It is Guy Fawkes Night tonight and all across the UK, bonfires will be lit and fireworks let off to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in which Fawkes was caught as he prepared to set off the mother of all explosions that would have destroyed the House of Lords and King James VI and I, and probably a large part of London, too.

The plot is quite rightly portrayed as a conspiracy by Roman Catholics to rid themselves of a Protestant King, but not many people are aware that Fawkes decided to play his role in the plot as much for his hatred of Scotland and the Scots as for his detestation of Protestants – he was actually born and raised in the Church of England but converted to Catholicism in his teens.


There is no doubt that Fawkes hated Scots in general and the Scottish King James VI and I and his Scottish aristocrats in particular.

His enmity appears to have started during the Eighty Years’ War between the Dutch Republic and its Protestant allies and the Catholic Spanish Empire. A professional soldier – a mercenary by any other name – Fawkes served in the Spanish army in the Netherlands and elsewhere and came up against the ferocious Scottish Brigade that fought for the Dutch.

We know that while he had been out of England for many years, when James VI of Scotland took the throne of England in 1603, Fawkes was truly appalled at the thought of a Scot on the throne. This was a view shared by many English people, and for English Catholics the fact that James was a Presbyterian made him completely unacceptable. Fawkes loudly and frequently complained that Scots were taking English roles.

The record of his arrest and detention shows a vivid example of his anti-Scottishness. During his interrogation Fawkes was asked why he needed so much gunpowder. He replied: “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”

We know that Fawkes himself wrote “it will not be possible to reconcile these two nations, as they are, for very long.” Well, if you date it from the Union of Crowns in 1603, the two nations have been united under one monarch for 415 years, but here’s hoping he’ll be proved right soon.


Born in April, 1570, in Stonegate, York, Fawkes was just eight when his Church of England proctor father Edward died. His widowed mother Edith married a Catholic and it was though his step-family that Fawkes learned about Catholicism. He converted as a teenager and at 21, sold the Clifton estate he had inherited from his father and went off to become a soldier in the service of Spain.

He was by all accounts a brave and thoroughly professional solider and was an expert with gunpowder. He also had an alias, Guido Fawkes, which is how he often signed himself.

After James’ accession, Fawkes travelled to Spain to see if he could raise support for a Catholic rebellion in England but was unsuccessful in his attempts. He returned to England and joined the conspiracy that became the Gunpowder Plot.

His fellow plotters were led by Robert Catesby and were almost all upper class provincial Catholics with little military experience, apart from Catesby, which is why Fawkes was given the job of setting up the explosion to destroy the Lords at the State Opening of Parliament.

Fawkes and his colleagues had actually stored the 36 barrels of gunpowder in an undercroft of the House of Lords as early as July, 1605, but an outbreak of the plague caused the opening of Parliament to be postponed. As the world knows, one of the plotters tipped off a friend not to attend the Lords, and Secretary of State the Earl of Salisbury got to hear of it – he ordered the Lords to be searched and on the night of November 4, Fawkes was found beside a ton of gunpowder.


Claiming he was called John Johnson, Fawkes was brought before King James who ordered him to be tortured. Fawkes named names, and was then put on trial with those plotters who had not fled – Catesby was shot on the run. His trial for treason was a foregone conclusion and he was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.

On the high scaffold on January 31, 1606, Fawkes appeared ill, but shrugged aside his executioners and flung himself down to the ground to die of a broken neck. They carried out the full sentence anyway.