The Real Guy Fawkes by Nick Holland – Review

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By Sandra Callard

Guy Fawkes: religious bigot, traitor and potential murderer of kings and innocents? Or English patriot, devout Christian and courageous soldier? Nick Holland’s book, The Real Guy Fawkes, brings the man whose effigy we love to burn every 5th of November into sharp relief with an avalanche of detail about his life, his physical appearance and his beliefs, and, of course, his connection to the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Guy Fawkes was a Yorkshireman, born in the city of York in 1570 into a prosperous Catholic family, at a time when the Protestant King James 1 was on the throne, and when life could be perilous for any Catholic who dared to practice and advertise his faith.

The North of England was a hot-bed of Catholicism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Holland’s book follows the shadowy life of the young Fawkes, through his probable radicalisation at school in York, to his emergence as a full-blown avenger of Catholic subjugation, which led to his major role in the Gunpowder Plot.

“Horror and admiration”

real guy fawkes nick holland book review coverHolland’s book presents a scrupulously detailed train of events of Fawkes’s life, peopled with dozens of familiar names and situations which add colour and reality to every chapter. Fawkes the man emerges slowly but clearly as the book progresses, until he stands before us, a tall, well-built man, intelligent and charismatic, and totally committed to his cause – a figure who inspires horror and admiration in equal measure.

Holland’s sources are impeccable and totally convincing as he quotes the words of Fawkes as he answers questions after his arrest, all of which were transcribed at the time. We are taken through the horrific procedure of mounting torture, which Fawkes’ religious fervour enabled him to withstand for many days. He only succumbed when he suffered the ultimate torture instrument, the infamous rack, which ultimately led to his traitor’s death execution. The details are written in such a clear and matter-of-fact manner that the brutalities of the year 1605 seems but a heartbeat away.

“Alone in the cellars”

The book is packed with information that in turn amazes, horrifies and amuses, and brings the Elizabethan and Stuart periods before the reader with a clarity that startles and gratifies. The ultimate spy masters of the age, Sir Francis Walsingham, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and his son Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, leap from the pages, with Robert Cecil as the nemesis of Guy Fawkes. His spies were so numerous and so successful, that it is indeed a wonder that the Plot that so nearly changed the history of England came within a whisker of success.

Guy Fawkes was all alone in the cellars beneath Parliament, with his match to light the slow fuse to the gunpowder at the ready, and his escape horse nearby, when he was arrested. There were around fifteen men involved in the minutiae of the Plot, and Fawkes was the third in line of importance as far as orders go, but his exceptional and dangerous role of being the hand that would destroy the King, his family and court, and the whole structure of English society at the time, has ensured his place in history.

This book is a vivid and unique telling of a remarkable time in our history, with an insightful account of the multi-layered man at its centre.

‘The Real Guy Fawkes’ by Nick Holland is published by Pen & Sword History, £19.99


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