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Pity for the Guy
A Biography of Guy Fawkes
By John Paul Davis
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2010 John Paul Davis
All rights reserved.
Portents of Dread
A freak storm hit the coasts of the Low Countries on All Saints' Day 1570. Buildings collapsed, houses and churches were destroyed, and over 20,000 lives were lost in the province of Friesland alone as the sea overflowed its banks. Such ill fate was viewed as a portent of dread by the superstitious Catholic Spanish who saw the storm, the likes of which had not been seen for four hundred years, as representing a menacing judgement sent to earth by the saints as a warning against Protestant heretics for their destruction of sacred images. When the senior curate of the town of Hoorn marched out into the streets with the Holy Sacrament in a desperate attempt to calm the waves and save the town, his cries went unheeded, causing the unbelieving burghers to laugh. To the reformed this was no evil portent; quite the contrary. They claimed that the saints were figures of peace not liable to such unrelenting anger. Instead, this event foreshadowed new disturbances, the likes of which were still to become known.
As history recalls, the year 1570 was certainly a year of disturbances. The marriage of the King of Spain, Philip II, to Anne of Austria proved to be deeply unpopular with the Dutch reformists, a situation that would contribute significantly to the ongoing wars of religion that plagued Europe throughout the sixteenth century. In February of that year Pope Pius V signed the Papal Bull that excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England, further widening the ever-increasing Catholic-Protestant divide. Following the edict from Rome denouncing Elizabeth and her followers as heretics, Elizabeth's Catholic subjects were excused of their oaths of allegiance and commanded to flaunt her authority or face excommunication. Since the accession of Elizabeth in 1558, bringing with her England's reversion to the Protestantism of her brother Edward VI, the power of the state lay solely with Protestants, and the obedience to Rome required of England's Catholics brought it into opposition with the state. When the Duke of Alba sent copies of the Papal Bull to England, a committed Catholic named Felton fixed it up to the gate of the residence of the Bishop of London – reminiscent of the antics of Martin Luther in Wittenberg – in defiance of the 'pretender' queen. While Felton was executed for his action, the real danger remained hidden from view. Although rumbles of discontent from England's Catholics continued to increase, the threat was not to be found in the form of one organized army but in refugee priests, travelling throughout Europe on a mission to bring the reformed back to the Roman tradition, leading in many cases to hostile rebellion.
Throughout England, Catholics and Puritans, zealous in nature and direct in purpose, were becoming increasingly dangerous. Less than a year earlier, a Catholic conspiracy had been thwarted in Norfolk, leading to further rebellion in the north, demonstrating the great battle of principle that still raged in England against the Protestant state. While at least one Vatican historian of the time commented that the days when 'the thunders of the Vatican could shake the thrones of Princes' were over, new storm clouds were starting to assemble. Oblivious to the thundering winds and torrential rain that battered the Low Countries, a woman of little significance was preparing to give birth in a small house in York. Only in time would history recall this was one child who, had fate been different, would have succeeded in shaking the 'thrones of princes' by thunder.
Guy Fawkes was born into a family of gentlemanly status. According to records of the Church of St Michaelle-Belfrey in York he was baptized into the Protestant faith on 16 April 1570. His date of birth is lost from history, but historians typically place it as 13 April in keeping with the usual three-day gap between birth and baptism. His family had no great claim to fame, he was heir to no titles, no family fortunes, nor could he ever expect to be. His father was a lawyer, as was his father before him, and such an occupation was not without esteem and entitled the family to be considered of gentleman status.
There are records of two families of the surname Fawkes living in York at the time. Most likely they were branches of the same one. The head of one branch had been John Fawkes of Farnley, whose family history can be traced back to around 1320. John Fawkes was steward of Knaresborough Forest during the reign of Henry VII until his death in 1496 and had been survived by three sons, Nicholas, William and Henry. While William appears to have died without issue in 1501, Nicholas married an Anne Pulleyn in 1520. The third son of John Fawkes was Henry, according to some writers, the great-grandfather of Guy Fawkes. Henry Fawkes was a merchant who achieved distinction as a freeman of York. In later years he was also mentioned in the town records as having acted as swordbearer to the Lord Mayor on ceremonial occasions, a proud moment for any family of such status. In 1522 Henry Fawkes achieved further distinction after serving as captain of an army raised by the city to assist the Earl of Shrewsbury in their border skirmish with the Scots. Following his service as a soldier, Henry Fawkes continued to serve as swordbearer until 1549 when his son, Reginald, also a freeman of the city, was appointed joint swordbearer alongside his father. The family line continued with Reginald's son, another Henry, who also became a freeman and merchant and inherited a substantial property from his father.
