Metro 38

Richard Herring: Guy Fawkes is my second favourite British character

Metro's resident comedian Richard Herring admires the temerity of the Gunpowder Plotters as he looks forward to Guy Fawkes night.

Many of you will be going to bonfire parties this weekend as we mark the failed terrorist attack of 5/11. It must be comforting for Guy Fawkes to know that although he didn’t manage to despatch any of the 300 nobles in the Palace of Westminster that night, many more people have subsequently been killed and maimed by the festivities that celebrate his failure. He’s possibly the most successful serial killer of all time.

And surely the real reason this festival is so enduring is that we have a sneaking admiration for the Gunpowder Plotters. They were just hours away from wiping out every aristocrat and politician in the land. Although you can never condone mass murder, occasionally you can quietly admire it – by exploding thousands of pounds worth of fireworks while cheering your lungs out.

Guy Fawkes is my second favourite character from British history after Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the throne of Henry VII (who I only like because he’s got such a funny name). The British love heroic failures and Fawkes is certainly one of those. His capture was satisfyingly comic. When he was challenged in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, Fawkes unimaginatively claimed his name was John Johnson. What a terrible pseudonym. He couldn’t even come up with two different names. When asked his address did he say: ‘Er… 1 John Terrace, John Street, St Johnstone’?

Another reason to love Fawkes is that he cheated the hangman by jumping off the scaffold before he could be executed. He broke his neck and died. Now this might seem like a rather Pyrrhic victory, to cheat a horrible death by dying horribly, but Fawkes managed to avoid the rather gruesome fate of also being drawn and quartered. In case you don’t know, being hanged, drawn and quartered involved being fastened to a wooden panel, then dragged by a horse to the place of execution. Then, you’d be hanged for a bit until you were nearly dead – but weren’t quite dead – because they wanted you to be alive to see them cut off your meat and two veg and slice open your stomach so all your guts fell out. Next, you’d be beheaded, which would probably be quite a relief, and then rather pointlessly after all that have your body chopped into four bits that would be displayed across town, like something dreamed up by Damien Hirst.

Wikipedia reports that ‘for reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were instead burnt at the stake’. And how they must have appreciated such chivalry. Thank goodness the public didn’t have to see anything indecent, just a woman being burned alive. The past was horrible.

So by leaping from the scaffold, Fawkes not only took his fate in his own gunpowder-encrusted hand, he also hung on to his little John Johnson. He went to the other side with his Perkin Warbeck intact.

Recently, I went to the British Museum’s excellent Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition and was surprised and amazed to see what is claimed to be the very lantern that Fawkes was holding when he was apprehended. I have never felt more in awe of a historical artefact. I’ve seen the Bayeaux Tapestry, the tomb of Elizabeth I and the Crown Jewels (I mean the actual ones this time), but this battered silver lamp says more about our land and history than all of them put together. Go and see it and marvel at how close he got.

Take care out there this weekend. Don’t let Fawkes add you to his list of victims.

See Richard Herring’s reworking of his smash-hit 2002 show, Talking Cock: The Second Coming, on his nationwide tour. Visit for tickets.

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