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Guy Fawkes: From York to the Battlefields of Flanders
By David Herber

The history of the Gunpowder Plot is unfortunately awash with details that, once considered areas of conjecture, have slowly become engrained as fact in the folklore that surrounds the story. As each decade passes, like chinese whispers, these theories and ideas have become desperately warped, and have therefore clouded a balanced perspective on the subject. From the biographies of the plotters to the identity of the person who wrote the Monteagle Letter, we have been subversively educated along the lines of popular belief rather than known fact. The life of the man many today incorrectly believe was the conceiver of the plot, Guy Fawkes, is but one example where fact and fiction merge under the collective banner of history.


This article aims to shine a light on the early life of Guy Fawkes, his education, and the environment of his time as a soldier, not the demonic caricature in pictures, clutching a lantern and hiding in a darkened cellar, but the gentleman from York and the pious Catholic respected by all who knew him as a man of strength and courage by drawing on factual details of his movements in and around York to the wars in Flanders, and accounts of the conflicts in Calais and Nieupoort at which he is recorded as having been present.


The Free School of St. Peters located in "Le Horse Fayre", founded by Royal Charter of Philip and Mary in 1557, gained notoriety soon after it was established on the outskirts of the city of York. Its reputation was such that the sons of the nobility and landed gentry of Northern England were sent there [1]. The Charter itself declared that the pupils of St. Peters should be of gentle birth (but this did not imply noble birth). As a gentleman, and member of a learned and respected profession, Edward Fawkes was entitled to send his son there.

In 1574, probably no more than a year or two before Guy began his studies there, the headmaster John Fletcher had been deprived of his tenure by Archbishop Grindal for returning to the Roman Catholic faith. His successor, John Pulleine [Pulleyn] of Caius College, Cambridge, is believed to have also been a Catholic, being descended from a long line of recusants who claimed kinship to many of the leading Catholic families of Yorkshire [4], including the Ingilby [Ingleby] family from Ripley (who in turn are linked to the Wintour’s of Huddington Court, and the Catholic martyr Francis Ingilby, executed in 1586).

At St. Peter’s, Guy received his education amongst a group of fellow students, whose lives would help direct the course of English history over the next 30 years. The most notable of course are the eventual gunpowder conspirators John and Christopher Wright. Hailing from Plowland Hall, near Patrington in Holderness, the Wright’s were convinced Catholics, their mother Ursula Wright [nee Rudston(e)] spending many years in prison as a result of her adherence to her faith.

Other fellow students included Thomas Morton, who later became Archbishop of Durham under Charles I; Robert Middleton, a nephew of Margaret Clitheroe, studied in Rome, was captured near Preston in 1600, and martyred the following year; Sir Thomas Cheke, likely the son of Henry Cheke, nephew to Lord Burghley; Edward Oldcorne, the Jesuit, captured at Hindlip after the Gunpowder Plot and executed at Red Hill, Worcester; and Oswald Tesimond, Robert Catesby’s confessor, a Jesuit whose accounts of the gunpowder conspiracy form much of the current independent corpus of knowledge on the plot.

In the Service of Viscount Montague

After leaving school he spent time in the services of the Browne family, the Viscounts Montage as a footman. The Browne's were a well-known recusant family, the 1st Viscount was not only one of the countries leading statesmen during the reign of Mary, but he was later implicated in the Ridolfi Plot, and a position in his household was an excellent step up the social ladder for a gentleman such as Fawkes. How he came into the orbit of a family like the Browne's is not clear but it would have certainly cemented his Catholic leanings.

Anthony Browne, 1st Viscount Montague terminated his employment after only a short period when the aging peer took a dislike to him [3]. When his grandson Anthony Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount Montague acceded to the title, a kinsman of Fawkes by the name of Spencer pleaded Fawkes’ case, and he was re-employed as a table waiter. Browne, who had family links to Robert Catesby married Jane Sackville daughter of the Earl of Dorset, and Lord Treasurer of England, in 1591, a year before he took the title.

It is likely that, completing his service with Anthony Browne, Guy spent the remaining years before his majority working on his step-fathers estates, where his income was small but his faith, nurtured by members of the Catholic Bainbridge and Vavasour families had time to grow. Whether he maintained his friendship with the Wright brothers, whose sister Martha had married a Scotton neighbour Thomas Percy is unclear.

