10 facts you never knew about Guy Fawkes

The story of how Guy Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered after attempting to kill the King and blow up Parliament in 1605 is well-known. 

The famous conspirator is said to have smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar of the House of Lords before being caught red-handed – but many of the facts we were taught in school are actually common misconceptions, and the truth behind the nation’s favourite villain is not as clear.

Here, we take a look at some of the most common myths and lesser known facts about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot in preparation for the celebrations on 5 November.

Guy Fawkes facts
1. Guy Fawkes was not hanged, drawn and quartered

The traditional death for traitors in 17th-century England was to be hanged from the gallows, then drawn and quartered in public. But despite his role in the Gunpowder Plot – which the perpetrators hoped would kill King James and as many members of parliament as possible – it was not to be Fawkes’ fate.

As he awaited his grisly punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt to his death – to avoid the horrors of having his testicles cut off, his stomach opened and his guts spilled out before his eyes. He died from a broken neck.

His body was subsequently quartered, and his remains were sent to "the four corners of the kingdom" as a warning to others.

Soldiers discovered conspirator Guy Fawkes attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament

Credit: Hulton Archive

2. Guy Fawkes was not the Gunpowder Plot’s ringleader

There were a total of 13 conspirators in the plot, which was masterminded by Robert Catesby. Catesby was a charismatic Catholic figure who had a reputation for speaking out against the English crown. 

The others involved alongside Fawkes were Thomas Bates, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen and John Grant.

But it was Fawkes who gained notoriety after the plot was foiled, as he had the perilous duty of sneaking into the cellar beneath the House of Lords and igniting the explosives. It was he who was caught red-handed with 36 barrels of gunpowder, and for two days Fawkes was the only conspirator who the King’s men had captured.

3. Guy Fawkes won the unlikely admiration of King James I

When asked why he had so much gunpowder, he replied that his intention was “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”.

Fawkes admitted that he had planned to blow up the House of Lords, and expressed his regret at having failed to do so.

Unusually, his steadfast manner earned him the praise of King James, who described Fawkes as possessing "a Roman resolution".

4. Guy Fawkes was actually Protestant by birth

Despite becoming the greatest enemy of the Protestant establishment, Fawkes was, in fact, born into the faith. However, his maternal grandparents were recusant Catholics, who refused to attend Protestant services.

In 1578, when Fawkes was eight, his father died and his widowed mother married a Catholic, Dionis Baynbrigge. Fawkes converted to Catholicism when he was a teenager.

Fawkes had the perilous duty of sneaking into the cellar beneath the House of Lords and igniting the explosives

5. Guy Fawkes has an island named after him

He is one of Britain’s most infamous villains, whose effigy has been burned and whose demise has been publicly celebrated for more than four centuries. It may come as a surprise, then, that there is an island named after him.

To the north-west of Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands, a collection of two uninhabited, crescent-shaped islands is named Isla Guy Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes Island.

6. Guy Fawkes liked to be called by an Italian nickname

Aged 21 and a committed Catholic, Fawkes sold the estate his father had left him and went to Europe to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch republic in the Eighty Years War.

While he was abroad, he adopted the Italian variant of his name, becoming known as ‘Guido’. This was thought to be an attempt to sound more continental and therefore more serious about his Catholic faith.

When he was caught by the King’s men, at first he claimed his name was John Johnson. However after being tortured, he was forced to sign a confession to his role in the Gunpowder Plot, and this he signed as ‘Guido Fawkes’.

7. The Houses of Parliament are still searched once a year for conspirators

Before the State Opening of Parliament, the Yeomen of the Guard search the Houses of Parliament with lanterns to make sure there are no would-be conspirators hiding in the cellars. 

This has become more of a tradition than a serious anti-terrorist precaution.

8. The cellar that Fawkes tried to blow up no longer exists

It was destroyed in a fire in 1834 that devastated the medieval Houses of Parliament. 

9. The gunpowder would have done little damage to Parliament

The 36 barrels of gunpowder that Fawkes planted in a cellar below the Houses of Parliament would have been sufficient to raze it to the ground, while causing severe damage to neighbouring buildings.

However, some experts have claimed that the gunpowder had “decayed”, and would not have properly exploded even if it had been ignited.

10. Not everyone celebrates Guy Fawkes’ demise

Dummies have been burned on bonfires since as long ago as the 13th century, initially to drive away evil spirits. But, following the Gunpowder Plot, the focus of the sacrifices switched to Guy Fawkes’ treason.

Traditionally, these effigies called ‘guys’, are carried through the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day and children ask passers-by for "a penny for the guy" with fireworks representing the explosives that were never used by the plotters.

But his former school, St. Peter’s in York, does not celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, as they refuse to burn a guy out of respect for one of their own.

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