In 1605, an event, eighty-eight days from initiation to end, with thirteen main characters, two pairs of brothers, cousins, marriages, a planned assassination of a king and kidnap of a princess, 36 barrels of high explosives, plague, betrayal, thirteen deaths: eight by execution, one of natural causes and four in a last stand shoot-out and quite possibly the worst pseudonym going; both did and didn’t take place.
The Gunpowder Plot, from which we derive our bonfire night and out of which one man’s name has been etched into history, was a dark plan that went horribly wrong for all involved. But what is intriguing, is the prominence with which we all know Guy Fawkes and yet, he was merely one man amongst thirteen, and not even the leader of that band of conspirators.
So, who were the others and why is Guy the one we know so well? Remember, remember, the fifth of November – we all say it, but do we actually know what it is we are meant to be remembering?
The Gunpowder plot was instigated by Catholic conspirators after they had become disillusioned by the unfulfilled promise by King James I to show leniency towards Catholics. The plan, was to blow up the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament, killing the King and those in power close to him. Simultaneously, the princess Elizabeth (third in line to succession) was to be kidnapped and placed on the throne as titular (in name only) queen (the Princes Henry and Charles having been otherwise ‘dealt with’ and out of the way).
It was a man called Robert Catesby who was the mastermind of the plot. A charismatic man, Catesby had no trouble in enlisting co-conspirators in his plan to restore a Catholic to the throne. In May 1604 Catesby called together the four other main conspirators: Thomas Percy, John Wright, Thomas Wintour and Guy Fawkes, for the first meeting, held at the Duck and Drake Inn, London.
Thomas Percy was a violent, wild and belligerent man from a wealthy and powerful, aristocratic family who had married the sister of two other conspirators: Christopher and John Wright. Despite being a member of the King’s guards, he became disillusioned with the lack of leniency towards Catholics. Percy rented the house next to and the basement under the House of Lords and because of this, it was easy for him to be identified later as part of the gang of conspirators.
John Wright (brother to Christopher Wright) was from Yorkshire and attended the same school as Guy Fawkes. He, and his brother, were already deemed, by the authorities, to be dangerous Catholics – even before they became involved in the Gunpowder Plot. They knew Catesby well and their sister married Thomas Percy.
Thomas Wintour was brother to Robert and cousin to Catesby and Tresham. He was closely involved in all preparations of the plot and after seeking, and failing, to get support from the Spanish, he recruited Fawkes. After his arrest, he made claims that the conspirators had dug a tunnel under Parliament but no evidence of this has ever been found. Fawkes admitted the same eventually but only after days of torture. As Wintour was heavily involved from the start, he gave the most detailed account of the plot.
And here we meet Guy Fawkes. Fawkes’ father was a protestant but after he died, his mother remarried into a Catholic family. Fawkes became a soldier fighting for the Spanish Catholics against the Dutch (which was where he took up the name Guido Fawkes) and was highly regarded for his technical expertise. He was recruited by Thomas Wintour as their gunpowder expert.
These were the main five: Catesby, Percy, Wright, Wintour and Fawkes.
The planning began in earnest in 1604 but as the time got closer, it was necessary to enlist other members into the conspiracy; and here they are:
Francis Tresham. Tresham has become known as the reluctant conspirator – perhaps the traitors’ traitor. The failure of the Gunpowder Plot, was brought about by an anonymous note being sent to a member of parliament which was subsequently shown to the king who ordered the search which discovered Fawkes. It was Tresham’s brother-in-law who was the recipient of this note. The conspirators were already unsure of Tresham’s trustworthiness and didn’t even reveal the secret of the plot to him until late in October; it was his money that inveigled him to the others. After his capture, he claimed that he had been appalled by the plot and had attempted to stop it, but he was named by Fawkes and so this claim served him to no end.
Christopher Wright, brother to John, was recruited into the conspirators later than his brother. He too attended the same school as Guy Fawkes.
Robert Wintour was the younger brother of Thomas and was not recruited until much later. His older brother, after capture, purportedly pleaded for his brother to be spared and to take the punishment for them both, but this was to no avail.
Thomas Bates was Catesby’s devoted servant and was recruited after accidentally overhearing about the plot.
Ambrose Rookward was born in Suffolk into a Catholic family. He inherited his father’s estates and his wealth was the reason the recruiters encouraged him to join them. He was known to have a good stable of horses at Coldham Hall, Staningfield, Suffolk, which would be useful to the plot.
Sir Everard Digby was also recruited for his money. He was told at a late stage about the plot in October 1605 and although he had some doubts, he joined the conspiracy. In the end, he was the only one who pleaded guilty, not that this made any difference to the final outcome.
Robert Keyes was the son of a protestant clergyman but his mother was from a Catholic family. His role in the plot was to look after the gunpowder and other equipment stored for some time in Thomas Percy’s property. He was known to be a desperate man, ruined by debt. Standing on the scaffold at his end, he insisted that the plot had been justified.
John Grant was married to the sister of the Wintour brothers. He was the weapons man bringing many for the conspirators to use.
So here we have a band of angry and dissatisfied conspirators. The planned event had to be put on hold for a while as the threat of the plague delayed the opening of parliament but at last, it was set to go ahead on 5th November 1605. On 26th October the anonymous note, hinting at what was to come, was sent to Tresham’s brother-in-law. This note was shown to the King on 1st November but it wasn’t until the 4th November that the first of two searches was ordered. Fawkes was found in the initial search but persuaded the first Earl of Suffolk (who was leading the Kings party) that he was merely a servant looking after his master’s (Percy’s) undercroft. However, the king was suspicious, for the name of Percy was known to them, and a second search was sent out and upon finding Fawkes there again, dressed ready to flee and with matches and the gunpowder, the plot was discovered and stopped.
Fawkes was arrested but gave his identity as the pseudonym John Johnson he had been using when posing as Catesby’s servant when they infiltrated the home of the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe, earlier in the plot to gain intelligence. After giving no information to the authorities, on 6th November, the King authorised the use of torture on Fawkes and on the 7th November, he broke and gave them his real identity. After another day of torture, on the 8th November, he finally gave them the names of his co-conspirators.
What had happened to the others? After the plot was discovered they all fled. Catesby, Percy, the Wright brothers, Thomas Wintour, Rookwood and Grant all ended up in an ill-fated shoot-out in Staffordshire. Catesby, Percy and the Wright brothers died there and later the bodies of Catesby and Percy were exhumed and their heads cut off and displayed on the roof of the House of Commons to serve as a warning. Thomas Wintour, Rookwood and Grant, were all injured at the shoot-out and arrested. They were trialled and executed in January 1606.
Tresham, Robert Wintour, Bates, Digby and Keyes were all arrested in various other parts of the country. They too were tried and found guilty and executed in January 1606, bar Tresham who died in The Tower of natural causes.
Fawkes was tried also and found guilty and on 31st January 1606 was set to be hanged, drawn and quartered as his fellow conspirators had been. Climbing to the noose he at least managed to escape the torture of being drawn and quartered alive, by jumping from the scaffold and breaking his neck, dying before this ignominy.
So, why then is it that despite there being twelve other men involved in the plot and it being led by Catesby that we all remember Guy Fawkes? It can only be that he was the one caught red-handed. Every cause needs a hero and every failed plot needs a fall-guy to serve as a warning. Indeed, the authorities still quartered his dead body and sent each piece to a different part of the country to be the cautionary tale against treason. Despite being no bigger part than the other’s in the plot, Fawkes has become the face, the figurehead for the Gunpowder Plot and to this day his name is synonymous with the event.