This branch of the Fawkes family lived a relatively peaceful existence. Based on the evidence available, the family survived the troublesome events of the Reformation without any indication of discontent and adapted peacefully to the ways of the new Protestant rites. Whether Henry Fawkes, the swordbearer to the Lord Mayor, had another son who would later provide a direct link with the famous gunpowder conspirator is unconfirmed. Some previous commentators have viewed it as extremely unlikely that two families of the same name living in the same locality at the same time would not have been related, yet this does not rule out the possibility that this one had only recently moved to the city from another location. From around 1530 onwards records cite a William Fawkes living in the parish of St Michael-le-Belfrey. Of William's parents nothing is known. Perhaps he was indeed a son of the distinguished swordbearer Henry. Some information about William Fawkes has survived, however. An advocate of the Ecclesiastical Court, he married the most respectable of wives, an Ellen Harrington, daughter of William Harrington, the Sheriff of York in 1531 and also Lord Mayor in 1536. Fawkes was undoubtedly a hard-working, serious character and is recorded as being appointed Registrar of the Exchequer Court by grant under the archiepiscopal seal in 1541, a worthwhile appointment for a man of his status. With his wife Ellen, William fathered four children, and some details survive of each. Thomas, his eldest son, became a wool-stapler; his second son, Edward, a lawyer; his daughter Edith married a John Foster; while a fourth child, another daughter whose name has vanished from history, married a man named Umfray Ellis and had three daughters.
In the eyes of history it is Edward whose life would be of most significance. Not surprisingly for a child of gentleman status at the time, Edward Fawkes followed his father into the legal profession, becoming a proctor of the Ecclesiastical Court and later an advocate of the Consistory Court of the Archbishop of York, an organization charged with the responsibility of administering ecclesiastical law, located in Peter Prison in Minster Yard. Unlike his brother Thomas, Edward is known to have married. The date of his wedding has been lost, but records show that he married a woman named Edith, surname unknown, probably in 1568. According to a previous commentator, Henry Garnett, who cited evidence such as Edith's inability to write her own name on a lease dated 8 July 1579 and a poorly initialled signature to another document in 1592, it seems probable that the respectable proctor married beneath himself.
This branch of the family has a somewhat diverse ancestry. Ellen, wife of William Fawkes, was from respectable stock as the daughter of a lord mayor. Whether a connection can be made between William Fawkes before his marriage with Ellen and Henry Fawkes, swordbearer to the Lord Mayor, is uncertain. Henry's distinction as freeman and swordbearer appears to be the work of his own efforts rather than nepotism. Yet perhaps a connection can be made between Henry Fawkes, who would have acted as swordbearer to William Fawkes's future father-in-law before William's marriage to Ellen. Nevertheless, what claim the family had to the lower gentry was all but gone by 1570. For the next thirty-five years the activities of this family are little more than footnotes recorded sparsely in the activities of the parish of St Michael-le-Belfrey. A daughter, Anne, is recorded as being baptized into the Protestant faith on 3 October 1568. She was buried seven weeks later. Despite the tragic loss, within a year Edith gave birth again, this time to a boy, born in April 1570, named Guy.
Of the early years of Guy Fawkes's life, very few written accounts have survived. The young boy would have had no recollection of the birth of his younger sister, another Anne, born 12 October 1572, but he may have had some brief memory of the birth of his other sibling, Elizabeth, on 27 May 1575. Guy's grandfather, William Fawkes, had already been dead for five years by the time of Guy's birth, but Guy would probably have been old enough to know his grandmother Ellen Fawkes, née Harrington, and was remembered in her will. Judging from the contents of the will, William and Ellen Fawkes lived a comfortable life at their townhouse in High Petergate with several items of luxury ranging from silver spoons to brass pots, feather mattresses, sheets and pillows, cushions with red roses and many other items that were later passed on to over eighteen beneficiaries. It is also apparent that Ellen remained a widow for the remainder of her life, as she requested in her will that she be 'buried as near my late husband, William Fawkes, as may be'. It is a clear mark of her character that she remembered all of her children and those of her grandchildren who were born at the time in her will, including Guy, who was less than six months old at the time the will was written and who received one angel of gold and her best whistle.
The limited evidence available from contemporary sources suggests that Guy and his cousins were equally loved by their grandmother. A similar conclusion can be drawn from the will of his Uncle Thomas, dated 18 February 1581. It is evident from the will that Thomas and Edward Fawkes had also been close as brothers. By 1578 Edward Fawkes, Guy's father, was also dead, and Thomas is recorded as requesting to be buried 'near as may be to my brother Edward Fawkes'. Thomas leaves no evidence of a family of his own. Judging by Thomas's will his death was expected, as suggested by the words 'being sick in body, but of good and perfect mind and memory'. While his claims that he was still sound of mind at the time of writing implies that he had thought long and hard about the bequests in his will, some of them are strange. He gave generously to Guy's sisters: Anne received a girdle of silver, Elizabeth his carpet of tapestry work, while his entire napery was divided between them; Guy was remembered reasonably well, inheriting his gold ring, his bed and one pair of sheets with appurtenances – the gift of a bed and sheets was a mark of affection at the time – yet his seven silver spoons went to his friend, a Mr Robert Wright, and his cloak and hat to Robert Wright's maid, whereas Guy's mother, Edith, does not seem to be mentioned.
