The Real Guy Fawkes Book ReviewPosted: 2017-12-09
The tale is one that anyone with an interest in British history can recite from memory; in the early dawn hours of 5 November, 1605 Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars under the Houses of Parliament armed with enough barrels of gunpowder to kill King James I and anyone else attending the opening of Parliament scheduled for that later morning.
Over the centuries since the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered the figure of Guy Fawkes has become something of a cultural icon, his name given to scarecrow-like mannequins burned on bonfires every 5th November to the accompaniment of fireworks and celebrations.
But who was the real Guy Fawkes, the man behind the myth? That's the question that Nick Holland set out to answer in his utterly compelling book, 'The Real Guy Fawkes', published by Pen and Sword Books.
I'm a historian by training and by interest, and I thought I knew the story of the Gunpowder Plot and the shadowy figures behind the attempt to kill King James and put a Catholic ruler in his place. But this exceptionally readable book illuminated the story of the Gunpowder Plot for me in a way that no other book has.
I was gripped by the narrative, to the point that I found myself secretly hoping against hope that Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators might somehow bring their absurdly impossible plot to a successful conclusion, as if history could be rewritten like a good detective story.
The author does an outstanding job of examining Guy Fawkes' life, from his birth in York and his early education to the links his family developed with leading Catholic families after his father's death. He shows how Fawkes was deeply affected by the capture and execution of Catholic martyr Margaret Clitherow, whose family were known to Fawkes and his parents.
Guy Fawkes in York
He also shows in great detail how the turbulent religious climate in York helped shape Fawke's beliefs and turn the son of a Protestant solicitor into a Catholic with an unshakeable faith and a conviction that England desperately needed to be saved from the Protestant elite and brought back to the Catholic faith by any means necessary.
One fascinating part of the book looks at the fact that Fawkes may have married young, though documentary evidence is sparse. It seems likely that Fawkes' wife and child died young, perhaps in childbirth, and this may have prompted this respectable son of a good family to sell his property in England and become a professional soldier abroad.
The skills that Guy Fawkes learned as a soldier, fighting the religious wars that swept through Europe in the late 16th century, brought him to the attention of leading Catholics abroad and back in England. He was sent on a diplomatic mission to the court of King Philip of Spain, trying to convince Philip to launch an attack on England to rival the Spanish Armada and wrest England from its Protestant rulers.
The book follows Guy Fawkes' military career and how it brought him into contact with leading Catholic agitators for change, but it is far more than just a biography of Guy Fawkes; it is a fascinating look at England in an age of religious turmoil, when government officials like Robert Cecil maintained a network of spies, when Catholic families built secret priest holes to hide travelling Catholic priests from the Protestant authorities, and when it was dangerous to speak your mind out loud.
The author does a marvellous job of drawing together the strands of Elizabethan life, from religious conflict to political intrigue. He shows how self-interest and cruelty went hand in hand with political expediency and propaganda. He also shows how Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were gradually drawn to feel that they simply had no other choice than to kill the king and his councillors.
One fascinating fact becomes clear as the plotters develop their scheme; they must not simply kill the king, for the enemies of Catholicism would just replace him with another. They must destroy the king and as many of the leading nobles as possible, and create a power vacuum where it would be possible to insert a puppet ruler on the throne, a ruler with Catholic sympathies.
A Chance to Kill the King
That decision is put into stark focus when just a few days before the opening of Parliament Guy Fawkes finds himself, armed with his sword, standing beside King James at a public function. It was the perfect opportunity to kill the king. But Fawkes knows that killing the king is not the sole focus of the plot; they must also kill the leading Protestant nobles and have a ready-made Catholic replacement on hand to take the throne. So he keeps his sword in its sheath, and does nothing. How might history have changed if he had not kept to his principles?
And make no mistake, Guy Fawkes and the other Gunpowder Plotters were very much men of principle; this was no wild-eyed band of radicals bent on destruction; these were men who saw themselves as fighting for the survival of England itself against an implacable and evil enemy.
Who Sent the Mounteagle Letter?
One of the most interesting episodes around the Gunpowder Plot has always been the question of who sent the mysterious letter warning Lord Mounteagle to stay away from the opening of Parliament. Lord Mounteagle himself did not know. He took the letter to Robert Cecil, who ordered a search of the Parliament buildings which resulted in the discovery of Guy Fawkes and his barrels of gunpowder.
The question of who sent the letter that effectively scuppered the Gunpowder Plot has vexed historians for centuries. The author makes a very good case that it was probably Francis Tresham, one of the Plotters and the man initially suspected by Robert Catesby, the Plot leader, of betraying them.
Much of what we think we know about the Gunpowder Plot and about Guy Fawkes is based on guesswork, and a fair amount of Protestant propaganda that emerged after the Plot was foiled. 'The Real Guy Fawkes' does an exceptional job of examining the facts, based on copious research, and just as important, it does an outstanding job of making those facts read like a well-researched novel. Guy Fawkes comes across as a real person, a man of conviction, and we can understand, if not approve of, his attempts to turn English history on its head.