Guy Fawkes was bon in mid-April 1570, but few details of his early life are well documented. An important detail that is known is that his family were recusant Catholics. Fawkes was instilled with Catholicism from a young age, and at 21 he travelled to the continent to begin a military career. He fought mainly for the Spanish Catholics during the Eighty Years’ War and earned a reputation as a man of character, devoted to his religion.
In 1603, Fawkes sought the Spanish king’s help in fomenting a Catholic rebellion in England, but was rejected. When he returned to England, Fawkes became involved with a group of English Catholics who hoped to assassinate King James I. They first met in May 1604 and hatched a plan to blow up Parliament using large quantities of gunpowder. Fawkes, largely unknown in England, played the role of ‘John Johnson,’ a servant of one of the conspirators. After gaining access to a cellar beneath Parliament, the group managed to move 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar.
By October 1605 they had begun to finalize the plans. Fawkes was tasked with lighting the fuse on their stash of gunpowder. They planned to simultaneously foment a revolt whereby they could capture Princess Elizabeth and place her on the throne. On 26 October, a few members of the group sent an anonymous letter to an MP because they feared that their Catholic brethren in Parliament would fall victim to the blast. The letter, however, reached King James and aroused his suspicions. He ordered a search of the cellars beneath Parliament, and early on the morning of 5 November Guy Fawkes was discovered with the gunpowder stash, a watch and a match in hand.
After his arrest, Fawkes maintained his fictional identity, that of ‘John Johnson.’ When asked by a lord why he had placed such a large quantity of gunpowder beneath Parliament, Fawkes responded that his intention was “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.” In the face of Fawkes’ non-cooperation, James I authorised the use of torture in an order sent to the Tower of London on 6 November. Guy Fawkes was tortured over the course of the next few days and was broken to the point that he began to identify his co-conspirators.
After an investigation was conducted, eight of the conspirators, including Fawkes, were brought to trial on 27 January 1606. All eight of the conspirators were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death by hanging and quartering. Four of the conspirators were executed on 30 January, and Fawkes, along with the three remaining, was executed on 31 January 1606. The sentence had required that the prisoners be dragged behind a horse from their prison cell to the scaffold. The scaffold itself had been erected in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, directly opposite the building that Fawkes and his compatriots had attempted to raze.
Historians debate the final act of Fawkes life, but it is clear that Fawkes managed to avoid the agony of death by hanging. Some claim that he purposefully climbed the ladder too high so that the noose was incorrectly set in a way that would break his neck. Others claim that Fawkes jumped from the ladder to the ground, purposefully breaking his neck so as to avoid the hangman’s noose. In either case, it is agreed that he died immediately. Nonetheless, his body was quartered and his body parts were taken to the four corners of the kingdom to be a warning to other traitorous minds.