The story and reputation of Guy Fawkes is well established. Part of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James in 1605, Fawkes and his co-conspirators’ failure led to the tradition of Bonfire Night. As a symbol, Fawkes is remembered through effigies, and has more recently been used as part of the Occupy Movement to represent anti-establishment feeling, an image that is derived from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. However, is there more to Fawkes’ story than being a traitor, and is there evidence to suggest that Fawkes was framed?
Guy, or Guido Fawkes, was a middle class Englishman and a Catholic, who fought on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in Flanders during the early 17th century. Fawkes became involved in a plot led by Robert Catesby to attack the seat of political power in England, and end the Protestant rule of King James, bringing a Catholic to the throne. During the period, Catholics were persecuted and tortured for suspected plots, and the discovery of the gunpowder and Fawkes beneath the House of Lords led to his torture and execution.
There are a number of assumptions associated with the Gunpowder Plot. First, that Fawkes was the main instigator of the Plot, and as such the figure that became the embodiment of the Plot for Bonfire Night. In fact, Fawkes was just one man in a much larger group of conspirators, albeit one that was charged with lighting the fuses. As well as Catesby, co-conspirators included Christopher Wright and Sir Everard Digsby. Fawkes’ role was also just one small component in broader plots to restore Catholic power to England, meaning that he was just unlucky to become the pariah for the movement.
The argument that Fawkes may have been framed has been made from the assumption that the Gunpowder Plot was actually a sting operation to vilify Catholics. The discovery of the plot hinged on a seemingly anonymous letter sent to Lord Mounteagle, a Catholic, warning him not to attend Parliament that night. Conspiracy theorists suggest that Fawkes and the other men in the plot may have been set up by one of their own in Francis Tresham, as well as by Robert Cecil, the right hand man to King James.
The conspiracy goes that Cecil, wanting to crush Catholic rebellions, and stir popular support for James, devised the gunpowder plot from the beginning, promising its leaders that they would not be executed. Indeed, the ability of Fawkes and others to get the barrels of gunpowder into a cellar beneath the House of Lords is improbable, given the difficulty of procuring gunpowder, and the subsequent lack of a connecting tunnel that they could have used.
Other theories suggest that it was Cecil who wrote the damning letter to Mounteagle, and that records of the sting operation were destroyed in order to condemn Fawkes and the other men. The lack of punishment dealt out to the keeper of Westminster for letting the plotters into the Lords cellars, and the comfortable conditions that most of the conspirators were kept in at the Tower of London also provide some evidence that part of the plot was fabricated. However, even if promised their freedom, the conspirators and Fawkes were executed, albeit through hanging rather than a more gruesome death.
The idea that the Gunpowder Plot was a scheme to spread fear of Catholics is difficult to pin down, given the lack of authoritative records from the period, but lends credence to anti-Catholic legislation passed in 1606, and the creation of Bonfire Night as a way of remembering Fawkes’ actions. In this context, Fawkes may have been one of the many men in history to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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