Freedom fighter or terrorist? Who was the real Guy Fawkes?

Kit Harington stars in the new BBC drama Gunpowder. Photo - BBC.

A new BBC drama has relegated Guy Fawkes to a bit part in the Gunpowder Plot.

Not so, says York author Nick Holland, who is on a mission to uncover the man behind the myths.

Catch the three-part drama Gunpowder on the BBC iPlayer. Photo - BBC

November 5 is celebrated across the United Kingdom as Bonfire Night. But, more than 400 years after his execution, Guy Fawkes remains an enigma: was he a terrorist fanatic, a freedom fighter or a fool?

Guy’s story, and that of his fellow conspirators, is hot news this year thanks to the new BBC drama Gunpowder’ It’s fast paced and action heavy, starring Game Of Thrones stalwart Kit Harington as Robert Catesby, with Tom Cullen as a taciturn yet menacing Guy Fawkes.

Harington also produced the show and it’s a story close to his heart after he discovered he was a direct descendant of Catesby himself. Kit’s stated aim is to bring his ancestor out of the shadows and give him recognition as leader of the gunpowder plot that sought to kill King James I and destroy England’s ruling class.

In doing so he unfairly relegates Guy to a more subordinate role than he actually occupied, so that we see the dramatised Catesby undertaking actions that Guy carried out in real life, and even speaking Guy’s words. In Gunpowder, we see Catesby leave England to ask the Spanish king to invade England, but the truth was somewhat different.

It was in fact Fawkes who negotiated unsuccessfully with the king and as I found out when researching and writing my biography, truth is often stranger than fiction when it comes to this controversial figure.

Fawkes was born in York in April 1570, the only son of Thomas and Edith Fawkes. He is notorious for his role in a Catholic terrorist plot, but was born and raised a Protestant, and his father was an ecclesiastical lawyer in the Archbishop of York’s consistory court. He was living in a dangerous and times, and this eventually changed his character, his religion and his fate.

One of the most controversial scenes of the BBC drama showed a woman being stripped and then crushed to death beneath rocks fafter being caught harbouring a Catholic priest. While the character was invented for dramatic effect, the story wasn’t.

Margaret Clitherow of York was indeed pressed to death for refusing to plea in court. She kept silent to avoid implicating others, and her cruel killing had a profound effect one of the city’s schoolboys.

Under torture in the Tower of London after his capture, Fawkes was asked a series of questions set for him by King James himself. He was asked when he became a Catholic, to which Guy replied that he had been a Catholic for 20 years, making the year of his conversion around 1586 – the year in which Margaret Clitherow was executed. Her butcher’s shop was a short walk from the Fawkes house, and it was her death that made Guy turn his back on the faith of his fathers.

Guy was at this time a pupil at St. Peter’s School in York. It was ostensibly, as it had to be, a Protestant school, but beneath the surface things were very different. The headmaster John Pulleyn left in 1591 to take Catholic holy orders; his predecessor John Fletcher had been arrested in 1575 for the crime of being a Catholic, and then spent 20 years in prison.

Among Guy’s fellow pupils were Robert Middleton, who converted to become a Catholic priest and was hung, drawn and quartered in 1601. Then there was Oswald Tesimond who was on the wanted list after the failure of the plot: he was arrested, but overpowered his captor and fled to the safety of the continent by hiding under a cargo of pig carcasses in a boat bound for France. Finally, alongside Fawkes at St. Peter’s School were two more gunpowder conspirators: the brothers Jack and Kit Wright.

As a recusant, a Catholic who refused to attend Protestant services, Fawkes faced punitive fines and worse, so he took the route favoured by many Catholic men at this time and travelled to Flanders to join the Spanish army. The Spanish Netherlands, as the area around Belgium was then called, was the scene of a bitter war between Catholic Spain and native Protestants, and he was soon in demand as a member of the English Regiment led by Sir William Stanley.

Fawkes proved to be a courageous and able soldier and rose quickly through the ranks. By early 1604 he was being considered for promotion to the rank of Captain, but a visitor from England changed everything.

Thomas Wintour had been sent to Flanders by Catesby, carrying a message to Fawkes that ‘some good friends of his wished his company in England.’ The hidden meaning of the words was easily understood, and in April 1604 Fawkes set foot in England for the first time in 11 years.

He was a changed man, no longer a scholarly boy but a battle-scarred man ready and fit for a fight, and he found England changed too. The persecution of Catholics had gained pace and men such as Catesby and Wintour were desperate and deadly.

Fawkes needed little persuading to join Catesby’s deadly plot, and he didn’t balk at the talk of killing not only the King but his son and wife, and all of the Lords and Bishops who would be in attendance at the House of Lords. Fawkes had become experienced in the art of tunnelling and the use of gunpowder at sieges in the Spanish Netherlands, and he was put in charge of gathering and storing the gunpowder and, ultimately, lighting the fuse.

A modern explosives expert, Dr. Sidney Alford, estimates that the conspirators had prepared 25 times the gunpowder needed to blow up the House of Lords, and that the explosion would also have destroyed Westminster Abbey and a large area of London. Fawkes was more than prepared to set this tragedy in motion, after all his stated belief was that ‘a desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy.’

Fawkes was captured in the early hours of November 5, 1605, just hours away from lighting the fuse that would have resulted in England’s greatest ever loss of life due to a terrorist attack. He proved brave and obstinate under torture, hoping to give his fellow conspirators time to escape or to enact their planned uprising and capture of the King’s daughter Princess Elizabeth. This too failed, and Catesby and others were killed in a final shoot out at Holbeche House, now a retirement home with a rather dark past.

A huge crowd gathered to see Guy Fawkes hung, drawn and quartered on January 31, 1606. However, he was so weakened by torture that his neck snapped immediately, killing him instantly and sparing him from the disembowelment he’d been sentenced to. So what was Guy Fawkes – a terrorist, a freedom fighter or a tool in a larger plot? He was all three, and as an example of what can happen when people are pushed into a corner he is more relevant today than ever before.

The Real Guy Fawkes by Nick Holland, published by Pen & Sword, is out now.

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