A history of the gunpowder plot/Chapter 4

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THE name of the terrible hero of the popular feast, the anniversary of which is celebrated every fifth day of November, has been, and is written in several different forms. Sometimes it is written Fawkes,[1] with the Christian name as 'Guido.' Father Gerard calls him 'Mr. Guido Falks,' and by other writers he has been dubbed 'Guye Faux.' But, as he himself signed himself Faukes in his confession, I prefer to use that form of the surname, irrespective of the question as to his proper Christian name.[2]

Guy Faukes was born early in the year 1570, at York, where he was christened. He came of a race of ecclesiastical lawyers, which was also connected with one or two well-known county families. His parents were (from the accession of Elizabeth, at any rate) Protestants, and he was their only son. His father, Edward Faukes, Registrar of the Consistory Court, dying in 1578, his mother
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married a gentleman named Baynbridge, of Scotton, in the county. Guy seems to have been on good terms with his step-father, who is reported to have persuaded him to become a Roman Catholic; but soon after his coming of age he left Yorkshire for the Continent, and enlisted in the service of the Spaniards occupying Flanders.

His service in the Spanish army readily enough explains the change of his Christian name into 'Guido.' Whilst in Spain, Gerard reports that those who knew him 'affirm that as he did bear office in the camp under the English coronell[3] on the Catholic side, so he was a man every way deserving it whilst he stayed there, both for devotion more than is ordinarily found in soldiers, and especially for his skill in martial affairs and great valour, for which he was there much esteemed.' In 1595 he assisted in the capture of Calais. In 1604, at Catesby's request, he came over to England, Catesby and Winter having 'desired one out of Flanders to be their assistant.'[4]

He had, before returning to England, been employed as a delegate of the Jesuits in the mission to obtain aid from Spain after the death of Queen Elizabeth.[5]

Thomas Percy was a person of great influence among the conspirators. Indeed, next to Catesby, he was the most important amongst them. He seems to have acted as Catesby's first lieutenant. It was he who hired within the precincts of Westminster Palace the little dwelling next to the Parliament House, and it was he who obtained possession of the cellar where the powder was eventually deposited. As soon as the news of the abortive plot leaked out in London on November 5, it was described at first as Percy's conspiracy. In common with so many of his confederates, Percy was of illustrious lineage, being a scion of the great feudal house of Northumberland.[6] He was an agent of the head of the family, Henry, the ninth Earl, the political enemy of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. Authorities differ, however, as to how nearly he was related to the Earl. The nearness of the connection has, I think, been exaggerated, and (so far as I can ascertain) he was no nearer in blood to the head of his house than a third or fourth cousin. With this opinion Father Gerard agrees, when he declares that 'he was not very near in blood, although they called him cousin.'

'For the most part of his youth,' relates Father Gerard, 'he had been very wild more than ordinary, and much given to fighting; so much that it was noted in him and in Mr. John Wright (whose sister he afterwards married) that if they heard of any man in the country to be esteemed more valiant and resolute than others, one or the other of them would surely have picked a quarrel against him and fought with him. ... He had a great wit and a very good delivery of his mind, and so was able to speak as well as most in the things wherein he had experience. He was tall, and of a very comely face and fashion; of age near fifty,[7] as I take it, for his head and beard was much changed white.' Brought up a Protestant, it is difficult to ascertain when he became a Catholic, according, vaguely, to Gerard 'about the time of Essex his enterprise.'[8] Of Lord Essex he was a warm admirer and devoted adherent. On the accession of James I., whom he had visited (shortly before Elizabeth's death) with a view to getting from him a promise to help the English Catholics—a promise which that monarch deliberately broke—Percy became quite a turbulent recusant, in spite of his position in his patron's household. By Lord Northumberland he was enrolled one of the royal gentlemen pensioners, but without swearing the usual oath. On the discovery of the plot, the crafty and unscrupulous Cecil seized upon this trivial circumstance as an excuse to imprison the innocent Northumberland in the Tower, and to impose upon him a colossal fine.

In private life, Thomas Percy was a very different person from the bigoted Guy Faukes. Percy was not even commonly honest in money matters, for he had robbed his patron over the collection of the Alnwick rents, and projected doing so again on a larger scale as a means of raising money for the plot. He was a restless, aggressive, inquisitive man, and led such a prominent public life that he was ill-fitted to play the part of a conspirator. To have refrained from receiving him as a member of the gang would, however, have been almost as dangerous as to admit him; for he would have racked his brains to find out what was going on, and his jealousy might have procured Catesby's arrest. Boisterous,[9] arrogant, and domineering, his movements were of the most rapid and untiring description; nothing stood in his way when he wanted anything done, or when he wanted to take a journey; one day he was in London dining with his patron, another he was en route, post haste, for Alnwick. That he stood high in his patron's favour is evident, otherwise his unpopularity, and indifferent character would have prevented him retaining his appointments under the northern Earl, whose retainers complained of Percy's harsh treatment of them; whilst on the eve of the Gunpowder
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Plot, he confessed that it was unsafe for him to visit Yorkshire, in which county he was accused of being 'the chief pillar of papistry.' By many of his co-religionists, too, he was distrusted, for they accused him of having deceived them in regard to his secret mission to the Scottish Court. But, to give Percy his due, it is certain that he was himself grossly deceived by James, who was, at that period, ready to promise anything to anybody, if by so doing he could strengthen his prospects of succession to the coveted throne of England.[10]

Such a man as Percy, therefore, it is not difficult to comprehend, was a fertile source of danger to his confederates. He was too busy and officious a person to play a part requiring the most consummate care and skill. He was, nevertheless, of great use to Catesby for three important reasons, namely, that by his position under Lord Northumberland he was enabled to hear what was doing at Court; by his ingenuity, possession of the vault was obtained underneath the Parliament House; and, by his position as Northumberland's agent, he was enabled to purloin large sums of money for feeding the conspiracy.

In the proclamation for his arrest, now preserved at the Public Record Office, Thomas Percy is described as 'a tall man with a great broad beard, a good face, and hair, mingled with white hairs, but the head more white than his beard. He stoopeth somewhat in the shoulders, is well coloured in the face, long-footed, and small-legged.' To sum up his character briefly, he was a gentleman by birth and education, who had gradually become a rogue.

  1. He is called Guy Fawkes in the official account of his trial.
  2. In an indenture, dated 1592, picked up for a few shillings in a second-hand book shop in London (1901), his name is signed in neat letters 'Guye Faukes.' After being tortured in the Tower, he wrote 'Guido,' but fainted before he could complete his surname.
  3. Sir William Stanley.
  4. As Faukes had left his native county for the Continent when quite a young man, he was consequently not known in London, and it was this reason that induced Catesby to allot to him the task of looking after the powder and of firing the mine, for his presence at Westminster would not attract attention.
  5. Guy Faukes was a tall and wiry man, with light brown hair, and auburn beard.
  6. From which the present Duke of Northumberland is only descended in the female line.
  7. He could not have been so old as this at the date of his death, for he was born at Beverley in 1559.
  8. I should, however, be inclined to assign an earlier date than that, by some five years or so.
  9. Father Greenway, however, asserts that 'notwithstanding the boldness of his character, his manners were gentle and quiet.'
  10. The conduct of James in this matter is one of the most scandalous incidents in his scandalous life. His denial that he ever promised to help the Catholics was deliberate perjury. This treachery of James seems to have driven Percy to desperation, and to have strengthened his alliance with the Jesuit faction in consequence.