Although far from being blessed by great wealth, Guy grew up in a secure household. Determining the exact place of his birth has become difficult following centuries of unsubstantiated claims and hearsay, but its exact location can be clarified to a degree. By the turn of the twentieth century no less than four traditions existed claiming to be the place in question. Two traditions depicted the house of Guy Fawkes's birth as being on the south side of High Petergate in York; a third suggested it was on the north side; while a fourth claimed Guy was born in the nearby village of Bishopthorpe. Early in the twentieth century, the renowned historian and antiquarian Henry Hawkes Spink investigated the matter in detail. Spink himself had been informed by at least one antiquarian from Bishopthorpe that a house that once stood opposite the old village church was the site in question. By the early 1900s, the time of Spink's investigation, the house had long been demolished and replaced with a pleasure garden marked with a stone to commemorate the site. Spink, however, viewed the tradition as unlikely because of Guy's baptismal record in the parish of St Michael-le-Belfrey in York and favoured the tradition that Guy was born in a house adjoining an alley called Minster Gate on the north side of High Petergate. Writing in 1973, however, historian Katharine Longley presented strong evidence that the house was on the south side of High Petergate in Stonegate. When being questioned in the Tower of London in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Guy gave his place of birth as Nidderdale in Yorkshire before later admitting he was born in York itself. While it cannot be ruled out that the recently captured conspirator was lying on both occasions, records exist of a lease for a small building in Petergate between Matthew Hutton, Doctor of Divinity and the Dean of York Minster Cathedral, and Edith Fawkes, dated 8 July 1579 – some eighteen months after Edward Fawkes's death – for thirty-one years at an annual fee of ten shillings. Possibly the agreement was for a different house than the one in which Guy was born, but the wording of the lease suggests it was a new lease for the house previously in the name of Guy's father only now made in the name of his mother.
With the exception of the births of his young sisters and the death of his grandmother, the young boy appears to have enjoyed a relatively quiet first eight years. Being the son of a lawyer and classed as a gentleman, Guy was eligible to attend the free school of St Peter's and was sent there when he was old enough. Located close to the city, the school was founded in 1557 under the Royal Charter of Philip and Mary and subsequently placed under the patronage of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral. There Guy took his first major step into the world, mixing with children of both gentry and gentleman status alike, including characters of notable Catholic influence.
It is intriguing that during the latter half of the sixteenth century many of the school's pupils were known to have Catholic sympathies. In York itself, many among the population were fined regularly for being recusants, and as late as the end of the seventeenth century as much as a quarter of all nobility and gentry from the West Riding of Yorkshire was still Catholic. It is equally noteworthy that when Guy was four years old the school was the subject of a most unwanted scandal. Following a brief suspension, the headmaster of the time, a Mr Fletcher, was removed from his position with immediate effect for his reversion to the Catholic faith. Following the new Act of Supremacy issued by Elizabeth in 1559 and her own excommunication from Rome, it had become illegal for any person outwardly to conform to the Catholic tradition. To do so incurred a crime punishable by monthly fines and, in some cases, prison. While dismissal and prison greeted Fletcher, many other Englishmen of Catholic sympathy evaded the suffering of recusancy by adhering to the Protestant rites in public while returning to worship the old faith in private. Although the Pope officially forbade such acts, in reality the fines for recusancy and the penalties applied made visible recusancy a difficult option. Bearing this in mind, it is difficult now to estimate with confidence the exact number of Catholics in England during this period. What is clear, however, is that Fletcher's successor could not be a Catholic. In his edict of 1571 the recently appointed Archbishop Grindal of York made clear what was required of a headmaster of the day:
No schoolmaster shall teach, either openly or privately, in any gentleman's house, or in any other place, unless he be of good and sincere religion and conversation, and be first examined, allowed, and licensed by the ordinary in writing under his seal. He shall not teach any thing contrary to the order of religion now set forth by public authority. He shall teach his scholars the Catechism in Latin lately set forth, and such sentences of scripture, besides profane chaste authors, as shall be most meet to move them to the love and due reverence of God's true religion, now truly set forth by the Queen's Majesty, and to induce them to all godliness and honest conversation.
Excerpted from Pity for the Guy by John Paul Davis. Copyright © 2010 John Paul Davis. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1 Portents of Dread,
2 The Catholic Recusants of the West Riding of Yorkshire,
3 Cowdray, Calvinism and a Slow Boat to Flanders,
4 A Traitor to the Crown,
5 A Ruthless and Unloving Land,
6 A Defence to the Innocent,
7 A Desperate Disease,
8 To Shake the Thrones of Princes,
9 Three Score Barrels of Powder Below,
10 Spies, Soldiers and 'Stir This Parliament',
11 With a Dark Lantern and a Burning Match,
12 Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, T'was His Intent,
13 His Just End Should'st Be Grim,
14 The Aftermath,
15 Remember, Remember ...,
Notes and References,