I grew up thinking Guy Fawkes was hung, drawn and quartered and must have been in my late-thirties before I read a book about him and found this was true – but he was dead at the time.
For years I used to lie in bed imaging him on a scaffold before booing crowds. First he’d be hung from the gallows but the hangman would set the rope so his victim remained conscious. Guy’s testicles would be hacked off with an axe then his belly would be cut open and the guts pulled out before his eyes. Four waiting horses would be summoned, ropes tied around Guy’s wrists and ankles. The horses would be whipped hard into a sprint and Guy’s body would be ripped into quarters.
This was the traditional treatment for traitors in 17th-century England but Guy must have foreseen this and planned to avoid a witnessing the grisly final few minutes. While climbing the ladder to the waiting noose he jumped off - head down - to ensure he broke his neck instantly. The kings men continued to hang, rip and quarter Guy’s body but it must have been an anti-climax for crown and crowd. On order of the King (who was watching from a secret location) Guy’s remains were sent to "the four corners of the kingdom" as a warning to others but he must have been wincing with the disappoint Guy had won an instant death.
On a weekend down in London I walked up the Thames and had fifteen minutes at the exact place where executions occurred. Old Palace Yard and is expanse of grass about the size of three tennis courts across the road from the majestic Houses Of Parliament. I could not find any plaque relating to Guy Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot – only an imposing stature of King George V.
I walked around wondering if I’d trod on the spot where Guy’s head hit earth. Tourists were taking photos of the stature but I’m sure they’d prefer to know this was the spot where the perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot who tried to blow up the Houses Of Parliament suffered horrid deaths.
When you stand in Old Palace Yard the honeyed brown facades of House Of Parliament race up to block out some the sky. This small yard was specifically chosen to execute the conspirators in order to rub in their face their abject failure.
Guy Fawkes is famous now but there were 13 conspirators and Robert Catesby was the charismatic Catholic figure who masterminded the plot. Guy became the famous one as he was the given the mission to sneak into the cellar beneath the House of Lords and ignite the explosives (surely suicidal?) He was caught red-handed with 36 barrels of gunpowder on 5th November 1605.
Though King James I sentenced the baddies to death he bore some respect for Guy. Guy suffered two full days of sickening torture before he confessed to plotting to blow up Parliament. When asked why excess gunpowder had been hidden in the cellars he spat, “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”.
The tradition of burning a Guy Fawkes effigy on 5th November seems to be disappearing. When I was a boy you’d see these effigies lying outside shop doors with kids hooped round them and people accessing the shop would ask for “a penny for the Guy.” I remember one year me and some chums made a Guy and hawked it round in a pram from door to door and accummulated£4.90 in total - that was about 60 pence each when divided up - we were quite rich.
His name won’t die out as there’s a Guy Fawks island in the Galapagos Islands. He liked to be called 'Guido' to sound more continental and more serious about his Catholic faith. When forced to sign a confession to his role in the Gunpowder Plot he signed it ‘Guido Fawkes’ (wonder how much it’s worth now? William Shakespeare’s signatures sell for over £1 million and there’re only six.)
The Houses of Parliament are still searched once a year even now. Before the annual State Opening of Parliament the Yeomen of the Guard still search the cellars. Sadly the cellar that Fawkes was caught in was destroyed in a fire in 1834.)
I sat on a bench in the sun for a moment and wondered what would have been built to replace the Houses Of Parliament had it been blown up. Robert Catesby’s plan was to annihilate England’s entire Protestant government, especially King James I and his cronies who were due to attend Parliament on 5th November. What would Westminster have looked like four hundred years ago - could you see a few fields in the distance? Could you see a pig farm on a distance hill? The Houses Of Parliament would have looked different. Kings lived there from the eleventh century then Parliament started meeting there to run the kingdom in line with the King’s wishes. In the fifteen century the royalty moved out and Parliament only met there. A fire swept through the building and it was rebuilt in 1834. Four hundred years ago London was referred to as “The Smoke” as it was under a constant smelly smog, you could smell it from 30 miles away and thousands of over-worked dead horses were shoved into The Thames.
We’ll never really know for sure but the 36 barrels of gunpowder (weighing about two tons) had decayed with age and would have probably burnt the HOP down but not blasted it onto the moon.
I didn’t even bother taking a specific photograph of the statue of King George V; I’m sure the tourists and yard would be better served with a big bronze stature enacting the execution of the conspirators. I’m guessing the statue marks the spot where the executions were carried out. These gruesome hangings began on 30th January 1606. On 31st January Guy was called to meet his fate. Before him three plotters were dragged from the Tower on wattled hurdles to the Old Palace Yard were hanged and quartered.
Guy was the last one called to the scaffold. He was weakened by torture and the hang man had to help him on the ladder leading up to the waiting noose. The scaffold would have been high up so the baying crowds got an unobstructed view. Royalty watched from windows. The gallows must have been high enough for Guy to turn and dive off head first to ensure an instant death (feet first would probably break legs, pelvis and spine.)
At the time he died he was 35 years old, a decent age for the time; 25% of people died before five years old and 40% died before adulthood.
I remember looking at a website about dead porn stars and there was one called Gay Fuwkes (dead by age 26 from AIDS – didn’t even live as long as his namesake.) He obviously put his bails in the groove of the wrong wicket.
Pointing to the approximate place where the gallows were…
The scaffold would have looked like this…
He wanted this to burn…