to blow up Parliament. On November 5, 1605, Fawkes went into the cellar with a fuse, lantern, and matches to light the barrels of gunpowder located in the basement of the House of Lords. The plot was extremely close to succeeding if an anonymous tip hadn’t caused a member of Parliament, Sir Thomas Knyvett, and close friend Edmund Doubday to catch Fawkes sneaking around in the basement.


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Monteagle letter warning of the Gunpowder Plot, 1605, via The National Archives, London


The anonymous tip that led to Fawkes’ capture was the Monteagle Letter. William Parker, addressed as Lord Monteagle, received the anonymous letter warning him not to attend the Parliament meeting on November 5th. The letter declared that “Parliament will receive a terrible blow, but they will not see who it is that hurts them.” The Monteagle Letter was suspected of being written and sent by Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law and co-conspirator, Francis Tresham. Francis denied writing the letter upon his capture.


The Apprehension & Interrogation of Guy Fawkes

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Signed confession of Guy Fawkes, 1605, via The National Archives, London


Before Fawkes could light the fuse to blow up the Palace of Westminster, he was apprehended in the cellars. Illustrations of Guy Fawkes’ capture often depict the lantern he was carrying at the time. After he was arrested, Fawkes was delivered to King James. When interrogated, Fawkes allegedly admitted that he wished to blow up the Scottish King and Lords and regretted failing.


Fawkes was brought to the Tower of London, also known as the Tower of Terror, where prisoners were interrogated and tortured. The lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Waad, carried out a majority of the interrogation of Fawkes. King James had given a royal warrant for Fawkes to be tortured, starting with mild acts that led to harsher forms of torture when he refused to make a confession. Fawkes may have endured the “torture rack” during his time in the Tower. The torture rack was a device that stretched the limbs of prisoners to cause excruciating pain.


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Etching of Guy Fawkes and conspirator executions in Old Palace Yard by Claes Jansz Visscher, 1606, via National Portrait Gallery, London


After days of torture, Fawkes signed two confessions. The first confession was signed on November 8, 1605, but it did not name the other conspirators. A second, more detailed confession was given a day later and signed by Fawkes with an almost illegible signature, which hints at how weak he was after immense torture. Fawkes was sentenced to the most gruesome of executions. He was to be hung, drawn, and quartered in the Westminster Yard. This form of execution stemmed from Medieval England in the 13th century for committers of treason. A horse carriage dragged prisoners to the location where they would be hanged and dismembered.


After the failure of the plot, the other conspirators fled London. Several of them bunkered down in Holbeach before being captured. The Wright brothers, Thomas Percy, and Robert Catesby were killed in a shootout with authorities at the Holbeach House. Percy and Catesby’s heads were cut off, sent to London, and displayed on top of the House of Commons. Along with Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Robert Keyes, and Ambrose Rookwood were all executed in the Old Palace Yard on January 31, 1606. Sir Everand, John Grant, and Robert Wintour were executed in St. Paul’s Churchyard a day prior.


Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes Day

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Observance of 5th November Act 1605 (Thanksgiving Act), 1606, via UK Parliament, London


Despite Fawkes’ small role in the Gunpowder Plot, he is the primary face of the failed scheme. King James I passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605, known as the Thanksgiving Act, in 1606. The act included a number of provisions, such as commemorative church services, to celebrate the failure of the plot. Guy Fawkes’ capture turned into an annual tradition with bonfires, fireworks, and ringing church bells that lasted centuries. Although the act was repealed in the 19th century, Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night, is still celebrated to this day across the United Kingdom. Another tradition that came from the Gunpowder Plot is the search of the Houses of Parliament by the Yeomen of the Guard that is performed before the State Opening.


A nursery rhyme about the Gunpowder Plot became a popular chant on Guy Fawkes Day, with people reciting the words, “Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot!” The famous face of Fawkes has been made into a mask that features his prominent mustache and goatee. The mask is used as an antigovernmental symbol of resistance and is often worn by people in protests. Guy Fawkes is also remembered through a popular dystopian fiction film released in 2005 called V for Vendetta. Although the story is futuristic and does not accurately display the Gunpowder Plot’s events, there are some aspects of the movie that relate to the plot. The Gunpowder Plot made Guy Fawkes a historical and political icon whose story has lived on for centuries.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.