Majority, and a Call to Arms

Guy Fawkes came of age in 1591, inheriting the estates his father had left him when he died intestate in 1579. Within six months he had leased a portion of the estate to a tailor, Christopher Lumley for “..forty and two shillings of lawful English money at the feasts of St. Martin the Bishop in winter and Pentecost..” Less than a year later he had sold his interest in the estates to one Anne Skipsey, and a year and a week after the original lease to Lumley, Dennis Bainbridge and Edith Fawkes signed a quit-claim against the lands, renouncing any claim to profits from them. Guy had devolved his entire worth, barring a few personal items from his grandmother and father, for a little over £29 [1].

It is believed that around this time, late in 1592 he traveled to Flanders with a Jesuit cousin, Richard Collinge [connected to Guy’s grandmother Ellen Harrington] and joined the forces of Sir William Stanley.

The Wars of Religion

When Guy completed his financial dealings, the Wars of Religion had raged in Europe for more than 30 years. In 1584 the Duke of Anjou had died and Henry of Navarre had become the heir presumptive to the French throne of Henry III. Fearing a Protestant on the throne should Henry die, Pope Sixtus V excommunicated Navarre declaring the heretic unfit to take the Catholic crown of France. The Duke of Guise, whose attempts to convince Navarre to convert to Catholicism had failed, reconstituted the Catholic League. In December of 1584 the Guises signed the Treaty of Joinville on behalf of the League with Phillip II of Spain. Spain poured a huge annual subsidy into the League and Guise pockets for the next decade in an attempt to destabilize the government of France.

English support was divided, the Protestant crown supported Navarre, whereas the underground Catholic community backed the Pope and the Catholic League under the Duke of Guise. In late 1585 Sir William Stanley was dispatched to the Spanish Netherlands with the Earl of Leicester, after first recruiting soldiers from Ireland. On his way from Ireland to the United Provinces he was seen in the company of Jesuit priests, and was said to have known much of the Babington Plot, although he was not himself involved. He corresponded with Mendoza, and delayed his departure for the Spanish Netherlands in case the Queen was killed or that the Spanish fleet might arrive from Cadiz.

Stanley's forces eventually joined Leicester on 12 August 1586 where he assisted in the capture of Doesborg, and then later saw action at the battle of Zutphen where Sir Philip Sidney received his fatal wounds. At the same time he was instrumental in the seizure of Deventer, and was duly appointed Governor in charge of a garrison of 1200 men, most of whom were Irish Catholics.

Having acquired a full mastery of the city and given the commission to act independently of Sir John Norreys, he communicated with the Spanish Governor of Zutphen, Juan De Tassis, and surrendered the town on 29 January 1587 to the Spanish. Stanley and the English Regiment now fought under the flag of Spain, and it was here under the command of Stanley that Fawkes eventually made his name.

Active Service

There is little information on the 10 years of service Guy undertook in the employ of the King of Spain.

In late March of 1596, while Elizabeth was preparing an attack on Cadiz, the Spanish moved a sizeable force toward Calais. Elizabeth delayed sending 6,000 hastily conscripted soldiers to support the French, seeking confirmation from Henry IV that England’s reward for aid would be continual control of the sea port. Henry refused, and the subsequent delay cost France the town [8]. Fawkes is reported as having been at the siege of Calais and behaving himself with such gallantry that afterwards, Sir William Stanley gave him command of a company.

Calais was perhaps one of the weakest military undertakings by Elizabeth during her reign. It not only gave the Spanish confidence but it strengthened the Catholic Leagues grip on France.

For a time Guy rode with Sir William’s regiment in a military capacity, but in time, his role developed into that of a diplomat as well. The Peace of Vervins signed in 1598 between Henry IV of France and Phillip II of Spain effectively ended the Wars of Religion, and changed the role and purpose of the English Regiment that Stanley commanded.

