It’s that time of year again when bonfires and fireworks are lit; toffee apples and sticky ginger parkin are eaten and people gather in the damp, cold air to celebrate without necessarily having heard of Guy Fawkes. Strangely, to my way of thinking as a resident, the city of York seems to play down the fact that one of the world’s first terrorists was born here! Yet this did happen a long time ago..in the seventeenth century to be precise.
Many years ago I worked at York Dungeon and I was taught by a colleague to play a game with customers, gathering them together in a dark room where I promised not to torture them if they could reveal the answer to one question: What happened in 1605? The answer of course was that Fawkes was caught red-handed in the Houses of Parliament cellar in London, with enough gun-powder to blow the place sky-high, causing certain death to the reigning monarch James 1st. Naturally, someone always got close enough to this answer and no – I didn’t have to torture anyone!
My guess is that not many people know that Guy hailed from York, even if they vaguely know what he was arrested and executed for. He was discovered on the evening of November 4th, which is why in the North of England, this was known as Mischievous Night. It was customary for children to use this date as an opportunity to torment their neighbours, either with fairly harmless pranks such as ringing the doorbell and running away or perhaps more nasty ones such as putting fireworks through letter-boxes. Indeed, I do endorse the practice of bonfires and firework displays being run by responsible organisations and I don’t think fireworks should be available to the public to purchase apart from sparklers.
But back to Guy Fawkes. The only public mention of him in York, is this plaque which is found half-way down Stonegate.
At the side of where the plaque stands, is a side-street, which is closed off to the public. Walking down it would bring you to a white house where Fawkes lived as a boy with his mother and stepfather, his mother having remarried a Roman Catholic, when Guy’s father died. The small house (pictured below) is on land owned by the current Guy Fawkes Inn, accessed by Petergate.
Indeed, Guy was baptised at St Michael Le Belfrey church, which was dead opposite where he lived and in the shadow of York’s famous landmark Minster. Unfortunately, enquiries from myself many years ago at the church revealed that they had “lost the christening font” he was baptised in!
Then on Gillygate, right at the end of the street, where the Union carpark now stands, used to be the school Guy attended – St Peter’s, an all-boys school. The school is now located on Bootham further out of the city but it used to be said that on Bonfire Night there, they refused to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, since he was a former pupil.
So Guy Fawkes was born, baptised and schooled all within places a mere few yards of each other. By that twist of fate that led to his mother marrying the Catholic Dionis Baynbrigge and possible influences from St Peter’s school, Guy became a rebel Catholic in Protestant England – a choice that would lead to his terrible death. Executed in London for his crime of treason, he was first hung then, drawn and quartered and his innards and heart were ripped out and held up to the waiting crowd.
Although there are never any fireworks or bonfires within the city itself, there used to be a public display, held near Cliffords Tower each year but sadly, due to safety issues, this was discontinued. Outside the city in nearby suburbs or villages, there are public bonfires and firework displays so at least tradition continues within travelling distance of York. It is fitting we should still remember this notorious but colourful character who fought for his cause and paid a heavy price.