05 November 2022
York remembers Guy Fawkes
on Bonfire Night for more
than the Gunpowder Plot
Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night (5 November 2022), and since darkness fell this evening bonfires have been burning across England – except, perhaps, in some parts of York.
York seems to have a reserved sort of pride in the fact that Guy Fawkes was born in the city. A walking trail helps visitors to explore places and events in the life of Guy Fawkes and some of his fellow conspirators in the city where they grew up.
Two buildings in York claim to be the original birthplace of Guy Fawkes. The Cath Kidston shop is opposite Mulberry Hall on Stonegate, while the Guy Fawkes Inn at 25 High Petergate is a medieval inn that also claims to be his birthplace.
William Fawkes, Guy’s grandfather, married and settled in Saint Michael-le-Belfry parish and worked as a Church lawyer. Guy’s father, Edward, followed him into the Church Courts and became advocate of the Consistory Court of the Archbishop of York.
Guy Fawkes’s grandparents, William and Ellen Fawkes, are buried in York Minster, and when Guy’s father died in 1579 he too was buried in the Minster near his parents.
Guido Fawkes was born in York in 1570. Whether he was born at 32 Stonegate or at 25 High Petergate, both he of his two sisters were baptised in Saint Michael-le-Belfrey Church, across the street from the Guy Fawkes Inn. He was baptised on 13 April 1570, and a facsimile of his baptismal entry is on display inside the west entrance to the church.
Edward Fawkes died when Guy was only eight years old. When Guy was nine, his mother remarried into a family of recusants or secret Catholics, with close ties to the Percy family of Northumbria and the Ingleby and Pulleyn families.
John Pulleyn was the headmaster of Saint Peter’s School, where Guy went to school along with several other gunpowder conspirators.
York was a centre of the Catholic resistance in the 1570s and 1580s. About the time that Guy Fawkes became a Catholic, he would have been aware of a particularly treatment of many Catholics in York.
During this time, Canon Henry Comberford, former Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, was in prison in York, and from his prison cell in the Upper Sheriff’s Kidcote on Ouse Bridge he spread his beliefs amongst his fellow prisoners. As his fame grew, those outside the prison walls sought audiences with him.
The confessions of at least two York prisoners, William Tessimond and John Fletcher, suggest the influence of Comberford’s teachings. The historian John Aveling points out the importance of Henry Comberford in the development of recusancy in York. He attributes to him no small part in the growth in number of recusants in the city from only 15 in 1568, to 67 in 1576.
In the most famous – or infamous – case in York, Margaret Clitherow was publicly executed in 1586 for protecting priests in her home.
Fawkes’s schooling continued at Saint Peter’s School, York, where his contemporaries included brothers John and Christopher ‘Kit’ Wright, who were later joined the gunpowder plot.
As an adult, Fawkes inherited his father’s property at Gillygate and Clifton in York, including the present site of Saint Peter’s School. On his 21st birthday In 1593, Guy sold his estate and enlisted in the Catholic Spanish army.
He spent his next 10 years fighting for Spain, becoming commander of a unit of soldiers and an expert in explosives. He became an expert in explosives and was described by his peers as brave and powerful.
In Madrid in 1601, Guy met once again with Thomas Winter and Kit Wright, his old school friend from York. They enrolled into a plot to kill the King James and replace him with a Catholic monarch He had a useful expertise and, more importantly, he was unknown to the authorities in England.
The accession of James I brought a brief hope to Catholics, but those hopes were dashed, and disappointment soon turned to conspiracy among some Catholics from York and the surrounding area.
Thomas Percy hired a cellar under the Houses of Parliament in London and the plotters smuggled in barrels of gunpowder. On 5 November 1605, the day of the state opening of Parliament, Guy Fawkes was caught about to light a fuse on 36 barrels of gunpowder. Had he succeeded, he would have wiped out the entire royal family, the lords and the commons.
He planned to then head to Flanders to raise forces to join in a Catholic uprising in England. But he was arrested and his fellow conspirators were hunted down. John and Kit Wright were caught with other conspirators at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, then owned by Stephen Lyttelton, and died later in November.
Guy Fawkes was tortured before he was executed on 31 January 1606 in Westminster by hanging, drawing and quartering. He was the last of the conspirators to die. His remains were sent to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to other plotters.
Guy Fawkes masks have been worn in England since the 18th century, and Guy Fawkes has become a symbol of resistance in recent years. Since 2006, these masks have become international symbols of protest, inspired by the release of V for Vendetta, the film version of the 1980s-era novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
The characters actively advocate resistance, regime change and rising up. The film’s title character spends the entire 132 minutes behind a Guy Fawkes mask that has since been adopted by groups on all sides of the political spectrum, especially the Occupy movement.
Meanwhile, to this day, Saint Peter’s School in York does do not burn a ‘Guy’ on this night, and the Guy Fawkes Inn claims that as a former property owned by Guy Fawkes and his family it is prohibited from celebrating Bonfire night too.