A year after the Peace of Vervins, a curious letter is dated, written by Richard Collinge, the Jesuit cousin who accompanied Guy Fawkes on his first journey to Flanders. The letter, addressed to Guilio Piccioli of Venice reads:

    Dear Sir

    I pray you let me intreat your favour and friendship for my cousin german Mr. Guido Fawks who serves Sir William Stanley I understand he is in great want and your word in his behalf may stand him in great stead. I have not deserved any such courtesy at your hands as for my sake to help my friends but assure yourself that if there be any thing I can do for you, you may command me for the respect I bear to our friendship but also by this means you shall bind me more unto you. He hath left a pretty living here in his country which his mother being married to an unthrifty husn=band since his departure I think hath wasted away. Yet she and the rest of our friends are in good health. I durst not as yet go to them but this summer I mean to see them all God willing let him tell my cousin Martin Harrington that I was at his brother Henry’s house at The Mount but he was not then at home he and his wife are well and have many pretty children.

    Things go well forward here our enemies persecute us all more than ever and are in particular fear or rather look for somewhat more from our own malcontents. Thus requesting your favour in my suit and remembrance in your best memories as you shall have mine. I commit you to sweet Jesus his whole protection this St. John Baptist’s eve.

    Yours in Christ,
    Richard Collinge

It appears that here in 1599, Guy was in Italy, however the trip cannot be corroborated with additional documentation. Richard Collinge certainly spent time in Italy after 1592 and perhaps Piccioli was a close friend whom he could ask financial assistance of on behalf of his cousin. This letter, which was intercepted by the government and never reached Venice seems also to imply that Guy intended to seek out another cousin, Martin Harrington whilst in Venice.

Back in Flanders, Guy was on hand at the battle of Nieuwpoort under the command of Colonel Bostock - a fierce confrontation between Maurice of Nassau and Prince Albert of Austria on 2 July 1600. Maurice was ordered to march south along the coast and destroy the pirate nests in Dunkirk, but he was intercepted by Prince Albert. Taking a defensive position and keeping his cavalry in reserve, Maurice prevented the Spanish flight to their ships, using his reserves to sweep the beach he routed the Spaniards with his superior numbers and clever use of prevailing winds that worked up a sandstorm in the eyes of Prince Alberts forces. The Dutch lost 1,700 men while the Spanish lost over 3,000 with a further 600 captured. Colonel Bostock, in charge of the English Regiment at the time was mortally wounded in the fray.

Stanley had turned his hand more toward diplomacy in the years after the Peace of Vervins and his English Council comprised primarily exiled members of the gentry including Charles Paget and Hugh Owen. Buoyed at the prospect of the son of Mary Queen of Scots acceding to the English throne, as a precautionary measure he began soliciting aid from Phillip II of Spain should an invasion be required, and so Fawkes began his diplomatic role at the court of Phillip of Spain, where he met his old school friend Christopher Wright, who had been sent as an envoy by the English Catholics, seeking the very same assurances as those in exile in Flanders.

The record of Fawkes in the services of the English Regiment continued until 1605. In PRO SP77, Bundle 7, Part I, ff. 329r.-32v. a list of the late summer, early autumn of 1605, the Lord Arundell's company is mentioned with Sir Thomas Studder as his setgeant-major, as well as inclusion of a Mr Faukes of Yorkshier. The continued connection then between Fawkes who had been assisting Catesby's cause for over a year now and the English Regiment in Flanders certainly supports the idea that Fawkes was aiding the conspirators as the envoy of Stanley and his exiled council. the continued connection also allowed for Fawkes to frequent the knight and perhaps secure additional gunpowder. The complicity then of Stanley and his adjutants, including Owen must surely be questioned.


[1] Garnett, Henry, 'Portrait of Guy Fawkes, An Experiment in Biography', Robert Hale Ltd, London 1962
[2] Edwards, Francis, 'Guy Fawkes, The Real Story of the Gunpowder Plot?', Rupert Hart-Davis, London 1969
[3] Fraser, Antonia, 'Faith and Treason', Nan A. Talese, London 1996
[4] Pullein, Catharine, 'The Pulleynes of Yorkshire', 1915
[5] Longley, Katharine M., 'Three Sites in the City of York',
[6] Davies, Robert, "The Fawkes's of York in the Sixteenth Century, Including Notices of the Early History of Guye Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot Conspirator", 1850
[7] Dictionary of National Biography, 1895, 2004 [Online Edition]
[8] Hammer, Paul E.J., 'Elizabeth's Wars - War, Government and Society in Tudor England 1544-1604', Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
[9] PRO SP77, Bundle 7, Part I, ff. 329r.-32v

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