This is officially my favourite time of year. First, you have Halloween. Then, it’s Bonfire Night. As a child, living in a small village, we would have a real community bonfire, with potatoes baking in the embers and a small – but perfectly formed – fireworks display. I don’t know how many of these type of events exist anymore. Our local bonfire is a huge affair, run by the local council and so many fireworks it makes your head spin. There is no more baking potatoes – or kids wandering the streets asking for a “penny for the guy” (and how much does a penny get you nowadays?).
For all of this love of Bonfire Night though, I know very little about the man himself – no more than the legend that has grown up around him and the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Which is why I wanted to read The Real Guy Fawkes by NIck Holland, especially as I was promised the truth about the man behind the myth.
By the end of the book, I have to say I do feel like I know Guy Fawkes as a person a lot more than I will, I think, by watching the current BBC show. This isn’t a sympathetic portrait as such but it feels like an honest one. Fawkes is a complex character, a man driven by his faith, Catholicism. Growing up, he witnessed people being tortured and killed for their beliefs, and it made him hard, a man who came to believe that the only way to protect his faith was by the sword. To do this, he left his home and his family, travelled abroad and learnt to fight.
In many ways, I can’t blame him. Elizabethan England, as a Protestant country, might have been a place that initially tolerated those who practiced Catholicism (at the same time as filling the state coffers by fining people who didn’t go to church) but as Elizabeth grew older, she also grew more paranoid and her treatment of Catholics became harsher. Things became worse under her successor, James I of England, a paranoid man and pretty terrible king. It was a perfect storm at a time of political and religious torment at home and abroad.
In the same way I can’t blame Fawkes, I can’t blame those that plotted with him. What was interesting to me, beyond finding out about Guy Fawkes, was getting to know the others in the plot, how they came to the conclusion that they needed to do something so drastic and how brave they were in the end. I think in my head, Fawkes was a bit of a lone wolf but he wasn’t. He was one of a group of men who put their religion before anything else and who were actually led by a man named Robert Catesby, who I now want to know more of.
In fact, I want to know more in general about all the men involved and the plot itself because, if I have one complaint about this book, it’s that I didn’t get enough. I wanted more detail, more facts, figures, more everything to feed my inner history buff. This book is short, only 230 pages, and could easily have added another 100 without becoming boring. I doubt it would become dry either as Nick Holland has a wonderful writing style – easy to read and personable. I felt he knew his subject and cared for him. It’s the first book I’ve read by the author but I’d happily read more and, I think, for anyone who wants and introduction to the events leading up to November 5th, 1605, this is a brilliant place to start. Liked this a lot!
About the book…
Guy Fawkes, born in York in 1570, is one of the key figures in British history, taking a central role in a plot that would have destroyed the ruling class and changed the nation forever. Today protesters wear his mask, families burn his effigy, and he is an instantly recognizable name and face. But just who was the real Guy Fawkes? In this new book, we take an exciting look at the flesh and blood person behind the myth. We find out what radicalized the man who was born a Protestant, and yet planned mass murder for the Catholic cause. The book takes a fresh look at Guy’s early life in York and beyond, and examines how that led to him becoming a Catholic mercenary and a key member of the 1605 Gunpowder treason.
This fresh new biography of Guy’s life removes the layers of complexity that can cloud the British history of this time: an era when fearful Catholics hid in tiny priest holes, government spies were everywhere, and even your closest friends could send you to be hung, drawn and quartered. Guy and his conspirators were prepared to risk everything and endanger everyone, but were they fanatics, freedom fighters, or fools? This explosive read, accompanied with beautiful illustrations, is accessible and engaging, combining contemporary accounts with modern analysis to reveal new motivations behind Guy’s actions.
Note: I received a copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review. All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own.