Remember, remember, the 5th of November…

…gunpowder, treason and plot!

We’re approaching that time of the year when firework displays take place across the country, from organised events to more humble fun in the back garden. This is done in commemoration of the 1605 plot to blow up Parliament and James I. It was, in fact, illegal NOT to celebrate the narrow escape of the Monarch until 1959. Parliament was determined to make an example of the man they caught red-handed, waiting in the cellars of Westminster with 36 barrels of gun powder for the arrival of the King, his cloak and spurs on ready to make his getaway. This man was Guy Fawkes, born in 1570 in the heart of York.

York Minster

York Minster

Guy was born in a house somewhere behind Stonegate, but the exact location is uncertain (in fact, two plaques in York declare the site of his birthplace). He was born into a Protestant family and christened in the church of St Michael le belfry, the church nestled up to the Minster. All its parishioners would have had some connection with the Minster, usually through work. Guy’s father, Edward, was the lawyer.

Guy attended St Peter’s School and was friends with two brothers, John and Christopher Wright, who were from a family of known recusants – that means their family had been prosecuted for practising Catholicism. Both John and Christopher became key players in the Gunpowder plot and it was this friendship that led to Guy’s involvement.

Guy’s father died when he was 10 and his mother then married Dennis Bainbridge, who was from another well-known family of recusants. The Catholic influences in Guy’s life lead him to convert from Protestantism when he was 16 or 17.

At around 21 years old, Guy sold everything he owned and left Yorkshire with his Jesuit priest cousin, Richard Cowling. Travelling to Spain he became a soldier in the Spanish Army, learning the trade of a Sapper – a military engineer. Guy, or Guido as he became known, acquired the skills of tunnelling, laying gunpowder and creating petards and mines, all of which made him the ideal recruit into the plot to blow up parliament.

A bonfire

A bonfire

In 1604 the plotters rented a house near the Houses of Parliament and here Guy’s skills were put to use. For more than a year, he tunnelled and guarded the precious gunpowder. On the evening of 4th November, the day before King James was due to arrive at Parliament, the cellars were searched. Alerted by an unusually large pile of firewood, Lord Monteagle, the head of the search party, soon found Guy ready to detonate the deadly arsenal. Conspiracy theories abound on how Lord Monteagle knew where to look and discovered the plot; it may be that Guy was set up, and that some of the plotters were double agents and that the plot had been known about for months.

Guy was taken to the tower and tortured on ‘the rack’, a particularly gruesome torture that involved stretching the body in opposite directions on a wooden rack. He was eventually executed – hung, drawn and quartered – ironically in the yard of the Palace of Westminster, very close to Parliament. The other conspirators were killed or caught, but it is only Guy who is referred to as ‘the devil’ in the court proceedings and only his name which is synonymous with the 5th November celebrations.

Today, St Peter’s School has no bonfire, but it is said that the guys on the bonfires of neighbouring schools are consumed by the flames while wearing a St Peter’s School cap.

So this year, remember, remember the 5th November and spare a thought for poor old Guy Fawkes, the man from York, who may well have been set up to fail, as a grisly warning to other would-be assassins of the King.


Sarah Cowling is a Blue Badge Guide based in Yorkshire. You can book her for a Guy Fawkes tour of York.

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